The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: An Editor’s Dilemma

Last week, I read a book from cover to cover that I simply loathed. (Yes, I almost always finish a book once I’ve started it, even if I don’t love it. I want to be sure I see it from all angles.) However, I didn’t want to share which book it was, because it was a debut–and I never trash debuts in any genre. (Is this compassion, honor among thieves, or a combination? Hmmmm…) A day later, I picked up another book from my stack, simply because I liked the title and jacket design. Just a few pages in, I knew it was love. The voice was individual and authentic, the prose was snappy, and the plot was odd but maintained its own internal logic.

However, I didn’t want to share which book it was, because…Oh, dear. How can I put this delicately? Because I finally looked at this book’s spine and there saw something to make my heart stop for a moment: It was from Amazon Crossing. Ahhhh, Amazon. So many problems so little space to discuss them all. Of course Amazon Crossing is not the same as Amazon Publishing is not the same as Amazon Vine is not the same as Amazon the e-Tail Giant. But sure as your knee bone’s connected to your thigh bone, all of Amazon’s tentacles lead back to the mothership–and that’s a problem for most of us in book publishing. We’re not just threatened by the big bad beasts who seem not only rapacious for but–more terrifying– capable of changing all of our game’s rules; we’re also outraged by a company that seems to disregard the rules of fair play in business. I cannot possibly go into all of that here, and besides, others have done so before me with more smarts and aplomb than I could summon. I think it’s enough for me to say now that I have grave misgivings about how Amazon pere is conducting itself, even if Amazon fils (i.e., Amazon Publishing) is a likely lad.

My head isn’t the first one turned by that lad, either: Not only did venerable independent publishing house Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) pick up an Amazon Crossing title last year with much fanfare (The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Poetsch), it recently announced that HMH would become the printer and distributor of Amazon Publishing titles across the USA. (That move, unsurprisingly, was greeted with a counter from Barnes & Noble, which announced it would not carry any of those titles in stores–although customers could still order them from BN.com.) Indie booksellers and their advocates cried foul and vowed to eschew these books.

They aren’t wrong. As I already said, Amazon as a conglomerate has shown its hand, and it’s a grasping, indiscriminate one. Even as I wrote this post, the news was hitting the social-media grapevine: Not content to remain an etherbound Goliath, Amazon is probably going to open its first bricks-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle.

However, let’s take a step back for a moment (difficult as it is with an issue like this that has emotional heft for so many readers and writers). If a book is really terrific, shouldn’t it find its audience? That, after all, seems to be the rallying motto for the less fiscally threatening but no less radical faction in our industry: self-published authors. I’ll deal with self-publishing later (that post will require a cocktail or three), so will now focus on terrific prose finding readers. Sometimes I wish that all book reviewers (critics, bloggers, listmakers) could receive galleys without knowing from whence they came. Every magazine, newspaper, blog and web site that covers books knows that you’re not supposed to “only” pay attention to certain publishers. (For the record, that can be really tough when certain publishers consistently publish good stuff and others dreck. But that’s another post, too…)

If you’re not supposed to confine coverage to favored imprints, then you shouldn’t ignore others, either–right? Well, except if they’re Really, Really Bad. The trouble is, it’s not just Amazon Crossing publishing Words From Amazon. It’s Amazon Crossing (or Vine, or whatevs–soon, no doubt, they’ll have an imprint for every genre under the sun, including Amazon Bites for vampire novels) publishing a book from an author who does not work for Amazon, an author who is just trying to pay the bills, as is said author’s agent. There might be someone making tons and tons of money at Amazon Publishing, but it’s not going to be a relatively unknown author from another country.

And that, dear readers, is who authored the book I picked up the other day. While Hallgrimur Helgason is a well-established literary light in his native Iceland, he isn’t a big star here. Yet The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, his novel released by Amazon Crossing, is every bit as good as Josh Bazell’s 2009 Beat the Reaper released by Reagan Arthur Books. Every bit as good.

Please don’t say that we can’t read something that good until it is distributed by a publisher of whom we approve, because if you look deeply enough into the eyes of of any Big Six book publisher, you’ll see things you won’t like. I’m not here to detail the sins of any one corporation, but I do think we all need to consider the result apart from its source of funding.

My dilemma wouldn’t have arisen if this were an average book. It stems from the fact that Helgasson’s novel is damn good, so good that I want to tell other people about it. If I’m not to favor a publisher by covering too many of its titles, how am I to discriminate against another by ignoring its best books? Part of this dilemma has to do with the rules about covering books in old media, such as newspapers and magazines. Journalists are supposed to avoid not simply conflicts of interest, like reviewing their best friend’s or boss’s nephew’s book, but also “perceived conflicts of interest,” which include paying more attention to one publishing house’s books over another’s.

So, does paying attention to an Amazon Crossing book make a new-media editor more just in her coverage? If it does, what happens when being fair to as many publishers as possible means going against the principles of other bookish communities, like independent booksellers? Fortunately, in our new-media environment, we can not only start thinking about new rules–by thinking about whether or not those old rules still matter, we can pay attention in a new way that might just help all of us remember what matters most: great writing and compelling stories.

If only I hadn’t looked at the colophon. If only my love of this particular book, this particular Romeo to my Juliet, could transcend the Montagues-and-Capulets-with-revolvers feel of publishing today. I swear that my six-gallon hat is white and my intentions are good.