Amazon’s literary ambitions

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 00.59.32I am unsure what to make of the latest news that Amazon is pumping 10 million dollars into its AmazonCrossing imprint for the translation of titles into English. Alarm bells go off when a multinational company starts pouring money into a business sector that is notoriously bad at making a profit. The first question that comes to mind is: why? Perhaps the answer its simply: because it can. But presumably Amazon board meetings used tables with figures: lines sailing up into profit margins, not black squiggly arrows pointing downwards to non-profitability. Having said that, AmazonCrossing’s undertaking is likely to be profitable due to its choice of titles – popular titles, translated at a fast pace and made available quickly to a broad public, mostly in ebook form. If only 2% of people buying a fridge add a vampire novel or mystery thriller to their shopping cart, the lines will be going up, not down.

In a recent, very informative TV programme on arte about Amazon and the publishing world, the company’s tendency to stir up strong feelings and divide opinion was highlighted. I believe that the debate on AmazonCrossing’s new proposal needs to be seen in the context of Amazon’s role in the publishing world in general. The facts are: Amazon makes profit from books by fairly ruthless means and especially since reading shifted from analogue to digital form. The company’s ruthlessness lies in its ability to dictate the terms of the market and circumvent any dialogue with other players and stakeholders – whereas literary translators on the whole are a dedicated group of people who actively seek and support solidarity in their field. Amazon’s tactics on the whole strike me and a great deal of other people as being in opposition to this solidarity. Of the ebook market, as Reinhold Joppich (Kiwi’s sales manager) says on the arte broadcast, Amazon makes 70% of the available profit in this field – a clear monopoly. This is no accident either – the company, according to The Author’s Guild, has fought a long hard battle against the Big Six publishers in the field. The arte programme also quotes Michael Then from Piper Verlag saying that Amazon has single-handedly changed – or more accurately reverted – the publishing business model by putting the distribution and production of books into one hand, a model that was practised before the advent of the publishing house and the role of the editor. Everyone and anyone can be an author these days with print on demand and ebooks. Perhaps this is the crux of the matter. The process of waiting to see how book sales develop in the original language, and selecting titles to translate, is largely the first step in literary translation work: a process that means that the translator is a major factor in the selection process of what is translated. Presses who specialise in literary translation – such as Seagull Books, Peirene Press, & Other Stories, Haus Publishing, Other Press, New Directions, Archipelago, and so on – carefully select their titles and their main motivation is not profit. Unfortunately, profit and literary translation don’t go hand in hand, although there are exceptions. That’s partly what makes this news so difficult to gauge. Will AmazonCrossing at some point go into competition with independent presses of literary fiction?

How does the expansion of AmazonCrossing  impact literary translation as a whole? As Alex Zucker recently said “…my main concern, as opposed to the economic well-being of individual translators [is] the health and sustainability of the system as a whole, the literary ecosystem.” It’s great that the literary translation community is so engaged in checking that contracts provided by AmazonCrossing are fair and adhere to certain standards. But in the end, it is up to individual translators (and authors) to make their own decisions; but apparently publishers can’t choose whether or not they want to work with Amazon, for the reason that without its distribution system, sales would be negligible. So translators and authors are already indirectly forced to work with Amazon to some extent, at least as far as ebooks are concerned, and as far as print books are bought and sold over its platform. For those who choose to work with Amazon there can be a backlash: allegedly an author had book tours cancelled when the organisers found out that he had worked with Amazon. This sounds a little like a witch-hunt. But perhaps extreme times call for extreme measures.

So by and large, there is only an illusion of choice when it comes down to whether people who work with books want to work with Amazon or not: there’s no real alternative as we speak. This is perhaps why the company doesn’t feel the need to comment on its actions. And perhaps why it doesn’t feel like a cause for celebration that 10 million dollars are to be invested in its translation programme.

(On a personal note: in what feels like an extreme measure, I have decided to try and close my Amazon account. Just to see if I can. However, what takes a few minutes on most other websites is quite difficult with Amazon. The wording on the site is: “To close your Amazon account, please contact us to request that your account should be closed”. There is no contact button. Also, I read that all my Kindle content will be lost unless I have made a back-up of the files. So these two things have kept me wavering in my decision. Perhaps this is effective strategy: in a day and age when a click normally suffices to cancel any kind of account, just removing the button to click can stall a decision. Equally, having the threat of losing your ebook library is quite an effective deterrent. I am still working on both solutions.)

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