Some Notes on Vox, Amazon, and Publishing Experiences


Yesterday, Vox posted a piece by Matt Yglesias that makes the case against book publishers, and argues that “readers will be better off” once they’re gone. There’s plenty to debate in this piece, and plenty that I disagree with. Right about now would be a good time to mention that Emily Gould has written a lengthy response to Yglesias’s piece, and it’s a comprehensive response to (and, in many cases, rebuttal of) it. Rather than getting into the minutiae of this debate, I’d like to bring up one thing that confuses me about Yglesias’s rhetoric.

In the piece, Yglesias notes that he comes from a family of writers, and he very briefly addresses his own status as an author.

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints.

Yglesias has written two books to date–a 2008 work on foreign policy, Heads in the Sand, and a shorter one in 2012, The Rent is Too Damn High, available as an ebook. I’ve been reading Yglesias’s work for many years now, because he’s a sharp and incisive writer on a number of subjects that interest me. (Though, as this might indicate, I often find his work on, say, urban planning resonating far more than his thoughts on the publishing industry.) And given that, I found myself wishing he would go more explicitly into his own experience releasing books. I’m still not entirely sure what Yglesias means when he wrote “it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct”–to me, it reads like an overly broad generalization.

Recently at Salon, Rob Spillman and JA Konrath debated Amazon’s relationship to writers, readers, and publishers. I side more with Spillman in this debate, but when Konrath discussed his own experiences working with established publishers and contrasted it with his experience self-publishing, it made for a concrete example. There was information that I could process and quantify. The same is true for Neal Pollack’s recent defense of Amazon, which ran on Slate. (Though in Pollack’s case, he has glowing things to say about Amazon Publishing, which is a very different thing than the “authors don’t need publishers” model that Yglesias seems to be advocating.)

While I don’t agree with the argument Yglesias makes in his most recent piece, I’d be curious to know what got him to that point. He’s someone who’s published work in both physical and digital forms; he’s someone who comes from a familial background in literary fiction and has opted to write books about public policy. He’s made an argument that I don’t find convincing in the overall arc; maybe including himself in the argument more will provide something more to ponder.

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