October 3, 2011
The only necessary parts of the business are the authors and the readers. Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting those two groups.
— Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle content (qtd. in Geissen)
In “A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century,” Sara Lloyd describes a shift from reading as a “solitary, immersive experience” to one that is thoroughly networked, and charges publishers with “defining what the shape of a ‘networked book’ should be…because if they are not someone else sure as hell will be.” As though taking up the gauntlet, in August 2011, Amazon announced the beta launch of @author, a feature that lets readers make virtual pests of themselves by posing questions directly to participating authors, either from within the Kindle e-book or via their Amazon Author Pages (for those who have made purchases through Amazon.com). The feature (which employs the Twitter messaging conceit of @[name] but does not appear to operate directly through the Twitter network, even though Kindle users need to associate their Amazon.com account with a Twitter account to participate), allows users to ask general questions or to highlight specific passages within the book to query the author about. Amazon’s suggested uses of @author range from the biographical (“How old were you when you learned to speak Spanish?”) to the more exegetical (“When Eric asked Marie to meet him at the coffee shop, did he already know they would end up together or was it really just a business deal?”).
The feature is a natural extension of the Kindle’s social media platform, Kindle Share, which allows readers to share highlights and annotations. For the post-structuralists among us, @author suggests that reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. It certainly raises questions about textual authority, which I’ll get to in a moment. But as a portal to the writer, @author is hardly innovative: well-known and fledgling writers alike have flocked to Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, blogs, and other social networking sites to engage with their readers and build their personal brands. And of course, readers can write to authors via their agents and publishers, and meet them on book tours.
@author is a game-changer because it co-opts the product itself (that is, the Kindle e-book) to bypass the publisher in the supply chain and positions Amazon as the gateway to the networked reading experience Lloyd describes. As Megan Garber puts it, @author “disintermediat[es] publishers and draw[s] the line from author to reader a little shorter, if still through Jeff Bezos.” Looking at it from a less adversarial standpoint, participating authors will be happy for the broader exposure and sales-oriented environment an Amazon-powered interaction offers (as compared to a blog or Twitter conversation), and with shrinking marketing and publicity budgets, publishers are hardly in a position to play the role of author’s keeper.
However, I think this is exactly what needs to happen.
Now, I’m not suggesting publishers attempt to mediate or delimit discourse about their product while shouting, “Pay no attention to that writer behind the curtain!” But publishers can’t cede the pages of their e-books to a feature that is, at its core, advertising for Amazon. (Maybe they even pay Amazon for the privilege to do so—it’s unclear what the arrangement is at this beta stage.) While it’s a step in the right direction for ensuring the continued relevance of books, @author as a service of Amazon ultimately represents an assault on publishers’ brand integrity and their accumulated symbolic capital. It also offers an opportunity for publishers to reassert their value by providing a better integrated, more engaging experience than the current incarnation of @author provides.
On textual authority
I return, for a moment to examine the post-structuralist predicament @author poses. Mark O’Connell, writing for The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, objects to Amazon trading in intentional fallacy:
It’s not that I think the author should be seen as a figure of divine remoteness, but rather that (at least when it comes to literary forms) the book itself should be viewed as distinct and autonomous, and that the reader’s interpretation should carry just as much weight as the author’s intention.
This idea—that a text’s meaning lies not with its author but with its reader—is at the centre of Roland Barthes’s seminal essay “The Death of the Author.” Barthes argues that authorship is performative: an author does not prefigure a text, but rather comes into being alongside it. Authorship is also iterative: each successive reading constitutes a rewriting, as the reader brings her interpretations to bear. Under this paradigm, “the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (Barthes 223) and meaning is deferred along with it, paving the way for reader-response theory and—abetted by social media—the march toward near-universal authorship described by Denis G. Pelli and Charles Bigelow, who observe that “our society is changing from consumers to creators.”
So @author flies in the face of the New Critics and Barthes by presenting the opportunity for a tour through the text with the author as interpretive guide. Not sure what a particular passage means? No need to keep reading—just highlight the text and ask away! Kidding aside, I agree with O’Connell that this is a departure from a typical author Q&A because “the text itself is forced to become complicit in its own demotion.” At least at a in-store book signing, you’re more likely to find a reader asking an author for an autograph than for a close reading.
However, I think it’s important to distinguish between the implications for fiction and non-fiction, which O’Connell does not. In the case of fiction, if a particular reading of the text were endorsed by its author in the context of this extra-textual discourse, the reader would need to decide whether it becomes part of the text’s canon and invalidates other interpretations. (So far, none of the @author questions posted on the Amazon Author Pages include these text citations, so I can’t comment on authors’ willingness to play along at this micro-level.) If it does enter canon, the book is no longer a self-contained entity, and as Garber argues, “once a book stops being a product, a thing-in-itself that is defined and evaluated according to that very thingyness…it also, just a little bit, stops being a book.” Readers become part of the text by participating in @author, opening up another space where publishers need to insinuate themselves in order to stay relevant. This is a good thing, if we agree with Lloyd’s assessment of the transmedia frontier:
A new generation of more consciously transliterate reader will take it as read that the text is surrounded by researches, images, networks of reader response to the point where these become an entirely integral part of the work of art, the author’s creative voice distinct but no longer so alone.
A number of the @author participants, including Susan Orlean and Timothy Ferriss, are non-fiction writers; several of them specialize in self-help books. Questions for these authors are generally straightforward requests for further clarification:
@Timothy Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Body) For the slow carb diet, can foods like regular bacon, baby back ribs, hot dogs & hamburgers be consumed on diet days?
A commenter on O’Connell’s article concludes that “if [non-fiction writers] need [to] explain their work, it simply means their work is somewhat deficient.” If we agree with this statement, then a reader’s need to engage with @author points not just to infelicitous prose, but to a quality control issue (namely, insufficient editing). Here’s an instance where @author excludes the publisher exactly where he needs to be part of the conversation. There’s already a feature that enables readers to report errors such as typos and formatting issues from within the Kindle platform. With this, the reader is conditioned to take up these administrative issues with someone else, and go straight to the author for matters of content. This is a problem for publishers who rely on the symbolic capital of their brands and need to be able to stand behind their integrity of their products.
Aura and the symbolic economy
In “What is an Author?” (which makes opaque reference to Barthes’s essay), Michel Foucault examines the cultural construction of authorship and determines that the author is not so easily buried, for the concept has historically functioned as a tool of classification, allowing us to “group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (227). In other words, the conceit of the author provides a marketing strategy and influences how a text circulates as a commodity. @author offers a selling point with a twist: the writer, seemingly omnipresent, looms large over the text indefinitely, rather than disappearing into the smoke of the publishing machine once the terms of her contract have been fulfilled. She is reanimated (perhaps this is Amazon’s entry into the zombie craze!), and her aura—the proximity of authenticity, and “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” according to Walter Benjamin—is restored. Say farewell to literary mystique.
The meaning of @author for the publisher is a moot point in the case of the participating writers who self-publish, such as John Locke. But what implications do the author’s continued online presence have for the traditional publisher? To put our Marxist glasses on, the @author’s labours are foregrounded, and the publisher’s efforts in bringing that book to market are obscured. The reader builds a relationship directly with the author and loses sight of the value chain that developed and produced it. Traditional publishers will argue that this is as it should be; editors are taught to pride themselves on the invisibility of their efforts. And that’s fine. But it’s also exactly what Amazon is counting on, in light of the quote from the vice president of Kindle content that appears at the outset of this essay. By facilitating the communication between author and reader, Amazon controls the means of production (that is, extra-textual content creation), rather than just the means of distribution. As a result, the publisher is alienated from his labours, and even though he ultimately profits from a book sale, he loses out on the symbolic capital and goodwill that accumulate in the @author transaction.
In the world of publishing, symbolic capital (a term first used by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) refers to “the accumulated prestige and status associated with the publishing house.” (Thompson 6). Texts circulate within a field of cultural production populated by various agents of legitimation, including agents, publishers, critics, and readers. Publishers are taste-makers who build their brands by demonstrating their ability to define, validate, and consecrate authors. Authors must in turn navigate this field to accumulate symbolic capital of their own. In Merchants of Culture, John B. Thompson observes that this exchange can be uneven, and often parasitic, in nature:
In the early stages of [an author’s] writing career, a publishing firm may have invested in the building of their brand, but as they become better known and develop a fan base of regular readers, the author’s brand separates off from the publisher’s brand and becomes less and less dependent on it. This puts them or their agents in an increasingly strong position when it comes to negotiating contractual terms with publishers and tends to ensure that their new books, regardless of who publishes them, are well positioned in the circuits of distribution and reception. (9)
It would seem that @author hastens the speed at which the participating author builds symbolic capital, on the back of a retailer who sees the publisher as an expendable part of the business.
How can publishers compete?
So: Amazon, we have a problem. But what is the publisher who understands the value of the networked book to do to fight back against his disintermediation by @author?
@author currently hosts 16 authors; Amazon hopes to bring on more participants in the future. One month into the beta release, most of the answered questions tend toward the mundane, simply praising the author or in one case, requesting technical support. Some authors have only answered one question. (Maybe it’s the only one they’ve been asked?)
I humbly suggest that the publisher build a similar communicative link into the e-book during production, or work with third-party developers, so that it is no longer proprietary to Amazon/Kindle. The publisher has the advantage here because he understands his content best, and he has access to the authors he can rally behind him. Alongside this messaging system, the publisher could include some prompts and questions to get the reader and the author fired up in conversation—maybe snippets of unedited copy as annotations, à la track changes. This could be a value-added feature available by subscription. As Lloyd points out, today’s “prosumers” (producer/consumers) expect to be more involved with what’s going on behind the scenes than in the past. Why not @editor or @designer? Let’s demonstrate our value as publishers and get readers excited about the whole process, not just one segment of it.
“@author: Connecting Readers and Writers.” Amazon.com, 2011. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/feature/-/1000714331
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” 1967. In The Book History Reader, eds. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2002. 221–224.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1936. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” 1969. In The Book History Reader, eds. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge, 2002. 225–230.
Garber, Megan. “Amazon’s New @author Feature Launches, and Changes (Just a Bit) What a Book is All About.” Nieman Journalism Lab, 31 August 2011. http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/08/amazons-new-author-feature-launches-and-changes-just-a-bit-what-a-book-is-all-about/
Geissen, Keith. Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding. Vanity Fair e-Book, 2011. Kindle edition.
Lloyd, Sara. “A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century.” The Digitalist (Pan MacMillan), 2008. http://thedigitalist.net/?p=155
O’Connell, Mark. “@Reading in the Age of @author.” The New Yorker: The Book Bench, 7 September 2011. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/09/reading-in-the-age-of-author-1.html
Pelli, Dennis G. and Charles Bigelow. “A Writing Revolution.” Seed Magazine, 2009. http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/a_writing_revolution/
Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture. London: Polity, 2010.