February 9, 2012

Nancy Pearl says if she had it to do all over again …


In a remarkable post on the New York Times’ Bits blog, technology reporter David Streitfeld — whose beat includes Amazon.com — talks to librarian Nancy Pearl about the reaction to her decision to publish with Amazon … but not without some piercing commentary, first, about the increasing heat of reactions to all things Amazon.

And heat is the word. As Streitfeld observes at one point,

… take a look at the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek two weeks ago. It shows a book in flames with the headline, “Amazon wants to burn the book business.” What was remarkable was not just the overt Nazi iconography but the fact that it did not cause any particular uproar. In the struggle over the future of intellectual commerce in the United States, apparently even evocations of Joseph Goebbels and the Brown Shirts are considered fair game.

Before that, though, Streitfeld sets the tone with a wry, literary, and moving opening that’s worth quoting at length:

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” George Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In “Animal Farm,” he concluded that revolutions are inevitably betrayed by their leaders. His novel “Burmese Days” ends with the hero killing himself because he is unfit to live in this sour world. He shoots his dog too.

As a rule, modern civilization disappointed Orwell when it did not actually sicken him. But in at least one respect he was way too optimistic. Bookselling, he wrote in Fortnightly in November 1936, “is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.”

It’s as neat a summary of the disorientation felt by people in the book business today as any, although Streitfeld portrays Pearl as not necessarily one of Orwell’s types but rather someone “caught in the crossfire.”

Again, he’s worth quoting at length:

Was Amazon sincerely trying to rescue lost classics or was it cynically buying a local hero’s endorsement to cover up its aggressive tactics? A month later, the debate is unresolved.

Ms. Pearl still seems a little shaken by the intensity of the response. “I knew the minute I signed the contract that there would be people who would not be happy, but the vehemence surprised me,” she said. To protect herself, she did not read Facebook or Twitter or any of the social media sites. (One Twitter post: “I might have to burn that superhero doll”).

The amount of money involved here is not enough to fill a tin cup. But for some Amazon opponents, that just means it got Ms. Pearl’s credibility for cheap.

“It’s like hearing a favorite old song used on a car commercial,” wrote J.B. Dickey of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on his blog. “You can never listen to it the same again. It’s no longer just a great song — it’s been reduced to a jingle.”

Ms. Pearl, at one point an independent bookseller herself, is trying to bridge a gap that might be unbridgeable. “I understand and sympathize with the concerns about Amazon’s role in the world of books,” she said. “If I had to do this deal all over again … well, it’s a hard question. But I would still want these books back in print.”

The first one, Merle Miller‘s “A Gay and Melancholy Sound,” will be out in April. Interested readers will probably have to go to Amazon to get it, because I doubt many independents will carry it.

As I sit here at my desk, with a copy of Merle Miller’s book in the “to be read” pile next to me because I’d been considering it for re-publication in our Neversink Library after hearing Pearl lament it being out of print on the radio months ago, it’s not hard for me to understand her passion for bringing books back from the dead. (I do wonder, though, if she urged her big New York agent to approach the kinds of places realistically likely to take on such a project — not Penguin or Vintage, in other words, but any of a number of independent or university presses that famously publish reprints, such as, say, NYRB or Europa or Other Press or Overlook? We never heard from them, in any case.) But meanwhile I also can’t help thinking she’s a fool if she’s telling the truth when she says she’s surprised that the response to her joining forces with Amazon has been so heated.

How could it not be? After all, as Streitfeld smartly reports — and he’s one of the few reporters for any mainstream news organization, let alone the country’s leading news organization, to do so, and to do so consistently — talking about Amazon is talking about “the future of intellectual commerce.”

Is there anyone out there, especially a trench-warfare veteran like Nancy Pearl, who thinks that’s something Amazon gives a damn about?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.