Yet more Amazon bashing from Germany

I’ve been planning this post for a few days now, gathering links, when Amazon decided to escalate its battle with Hachette by sending a rather strange e-mail to everybody with a KDP account. At first, I actually thought this was yet another petition started by indie authors and that someone had put me on the mailing list without my consent, but then it turned out the mail was genuine. I still find it a strange move, especially since I don’t want to be enlisted into a fight that isn’t mine. I didn’t sign any of the other petitions that have been making the rounds and I’m not going to sign this one. And I’m very definitely not going to e-mail bomb the Hachette CEO about this.

The Passive Voice, The New York Times, Re/Code, Jake Kerr, Damien Walter, John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig (with bonus Grosse Pointe Blank clip – must rewatch that movie) and Deirdre Saoirse Moen have more. The last post also quotes some tweets by me, pointing out that Amazon’s whole analogy is somewhat faulty when viewed from a non-US perspective.

Here in Germany, Amazon is currently caught up in a mini-version of the dispute with Hachette, namely a contract dispute with the publisher Bonnier. Now Amazon’s battle with Bonnier is no more my fight than Amazon’s battle with Hachette is. Actually, I’m more affected by the latter, since I own a lot more Hachette than Bonnier books. In both cases, I feel sorry for the affected authors.

Like in the US, both sides are rallying their troops and authors are joining one side or the other. I already posted about the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit asking several well known international author about their opinion about Amazon. The result was overwhelmingly negative. Now the actual responses are finally available on the Zeit website. What is more, Die Self-Publisher Bibel, which – as the name suggests – is a German self-publisher site, responded to the Zeit feature by asking several indie authors about their views on Amazon.

As in the US, the dispute between Amazon and Bonnier has brought a lot of anti-Amazon sentiments out of the woodwork, mostly courtesy of the German cultural establishment. And while I can understand disagreeing with Amazon’s negotiation tactics (I’m not a fan of those tactics myself), a lot of the debate here in Germany tips over into blanket Amazon bashing, laced with a liberal dose of xenophobia.

Believe it or not, this report yesterday in the cultural TV program aspekte (starts around the 20 minute mark) is one of the more balanced entries into the debate. As expected, the head of the German booksellers and publishers association Börsenverein (remember them?) laments Amazon’s blackmail tactics and claims that Franz Kafka would never had been given a chance in a world dominated by Amazon (which frankly we have no way of knowing). There is a longer version of the interview here. However, the report also quotes a pro-Amazon view expressed by Andrea Hanna Hünninger, author of this (trad-pubbed) memoir about her youth in post-1989 East Germany (longer interview here). She’s also planning to self-publish an essay. Even Tanja Dückers, the other author interviewed, mostly points out that traditional publishing is a choice she prefers for herself, though she also calls people who order books at Amazon lazy (longer interview here). Even the Berlin based indie bookseller (this is his store BTW) doesn’t see his own business endangered (longer interview here). And BTW, aspekte, it’s totally not cool that I have to hunt down all of those links myself (the bookseller was particularly problematic, because he happens to share a name with a WWII general).

Finally, aspekte also interviewed Jo Lendle, head of the Carl Hanser Verlag, who claims not to hate Amazon, though he believes they don’t know very much about books, at least no more than about washing machines (Uhm, has he ever seen the rather poor range of washing machines on offer at Hanser is also founding their own digital first imprint. Furthermore, Mr Lendle believes that German publishers are very good at developing and nurturing authors. Which might be so, though I couldn’t help but notice how many traditionally published German authors, including the two ladies interviewed by aspekte, don’t even have an Author Central page at Amazon. And if publishers can’t even manage something as basic as setting up an Author Central page or at least telling their authors how to do it, I’m not really convinced by the whole nurturing aspect. On Twitter, I dared to disagree with Mr. Lendle’s statement by pointing out that I don’t need my hand held by Mr Lendle and that I can write just fine on my own (and set up my own Author Central page), whereupon somebody told me I wasn’t a real writer anyway. Mr Lendle himself also favourited my tweet pointing out that I don’t need my hand held, which I will take as a statement that he is not interested in nurturing the likes of me either. But then, I don’t really write the sort of thing Hanser publishes anyway.

Meanwhile, Deutschlandradio Kultur, a nation-wide cultural radio program, also decided to offer its take on the Amazon debate. First of all, German writer Jan Brandt (who doesn’t have an Author Central page either, but here is his novel) fears that Amazon in general and the new Kindle Unlimited subscription program in particular will cause the superficialisation of literature, since Amazon bestseller lists are dominated by genre fiction. He also dislikes self-published books, because they’re supposedly not even proofread.

However, this article by Michael Schikowski at Deutschlandradio Kultur really takes the cake, because according to him, Amazon is not just attempting to destroy literature and the German bookselling and publishing world, no it’s actually part of a capitalist conspiracy to destabilise the German state and take over the German middle class like big international oil companies destabilised Nigeria. Apparently, the growth of private schools and private tutoring franchises (neither of which has anything to do with Amazon) is another symptom. Now one can certainly criticise the privatisation of education (I’m not a fan myself) and one can criticise neoliberal economic policies and even the capitalist system in general. But why on Earth all this needs to be folded into an article about Amazon I have no idea. Never mind that the early adapters of Amazon, the people who were already ordering their books online ten or more years ago, were precisely the supposedly endangered middle class knowledge workers, students, teachers, professors, because they were happy to be finally able to easily order any book they wanted or needed without having to wait for weeks, while paying the grossly inflated prices charged by the distributors particularly for foreign language books.

I also vehemently reject the whole “only lazy people order at Amazon” vibe that runs through most of those articles and interviews. I don’t order my books at Amazon, because I’m lazy (and for the record, I still buy a lot of books in brick and mortar stores as well), but because for me Amazon is the best and for a long time the only way to get the books I want to read. As I’ve pointed out before, Germany’s rich bookselling landscape (which was only ever rich in the big cities) never really served my needs very well as a reader who prefers reading English language books and genre fiction at that and not the really big bestsellers either. Amazon was a godsend for me. What is more, I am highly resistant to handselling of any kind (I’ve had a book handsold to me once in my life and actually complimented the bookseller on her skills) and mostly prefer salespeople to keep well out of my way, unless I have a question or a purchase to ring up. And once I do take my purchases to the cash register, please don’t give me that “What kind of crap is she reading?” look. Oh yes, and buying a stack of paranormal romances is not an invitation to hit on me, male booksellers.

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7 Responses to Yet more Amazon bashing from Germany

  1. Pingback: Odds and Ends | Cora Buhlert

  2. Estara Swanberg says:

    Your whole last paragraph could have been me verbatim – except for the being hit on, he.

    • Cora says:

      Count yourself lucky then. When I was younger, I used to get hit on in bookstores all the time. It was really quite annoying.

  3. I have several friends who do publish with traditional publishers. One even dropped self-publishing because she was promised a lot of support and nurturing for a digital-only imprint. She’s now going back to self-publishing because the reality looked very different. So statements that publishers nurture writers, always makes me laugh very cynically. Maybe it’s different if we’re talking high-literature, but in genre? No, not happening. At least not in the big houses and the small publishers generally don’t have the marketing budget or the time.

    The supposedly rich bookselling landscape makes me laugh too. Where? Here on the country-side? Definitely not? My next bookstore is one town over (though our newspaper agent also sells books) and unless I’m looking at their bargain-books table I have to order the books I want because 99.9% of the time they don’t have the book (they didn’t even have the Duden I needed). If I order, I have to drive over again to pick up the book. And that during opening hours (remember, country-side. I can count myself lucky if a shop is open till 6:30 pm and some days they are closed the whole afternoon).
    As for foreign language books? Forget it. We’ve talked about this before and I totally agree with you. There, Amazon really is the best option. There’s a reason why my Amazon-account dates back to the 90s :-).

    I also wouldn’t really call the book-selling landscape in Freiburg rich, unless one counts the second hand bookstores. And Freiburg is a university town. The best bookstore (fantasy/sf and crime) closed a few years ago :-(.

    And as a freelancer I like the invoice Amazon sends, much better for my accounting than that mini-slip of paper you get in a book-store.

    • Cora says:

      I’m also very skeptical about the statements of how publishers nurture writers, because this doesn’t necessarily happen for my trad-published friends either. Such statements always remind me of the stories about how Siegfried Unseld supposedly kept Uwe Johnson financially afloat for ten years, waiting for him to finally get his backside into gear and finish Jahrestage. But I doubt even Johnson would get such support these days, let alone a less famous literary writer, let alone a genre writer. But then the German literary scene is still very dismissive of genre writers in general. Crime writers get some attention, but SF or fantasy? Forget it, unless your name is Frank Schätzing.

      As for the “rich bookselling landscape”, in the countryside you can pretty much forget it. We actually do have an indie bookstore in my little suburb, but it carries mostly children’s books as well as the occasional bestselling romance or crime novel to keep Mommy occupied. The woman who runs the place is very nice, but her store absolutely does not serve my needs beyond picking up the occasional magazine. Bremen is a bit better, since we had a great indie bookstore with a very good foreign language section in the 1980s and early 1990s (still around, but only a shadow of its former self) plus a bunch of other indie stores and now a big Thalia store. But I absolutely don’t miss searching the huge “Book in print” catalogues, spelling out author and title to the sales clerk and then picking up the book three to four weeks later at an extortionate price. Once I even got the wrong book due to a duplicate title.

      University towns are a bit better with regard to bookstores, but not necessarily so. Vechta has three bookstores, which is pretty good for a town of 35000, approximately 4000 of which are students. However, one store is only for religious books, one is a weird mix of bookstore and gift shop (the gifts are really nice, though) and only one is a proper bookstore, which even carries a bunch of foreign language books. You still can’t dispense with Amazon, though.

      I guess all of those talking of a rich bookselling landscape live in places like Berlin Prenzlauer Berg with lots of different indie bookstores within walking distance and they never buy anything so out of the ordinary that none of the stores in their neighbourhood carries it. Which is great for them, but simply doesn’t apply to the majority of Germans.

      I also like Amazon’s invoices BTW, if only because collecting those tiny receipts is such a pain in the behind. Plus, Thalia’s invoicing system for online orders is crazy.

  4. Completely forgot to add. The whole Amazon-bashing is beginning to really bore me. Like every company they have their pros and cons, but they are not the devil or the ruin of the occident, book-culture or whatever.

    I’m also finding the whole “battle” by now mostly irritating. These kinds of negotiations happen daily in all kinds of companies. But usually they happen behind closed door and the custoer only realizes that something was going on, when their favorite orange-juice or clothing-brand is no longer availabe in a specific store.

    • Cora says:

      There is a definite element of xenophobia to the Amazon bashing here in Germany, because the Amazon bashers are not nearly as critical of Thalia or Weltbild or Hugendubel or – to leave the book sector – Zalando or Otto or the late and unlamented Quelle and Neckermann, even though those companies employ similar or even worse tactics. However, those companies are German and Amazon is American.

      As for American Amazon bashers, I also wonder whether they are aware that B&N or Wal-Mart or Target employ just the same negotiation tactics. But for some reason, Amazon and Hachette had to drag this fight out into the public arena, while such things usually remain behind closed doors.

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