There is little question that Amazon has radically changed publishing—in both the way readers read and writers deliver their work. But has Amazon’s digital platform changed literature itself? Stanford professor Mark McGurl believes it has. His probing new book, Everything and Less, offers an intriguing examination of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as a tentacle of the larger megabeast that is Amazon and how the digital platform has been shaped by the business ethos of the Everything Store.
An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.
Amazon, of course, started as an online bookstore, and while it’s now responsible for more than half of all book sales, those sales are a shrinking piece of the company’s ever-expanding pie of profits. But with KDP, which McGurl is careful to label as a platform rather than a publisher, the company has “partnered” with hundreds of thousands of writers, further increasing its stranglehold on the reading public.
Unlike a traditionally published writer, those who self-publish on KDP need to be entrepreneurs as much as, or perhaps even more than, artists. Their work, at least as assessed by Amazon, is a product. Readers are customers. The same principles that make customers click on a suggested product have been transferred to the selling of digital books. The result is a proliferation of series and a tilt toward genre fiction, which best accommodates serial storytelling. Literary fiction, McGurl finds, is not the bailiwick of the successful KDP writer-entrepreneur. Indeed, nowadays, the saga-inspired territory once confined to the fantasy and science fiction genres has taken root in unlikely places, especially romance novels and their kinkier erotica siblings. (One of McGurl’s most engaging sections looks at Fifty Shades of Grey and its seemingly millions of KDP imitators as heirs to the marriage plot novels of Jane Austen and Henry James.)
McGurl delivers the occasional sharp quip, but overall he is evenhanded in his assessment of the unimaginable amount of self-published KDP “product” he presumably had to slog through to write this book. He equitably includes examples of the reverse flow of KDP’s influence, as well, as when “serious” writers such as Colson Whitehead and Viet Thanh Nguyen infuse their work with genre tropes.
But the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It neither predicts nor condemns the future. The scholarly McGurl does not always wear his erudition lightly, and portions of the book require some heavy lifting on the part of the general reader. Still, Everything and Less will speak to those who submerge themselves—whether as writers or readers, entrepreneurs or customers—into the KDP landscape, while offering much to think about, a fair bit of it dire, for those who cherish traditional publishing and still place some value in the role that gatekeepers have long played in the book industry.