Every Book its Reader, Every Product its Customer
A review of Everything and Less: the Novel in the Age of Amazon, by Mark McGurl
Going Home, by Angry American (a pseudonym, I hope) might be one of the most peculiar novels I’ve ever covered in this space. It’s not because of the plot, though it’s worth recounting: when an electro-magnetic pulse attack fries every last piece of electronic equipment in the United States, our protagonist Morgan finds himself stuck on the side of the road outside Tallahassee, 250 miles from his family and without a working truck. Unfortunately, society quickly falls into chaos, northern Florida suddenly teeming with bandits and killers. Fortunately, Morgan is a doomsday prepper who had the foresight to bring his trusty survival bag with him. Through a mix of survivalist know-how, macho grit, and high-caliber firearms, Morgan manages to kill a bunch of people and arrive home just in time to ensure his family’s safety—at least for now, as there are ten books in the series.
There is something wonderfully magic about Morgan’s rucksack that I can’t get over. Like an enchanted bag out of a folktale, Morgan’s Devildog Maxpedition pack seems to contain whatever tool or item he most needs to survive. It might even be bottomless: one reviewer notes that the Maxpedition seems to contain no less than four different camping stoves. That they are different stoves is known from the narrator’s obsessive habit of describing the exact brand name, model, and make of every object he pulls out of his bag.
Far from being a distraction, this seems to be the main draw for Going Home’s many thousands of readers: where other Kindle books might have popular highlights centering on witty dialogue or thesis statements, the men reading Going Home on their camo-shell Kindles overwhelmingly dragged their fingers across the screen to highlight text like “Rust eraser, a medium and fine four-inch diamond hone, a DMT fine diamond card…Eagles Nest Outfitters hammock, Slap Straps, and bug net, as well as my seven-by-nine tarp and rigging…Glo-Toob lithium light, an Energizer headlamp, and a two-liter Platypus bag.” The whole thing sounds like a cross between Call of Duty and a Cabella’s catalog with unmentionable stains that make some of the full-spread rifle ads stick together.
One wonders how Morgan and his growing band of merry militiamen cope as the apocalypse inevitably comes for more and more of their gear through the many sequels. With American capitalism ground to a halt, no broken Slap Strap will ever be replaced or made whole again, and every hollow-tip bullet is a precious talisman.
This is especially true when, as the jacket copy of Conflicted Home suggests, Morgan’s list of enemies throughout the series has swelled from thugs and “Federals” (but not the US military, apparently) to Cuban commandos, Russian “pathfinders,” and a fleet of nuclear-armed Chinese warships. Hopefully the magic rucksack has a few more Springfield XD .45 rifles.
This late turn towards international warfare and the fate of the world is indicative of American fiction’s forking path in the Age of Amazon, or at least that’s what Mark McGurl would say. Going Home is one of the many Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) books he examines in Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. The internet’s preferred marketplace for self-published smut and dreck might seem like an odd place for meditations by a Stanford professor literary history, but as McGurl continually reminds us, Kindle Direct Publishing is now, by a wide margin, the largest single platform for new books in the history of literature, but is seriously under-examined by most professors, agents, executives, and critics in the world of books. It will only keep growing in size and importance. But if KDP is the future of books, it looks an awful lot like the past.
After years of investigating KDP and its discontents, McGurl claims that all novelists on Amazon inevitably feel a gravitational pull towards Western literature’s two dominant, pre-modern narrative genres: the romance and the epic. Romances, of course, are stories about two people overcoming adversities in order to unite, whether legally or genitally. The epic, which the Going Home series increasingly resembles, is the tale of how history was made, and who made it. These are the twin poles of pre-modern fiction.1
For a few centuries, starting somewhere between Don Quixote in 1605 and Richardson’s Pamela in 1740, we’ve also had the novel, which situates those older genres among characters who exist at a human scale. This usually means realism, if not always physically then at least psychologically. The Achilles of Madeline Miller’s novel The Song of Achilles is still the hero from Homer’s epic Iliad, but Miller shifts the focus away from his godlike prowess and all-consuming rage and the fall of Troy, and towards how sad Achilles felt when his lover died. In romance, too, Jane Austen’s modern lovers are just as duty-bound to unite as the medieval Tristan and Iseult, but they also have time to squabble, fret, joke, and generally act like normal people.
You, me, and Mark McGurl were all born well into the age of the novel, but McGurl suspects that the tradition might be in decline, and the largest culprit is Amazon. Not that novels are going away forever: it’s just that, in the Everything Store, as it is often called, “literary novels” are simply one mode of prose fiction hovering between epic and romance, while hundreds of other KDP-born microgenres, like Adult Baby Diaper Lover (ABDL) erotica or EMP Apocalypse Thrillers–flock to those twin poles like iron filings to a magnet. As they get closer, they lose the ironic detachment so necessary for the basic effects of the novel.
The magnetic force here is the democracy of the unfettered market, enabled in theory by the internet and in practice by Amazon. The company didn’t invent online self-publishing and still hasn’t made it even remotely respectable, but they did manage to make it extremely easy and extremely cheap. With KDP, anybody can upload their work to the world’s largest bookstore, paying nothing until the point of sale. Amazon only takes somewhere between 25% and 65% in fees, depending on unit price. If you also offer your works on Kindle Unlimited, you get a chunk of Amazon’s $20 million monthly payout proportionate to your page views. That chunk of cash, along with the many tens of thousands of KDP books released every year, suggest that there is real money to be made here.
If you’ve got the skills to make and market your work, this can be a much better deal than traditional publishing. You get more money per sale, full control of the editorial and design process, and detailed statistics about your readership and downloads. “For its part,” McGurl writes, “Amazon would convert [publishing] into a kind of proprietary jungle, or terrarium perhaps, which anyone can enter but where only the algorithmically fittest survive.” In other words, successful Amazon fiction has to be easy to find, easy to sort, and easy to binge.
The tale of Hugh Howey, indie author and KDP darling, is instructive here. Ten years ago, Howey was a bookstore clerk and unpublished sci-fi writer. He had a short story, “Wool,” which had failed to catch the interest of any magazines or journals. Frustrated, he put the story on KDP, where it quickly found a huge audience and enough coverage to kickstart a successful career as an independent writer of fiction. That’s the happy part.
The complication, as Howey quickly realized, was that his readers, awash in thousands of books all freely available on Kindle Unlimited, didn’t want more books by Howey; they wanted more “Wool.” They cared about the product more than the producer. The problem was, “Wool” had a pretty definitive ending, with deaths and plot-twists that didn’t leave much room to grow. He wound up rewriting the original story, expanding it into a longer novella, and over the years expanded this lone story into a sprawling, 15-part Silo Saga. What had started as a dark bit of speculative short fiction had expanded, through sheer market pressure, into epic science fiction.
The same thing happened to E.L. James’s best-selling bondage romance Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as a novel, bloomed into a trilogy, and then multiplied into a six-part…hexology, I think? (Sextet seems too on-the-nose.) Although the Grey series started as free fanfiction and was then picked up by a traditional publisher, McGurl notes that the world of fanfic romance was intimately involved in the establishment and growth of KDP culture from the beginning, providing the templates and norms that most Kindle romances still follow.
Of course, Amazon’s blank cardboard shipping boxes and the featureless, cover-less Kindle reader were essential for helping 125 million women purchase and read their bondage smut without fear of judgment. As for the more niche romantic categories, like Adult Baby Diaper Lover Erotica or Interracial Alpha Billionaire Romance, it’s hard to see anyone comfortably buying or reading those in public. In that sense, KDP really is paving the way for entirely new kinds of literature.
McGurl doesn’t comment on it, but this endless cycle of expansion, making up sequels, prequels, retelling, and endlessly balkanizing genres, is quickly catching on in the rest of our literature. Margaret Atwood wrote a prequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins with The Hunger Games. Marlon James followed up the big, but self-contained A Brief History of Seven Killings with the Black Leopard, Red Wolf trilogy of epic fantasy. Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the… thrillers are still coming out under a new author, and he died seventeen years ago.
Obviously sequels and prequels have always been with us–Sherlock Holmes was brought back from the dead by sheer public demand, after all–but it’s getting worse, and book-sales charts are growing more static and generic over time. Literary fiction’s “genre turn” shows no sign of slowing down, either, as more and more famous literary writers learn they can make more money by changing their settings from townhouses and trailer parks to space ships and castles. Eventually, readers will get what they want, and what they want is mostly what they already have, following genre conventions they’ve come to expect.
In other words, books are headed in the same direction that movies, TV, and comics have been headed for decades: back towards the pre-modern, to oral and visual folklore. For most of human history, storytelling was defined by repetition, stock characters, and the kind of mythic time that lets wandering gods and heroes have endless adventures and entanglements. Books, for a brief time, were ruled by the modern assumption that self-contained, narrative wholeness was the highest aesthetic ideal, but this fad is passing as Amazon allows us to tune in, better than ever before, to the customers’ exact whims.
Obviously Amazon isn’t the whole literary market, at least not yet. But with more than half of print sales, three-quarters of ebook sales, most of the audiobook market, and by far the largest unlimited subscription service for books with Kindle Unlimited, the future of fiction probably looks more like Amazon and KDP than like Penguin Random-House. There will be more sequels, more epics, more romances, and more…more. When a hundred thousand novels come out every year, there are enough microgenres for every niche audience.
McGurl is a kind of specialist in reading fiction alongside its conditions of production. His last book, 2009’s The Program Era, was a hybrid of institutional history and close reading, covering the rise of the post-war MFA writing workshops that turned high modernism in the styles of Hemingway, Faulkner, & Co. into the default mode of American literature. It’s largely thanks to the MFA Era that our major novelists are no longer journalists, bureaucrats, lawyers, housewives, and landed gentry, but mostly professors of creative writing programs. Although it came a few years before Chad Harbach’s 2014 essay “MFA vs. NYC,” The Program Era was essential background reading to the massive, ongoing debate Harbach kicked off: are wannabe writers of literary fiction better served by a graduate degree in creative writing, or decamping to New York to stalk literary agents and publishers in their natural habitat?
It’s almost too perfect that at the same time these two elite factions were wrestling over this tiniest, poorest patch of the publishing world, Amazon was busy building up a perfect platform for the romance, mystery, science fiction, horror, and fantasy fiction that the vast majority of American customers actually want to read. In fact, KDP readers are one of the few readerships in the country that’s still expanding, rather than giving up and subscribing to HBO Max, where all the good literary fiction winds up anyway.
Now, the field belongs to Amazon, which is happy to pull highbrow literature from its perches in MFA programs or Manhattan skyscrapers, stamp a “GENRE: LITERARY FICTION” tag on its forehead, and shove it into the terrarium with everybody else. Will beta intellectual novels, as McGurl calls them, survive an onslaught of Alpha Billionaire Romances?
You can sense McGurl’s uneasy fascination, as a leftist, with Amazon’s publishing work: here is one of the most ruthless capitalist enterprises since the East India Company, a union-crusher owned by the once-and-future richest man in the world, creating perhaps the most radically democratic publishing platform in the history of literature. Amazon is just happy to take a small cut and keep the servers on.
It would be untrue, though, to say that Amazon doesn’t care at all about literature. In fact, Blue Origin and Amazon itself have origins in novels, a minor but fascinating thread pulled on a few times in Everything and Less. Bezos himself is an inveterate reader, most of nerdy sci-fi epics about space, technology, and the distant future or humanity, all of which seeps into his corporate memos and business plans. The Kindle reader’s prototype was named Project Fiona, after the ebook-like reading tablets in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Mackenzie Scott, Bezos’s ex-wife, writes sophisticated, literary novels. You can buy her books on Kindle.
Creative writing also suffuses Amazon’s corporate culture. Executive meetings always start with a pre-written prose memo describing the background and objectives of the meeting, read together in monkish silence, so that all parties are quite literally on the same page before deliberation. Product proposals, too, are written in the form of product reviews and press releases from a hypothetical future where the product is a smashing success.
The company itself, according to Bezos, was even born from a novel. Long after Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize is forgotten, and all the adaptations of his work disappear, he will perhaps live on forever in footnotes as the writer of The Remains of the Day, the novel that inspired Bezos to quit his Wall Street job, drive to Seattle, and start The Earth’s Biggest Bookstore, as it used to be called. 2
Books, of course, used to be Amazon’s primary product. They were the perfect first commodity for an online retailer: easy to store, easy to sort, easy to browse, and easy to ship. No single brick-and-mortar store could ever hold enough books to satisfy every customer, but an online retailer could keep a massive, ever-expanding catalog for every reader. McGurl doesn’t mention it, but Amazon’s book business, from the early days to KDP and beyond, fit uncannily with S.R. Ranganathan’s famous Five Laws of Library Science:
Books are for use.
Every person his or her book.
Every book its reader.
Save the time of the reader.
A library is a growing organism.
Swap out “person” for “customer” and “library” for “company” and you’ve got Amazon’s ethos pretty much covered. You might even exchange “book” for “product.” This would certainly cover the other 95% of the company’s business, but it also gets, finally, at what Amazon has done more than anybody else to books. I don’t agree with everything McGurl says in Everything and Less (the psychoanalysis stuff really lost me, and the inscrutable diagrams look like parodies of post-structuralism) but in the main I think he’s right: the final, lasting influence of Amazon on books will be to bring them closer than ever before to being a pure, unadulterated commodity.
Why should there be a difference, anyway, between a DevilDog Maxpedition survivalist bag and a copy of Going Home? You can buy them both on Amazon.
Meanwhile, on the Musement Blog…
And that’s it for this week. Summer break rolls on, so I should be able to get something up next weekend. Happy reading!
Weirdly, McGurl says little about tragedy, I guess because it fits snugly under his “how history happened” framework. Most old tragedies, from Athens to Shakespeare, are usually about historical (or at least pseudo-historical) figures.
Bezos’s reading of Remains of the Day is, as you can imagine, pretty weird: while the stock interpretation of the book is that we are all like Stephens the butler, tossed about by forces of fate beyond our control and understanding which we only understand too late, when there’s not enough time to turn around and the best we can do is stoically march onward, clinging to our last shreds of dignity—hence the title—Bezos thought that the book was urging him to simply Übermensch his way through life and make his own fate, rules and rituals be damned. This sounds awesome if you’re a shareholder, but perhaps less so if you’re a shift-worker at a fulfillment center.