Amazon.com opened its “doors” for business ten years ago yesterday. Its first order was for a science textbook. One might be forgiven for not knowing this–the company now sells everything from caviar to engagement rings, after all. But the retailer began as “Earth’s biggest bookstore,” named Amazon for the huge number of titles it planned to offer. And while most reporters have been filing stories this past week detailing how the company has shaped the now enormous e-commerce market, few are talking about how much it has changed the literary world.
It has done so in ways Jeff Bezos wouldn’t have dreamed when he started the company as a 30-year-old hedge fund analyst. At the beginning, he was rather high-minded. He hired two dozen litterateurs, including a former Village Voice Literary Supplement editor, to review books for the site. They weren’t immune to Bezos’ legendary energy: they were encouraged to review as quickly as possible. One managed to write 137 book reviews in a single week. As James Marcus, one of those reviewers, recalls in his memoir, Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut, “It sounded less than reviewing and more like a pie-eating contest.” Marcus himself reviewed 17 Patrick O’Brien novels his first day on the job.
A 1999 article in The Wall Street Journal cited Amazon editorial writers as among the most powerful critics in the nation. It’s not hard to understand why. Amazon quickly became the place to look online for information on books. With title, author, publisher, release date, and more, Amazon’s listings quickly became looked at and linked to. The reviewers found a readymade audience.
Marcus writes that during the reviewers’ heyday, he even interviewed Salman Rushdie at an “undisclosed location.” But despite millions, and then billions, in revenue, Amazon wasn’t to make a year-long profit until its ninth year of business. So staff and resources were slashed, among them the sophisticated reviewers like Marcus.
It turned out they weren’t needed. Amazon’s customers were happy to do their work. Never mind that their spelling, punctuation, even coherence, weren’t always as good as their forebears. They did it at no charge. The thrill of seeing themselves in print, even anonymously, was payment enough. Some of those reviewers have become celebrities themselves. Fifty-three-year-old ex-librarian Harriet Klausner, voted Amazon’s top reviewer, was even the subject of a Wall Street Journal profile.
But this isn’t simply a new business model. This democratization of reviewing has begun changing the way we read. The big trade magazines–Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews–along with the top newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post used to set opinion on new releases. Now, many people scan Amazon’s reader reviews, not their local newspaper, before deciding whether to click “Add to cart,” just as they peruse Amazon reader reviews of blenders rather than Consumer Reports.
Many people have heralded this triumph over elitism. Why should we rely on liberal eggheads in New York to tell us what to read? Some of the most popular books–particularly genre fiction like romance and science fiction–don’t even get reviewed in the big publications. People are more likely to find reviews dependable when they are written by readers like themselves.
These are all worthy points. But I’m not so unambivalent about the development. I would hate to see amateur reviewers completely crowd out the professionals. Some of them, after all, have earned their positions. Their years of experience and education sometimes do make them better authorities than a bored housewife in Poughkeepsie. I, for one, would miss the reliability of those reviewers I sometimes find whose taste often tracks my own.
You can certainly follow reviewers on Amazon. But the most popular, like Harriet Klausner, are very different from establishment reviewers. Many of them only review books they think they’ll like, and their reviews often don’t have the nastiness you sometimes find in The New York Times. As The Wall Street Journal writes of Klausner, “she’s of the ‘if you don’t have anything nice to write, don’t write anything at all’ school of literary criticism.”
That’s not to say that there’s no malice on Amazon.com. In fact, there often is, and it drives authors to distraction–and even dishonorable behavior. This was confirmed last year when a glitch on Amazon’s Canadian site meant that thousands of anonymous reviews from the American site were printed with their writers’ real names. It turns out many authors were reviewing their own books–and giving them five stars. Friends and family were also contributing. It works the other way, too. Rivals were giving each other pitiless reviews.
At least I believe the Times’ Michiko Kakutani is giving us her honest opinion. And when a reviewer writes under a byline, you can better evaluate those opinions. Over time, you might even be able to tell what prejudices and background the writer brings to his work. A reviewer’s opinion just isn’t worth as much when its source is hidden.
Perhaps we should see Amazon’s legion of reviewers best as a supplement to the establishment reviewers. Readers of genre fiction that is often ignored in the mainstream press can see what others are saying about new books. Those who have enjoyed an author’s previous books can see what other fans are saying about the latest. And those of us who always read a certain newspaper critic–for me, it’s The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda–can still look to the newspaper to discover new authors.
Then again, perhaps Amazon will put all these people out of business. The site recommends items based on a buyer’s past purchases and searches, and it sometimes does very well. It can be annoying to have your home page filled with, say, diet books after you look at the page of a single cookbook. But I’ve known some of the recommendations to be on target, and the technology seems to be getting better all the time.
Will authors ever decide to boycott the company that could put some of them out of business? Doubtful–they’ll be too busy checking their rankings and ratings.
Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire