Bookmark this link and check back on it in a few years for a good dark laugh.
Are you a sci-fi writer? If so, you need to apply for Clarion West's 2019 summer workshop, which is a six-week intensive learning session for writers of science fiction and fantasy. This year has an impressive list of teachers, including Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice.
At Crosscut, Brangien Davis reports that Seattle has the most Instagrammable public library in the world.
Speaking of Crosscut, that's where Knute Berger wrote a piece about his experience interviewing Bob Woodward about his book Fear onstage at the Paramount Theater this week. I wasn't crazy about Fear, but I'm thrilled that lots of people are still willing to pack a theater to listen to a journalist talk about his work.
The excellent journal A Public Space is getting into the book publishing business. They'll put out four books a year to start.
Here's a very good overview of the plagiarism scandal that dominated poetry Twitter over the weekend.
This tweet is the most disgusting "let them eat cake" employer moment I've seen in a while:
“The richest man in America, who’s a direct competitor, has just been handed $3 billion in subsidies. I’m not asking for money or a tax rebate,” Ms. Wyden said. “Just leave me alone.”
Bryan Menengus at Gizmodo got a copy of an anti-union training video Amazon shows to managers at Whole Foods. Gizmodo, smartly, didn't publish the video directly because doing so could inadvertently reveal the identity of the employee who leaked it to them. Instead, Menegus describes the video in great detail.
Here are a few of the (extensive) examples “that can indicate associate disengagement, vulnerability to organizing, or early organizing activity,” according to the video:
Use of words like “living wage” and “steward”
Distribution of petitions and fliers
Associates raising concerns on behalf of their coworkers
Wearing union t-shirts, hats, or jackets
Workers “who normally aren’t connected to each other suddenly hanging out together”
Workers showing an “unusual interest in policies, benefits, employee lists, or other company information”
Increased negativity in the workplace
“[A]ny other associate behavior that is out of character”
I worked at a Walmart briefly two decades ago, and this Amazon video sounds shockingly similar to the anti-union video they showed to all employees who started at Walmart at the time. The next time you buy a product from Amazon, I hope you'll recall the fact that the company is widely distributing a video that considers employees being concerned for one another to be suspicious — a video, in fact, that declares the words "living wage" to be a bad thing. Amazon is no better than Walmart when it comes to the way it treats its low-level employees.
Spokane alt-weekly The Inlander (where, full disclosure, I worked as a freelancer for a few years) has announced an exciting new development. Starting tomorrow, they'll be publishing serialized installments of Miller Cane, a new novel by Sam Ligon. Congratulations to The Inlander for rethinking the idea of what an alt-weekly can and should do.
In sadder alt-weekly news, the owners of the Missoula Independent closed the paper down suddenly yesterday.
[Independent owner] Lee [Enterprises] Regional Human Relations Director Jim Gaasterland told Independent staff in a message Tuesday the company closed the newspaper that day and to schedule an appointment to retrieve any personal belongings.
Third Place Books has announced a whole new events staff, including a brand-new position called "children's books outreach manager," which will "coordinate programming and events for young readers, both in schools and in-store."
Hey, here's some Amazon news that isn't terrible for literature in general for a change: the online retailer has stopped selling nine self-published books by the atrocious "Men's Rights Activist" known as Roosh. The books are often characterized as "how-to manuals for sexual predators." Roosh does still have several books online. Before you whine about freedom of speech, please recall that Roosh is perfectly capable of selling his books by himself. Amazon didn't owe him a platform, and it's awful that they allowed him to sell his books for as long as they did.
Over in the Comics Journal, Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds offers a nuanced discussion of Amazon from his perspective as a publisher, a Seattleite, and a human being in the world today. Reynolds acknowledges that Amazon does some good, but he also thinks that if we don't take them seriously, we could be setting ourselves up for disaster:
At this point they’re not going anywhere, and if we don’t stem this rising tide somehow, it’s not going to get any better. It’s like global warming. It’s like Amazon is the global warming of the American economy. We’re reaching the point where we might be able to minimize some of the damage one way or the other, but this is happening.
Please go read the whole interview.
As all the tech sites are giddily running free publicity for the world's largest online retailer today, I'd like you to consider these two pieces about why you can't trust Amazon as a seller:
The latest episode of the podcast Reply All offers a fascinating look at why "Amazon has suddenly gotten a lot sketchier."
The New York Times examines the "Curious Case of the $2,630.52 Used Paperback."
Imagine your favorite grocery store allowed an unregulated retailer to start selling sketchily sourced knock-offs in their aisles. How would you feel about that?
And more importantly, Amazon warehouse workers around Europe are striking right now. You don't want to cross picket lines, do you? I didn't think so.
At the top of the hierarchy is Amazon. And at the bottom are record numbers of homeless people. The rise of Seattle’s socialist movement can be explained in part by its ability to link the city’s inequality to a wider critique of capitalism. Amazon may have succeeded in crushing the business tax earlier this year. But Socialist Alternative’s Sawant, as well as all the activists working alongside her, helped ensure that the tax was on the city’s agenda to begin with.
Congratulations to Seattle comics writer G. Willow Wilson, who is going to write the Wonder Woman series for DC Comics. This is a high-profile gig — the inevitable collection of Wilson's run will likely be the Wonder Woman book that DC promotes to new readers when the second Wonder Woman movie debuts in theaters next year.
Here's a great interview with the women behind the literary magazine Glimmer Train, which is closing down next year.
So the American Library Association recently revamped their Library Bill of Rights. Get a load of this (emphasis mine):
[The Intellectual Freedom Committee] strengthened the 1991 “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” by adding legal citations; expanding the text on the purpose of meetings rooms; and clarifying the description of admission fees. The interpretation cites specific examples of groups that may choose to use meeting rooms.
“If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms,” states the interpretation, “then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”
Uh, sorry, no. Hate groups are not protected speech. Hate groups are shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. Hate groups are calling for the murder of people not like them. We need as a nation to come together and realize that white supremacists and their like aren't a political group. They're terrorist organizations. This isn't a slippery slope. This is about an existential threat to civlization and a real physical threat to our neighbors. Stop it.
Evening Magazine interviewed Seattle cartoonist Ellen Forney about her self-help comic Rock Steady:
This Saturday, all three Third Place Books locations will be donating 20 percent of all sales "to help reunite families separated at the US-Mexico border." Their charity of choice is the RAICES Family Reunification and Bond Fund, and of course you could donate to the organization directly. But if there are any books you've been meaning to pick up lately, this is a great opportunity to help a good cause while you do so.
Amazon employees have circulated a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon stop providing facial-recognition software to law enforcement agencies.
Our company should not be in the surveillance business; we should not be in the policing business; we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations.
Signed the contract! Tor is buying a sequel to Everfair. The sequel is called Kinning. I've got maybe a year to write it.— Nisi Shawl (@NisiShawl) June 21, 2018
The juxtapositions in these old newspapers are just amazing. From 1899: On the left, someone's opinion that only Paul Laurence Dunbar was writing good poetry about the African-American experience. On the right, a society-page item about the woman who would give birth to Langston Hughes in a few years.
After a false start back in the winter, I finally toured the Amazon Spheres over the weekend. From the outside, the balls look enormous. From the inside, they strike you as much smaller — though it must be said that architects successfully built a lot of surprising nooks and crannies into the building's layout.
When you walk into the Spheres, you see an enormous wall of ferns and ivies and other plants, with nozzles spraying mist intermittently around the building. Follow the stairs up and you'll find a number of places for Amazon employees to sit and work: some couches, a crow's nest, a conference room, some café-style seating around a General Porpoise outlet selling doughnuts for just over four bucks a pop. On the very top of the center ball, you'll find a lounge with deck chairs, on which employees can lounge in the sun and peck away on their laptops.
I'm not very conversant in plants, but I know an expensive specimen when I see it. The lush greenery in the Spheres is gorgeous, and you could very well lose a few hours walking around, breathing in the richly oxegynated air and gazing at all the greens and pinks and yellows. These plants are well cared for.
As I walked around the Spheres with the general public on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I just kept thinking about how expensive everything was — how much it must have cost to build the damn things in the first place, how much all the plants cost, and how high the monthly bill must be to maintain them in such an unnatural environment. I thought about how inflated the costs at the employee snack bars were, and what percentage of those high prices floated back to Amazon.
And then I thought about how hard Amazon fought against the employee head tax, which would have raised funds to house Seattle's rapidly growing homeless population. While it's true that Amazon has contributed to Mary's Place, an amazing local charity that does good work in a city wracked with a housing crisis, it's also true that charitable giving alone isn't enough.
A problem like Seattle's housing crisis, with so many moving parts and so many difficult decisions to make, demands solutions that come from outside both the market and charity sectors. Amazon didn't just say no to that tax — it actively fought against it, a remarkable statement from a company that has traditionally refrained from making controversial public statements of almost any kind.
Look around the Spheres and you'll see what Amazon would rather spend its money on. Something beautiful, for sure, but something incredibly exclusive. Something flashy, something that everyone desires. A status symbol. A place in the middle of a booming city, built on some of the most expensive land on the west coast. A large building in which nobody lives.
Seattle-area lit mag Word Lit Zine editor-in-chief Jekeva Phillips had this to say about her relationship with Junot Diaz, who has been accused of sexual assault: "As fans we fall in love with the work—a book, tv show, character, an album— and because we feel so close to that work we transfer those feelings to its creator. When that creator fucks up, he/she takes away that joy for the fans."
Yesterday, the Boston Review, which employs Diaz as a fiction editor, decided to stand by their man:
We support the New Yorker staff union. If you agree, and if you subscribe to the New Yorker, you should definitely send a little card or email to let the magazine know about your support of the union. Magazines simply can't afford to take their subscribers' wishes lightly these days.
Amazon-owned Comixology, which was previously a storefront for e-comics, recently announced they were going to publish their own original comics, thereby competing with traditional comics companies. The Beat looks into what this means for the comics industry.. And Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds published a Twitter thread this week talking about his concerns.
If I had any advice for comics shops and comics publishers, it'd be this: don't ever trust Amazon. Don't let your guard down for a second. They will get as close to you as possible and they will stab you right in between the ribs. Expect them to try to fuck you over in brilliant and inventive ways. That's literally their business model. If you believe I'm being hyperbolic, I urge you to look at their entire history to date.
That said, the Amazon-produced 11-episode adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad is going to be entirely directed by Moonlight's Barry Jenkins and it's probably going to be amazing.
Congratulations to the winners of this year's Lambda Literary Awards, including Roxane Gay and Emil Ferris!
This hedge fund is trying to break into literature by "tak[ing] what we know about hedge fund management and apply[ing] it to literature and the creation of a new generation of best-selling novelists." Gross!
Here's a friendly reminder that the Seattle City of Literature party is happening tonight at the downtown library. If you're not sure why this is a big deal, Brangien Davis, the arts and culture writer at Crosscut, interviewed me about why I believe Seattle's UNESCO Creative Cities status is so important.
Vladimir Verano, who created the Third Place Press shingle at Third Place Books, has struck out on his own. His new design and consulting firm, VertVolta Design & Press, will work with authors to create self-published books of professional quality. Send him an email for more information.
As per annual tradition, Bill Gates has released his top 5 books for summer reading. In this hugely overproduced video, Gates says he admires Abraham Lincoln "and the tough things he faced." I kid, but the books he selects are all pretty good:
.@BillGates I see you just released your summer reading list. The new book I co-edited, "Teaching for Black Lives" wasn't on there. Given that your policies of over-testing & privatizing have negatively impacted Black students, please add it to the list. https://t.co/jGpLdAIsDc pic.twitter.com/KgvUxq4uo4— Jesse Hagopian (@JessedHagopian) May 21, 2018
Samantha Cole writes at Motherboard:
In the last few days, word has spread among independent erotica authors on social media that Amazon was quietly changing its policies for erotic novels. Five authors I spoke to, and several more on social media, have reported that their books were stripped of their best seller rankings—essentially hiding them from casual browsing on the site, and separating them from more mainstream, safe-for-work titles.
Coincidentally, serial-fiction app Radish has also just eliminated all erotica from its digital shelves. Nate Hoffelder at the Digital Reader writes:
According to Andrew Shaffer and a number of other people on Twitter, Radish has sent an email to writers who sell stories in the app that is changing its content policy. In order to comply with Apple's content policy for the iTunes app store, Radish is removing all erotica from its app.
You know who still has erotica available for you to buy? Your local independent bookstore.
After a terrible holiday season, Lauren Thomas and Lauren Hirsch report for CNBC, Barnes & Noble without warning laid off an unspecified number of employees on Monday morning.
Barnes & Noble is trimming its staff, laying off lead cashiers, digital leads and other experienced workers in a company-wide clearing, CNBC has learned from sources familiar with the matter...The number of affected workers couldn't immediately be determined. As of April 29 of last year, Barnes & Noble employed about 26,000 people.
The smart thing for Barnes & Noble to do would be to give its employees more control over its stock, to make each store a unique neighborhood hub with plenty of local character, and to create welcoming spaces staffed by well-read employees. Of course, the company will likely do the exact opposite: more corporate control over stores, cost-cutting measures that make the stores feel even more empty, and fewer staff around to make personalized recommendations and to create local flavor.
I worked at Borders as it started its slow, sad corporate decline — you can read my account of that here — and from the outside, this Barnes & Noble news looks very familiar to me. There's always some possibility that Barnes & Noble might be saved, but I wouldn't bet money on it.
It's time for the publishing industry to start figuring out how to thrive without a Barnes & Noble in every corner of the nation. Right now, losing B&N would be disastrous for publishing and for American literature in general; it would move all the power to Amazon, and it would close the only bookstore in many rural communities around the country. If I were one of the big publishers, I would start organizing with independent bookstores — right now — to figure out a way forward together.
Is Amazon very good or very bad at naming things? It's honestly hard to tell. Why would any company choose to promote a line of e-reading devices with fire-themed names, for instance? Most businesses would balk at the idea of even hinting at book-burning in their book-related products, but Amazon led with the Kindle and then doubled-down on the concept with its Fire family of tablets. Naming their personal-assistant line of speakers the Echo, too, seems a little cute — what is an echo but a hollow and fading repetition of ourselves?
But Amazon has sold hundreds of thousands of those devices, and so by the only arbiter that matters to Amazon — that of the market — the names must be considered a success. The problem with this thinking, of course, is that markets can only ignorantly choose winners or losers in the moment. There's no nuance to a market. If you make a mistake, but that mistake is rewarded with profits, you'll keep on making that same mistake until something catastrophic happens.
Earlier this week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unveiled the Spheres to the world. Located at the corner of 6th and Lenora downtown, Amazon's Spheres are a cross between a biodome and a corporate conference room. They're supposedly a place for Amazon employees to work in a pleasant natural environment. The Spheres have already become a symbol of Amazon's domination of downtown Seattle, and local media went positively berserk when Bezos took the press on a tour of the constructs.
Now, Amazon has opened up a public-facing section of the Spheres, and they've given it one of their trademark curious names: The Spheres Discovery at Understory. On Tuesday, Understory opened to members of the public who had the foresight to make reservations in advance online.
When walking into the Understory at the base of the Spheres, visitors are greeted by enthusiastic young people in bright Amazon polo shirts. They scan tickets and usher people inside with the barely restrained zeal of Scientologists. The first thing you'll see in the Understory is a wide array of video screens showing some of the plant life in the Spheres. One of the Amazon employees directs a tourist to stand in a colorful spotlight in front of a video screen. While standing in the spotlight, a narration to the video screens is audible — it sounds as though a tour guide is standing directly behind you, whispering information into your ear. Step an inch out of the spotlight and the voice is gone. Step back into the spotlight and she's there again.
In a room to the right of the video screens, visitors will find samples of plants that can be found in the Spheres above, including a particularly robust orchid. In a room to the left of the video screens, visitors huddle around some signage giving an ebullient explanation of the purpose that the Spheres serve in Amazon's corporate culture.
In this room, you'll see some testaments to Amazon's charitable giving. (Amazon gives much less than other corporate giants in the region, of course, but you won't learn that fact here.) Perhaps the most bizarre touch in this room is a spray of plastic bananas intended to promote Amazon's Community Banana Stand, which hands out free bananas in South Lake Union during the week. The bananas are obviously synthetic — they practically glow — and next to all the testaments of the Sphere's natural beauty they feel decidedly off-brand.
After exploring the three rooms, visitors are likely to start looking around for a way to climb up into the Spheres and explore the terrariums. That's when they'll realize the limits of the Understory. One tourist asks an Amazon employee whether the tour extends up into the Spheres. "No," the employee says. "They're actually working up there, so we can't interrupt them. You need a badge to get up there." The tourist nods, and then wanders over to the video screens to take a picture of a video tour of the inside of the Spheres. That's as close as he's going to get to the Edenic garden promised from the outside of the Spheres: a picture of a picture on a screen.
So. What is an Understory? It's basically the carpet of the forest, that spongy layer of green that absorbs and distributes water for everything else. But Amazon loves names with multiple, even contradictory meanings. It could be a fancy way of saying "basement," after all, and the Understory visitor center is the Sphere's cellar, basically. But "understory" also sounds like the parts of a story that a narrative doesn't explore: the innocent bystanders of fiction, the passersby who walk onto the page, say one line, and are gone. The soldiers who die messily in the background while the protagonists bask in glory. The screaming woman falling from a building who is saved at the last minute by Superman before she's desposited safely on the ground to wander into obscurity again. The understory is everywhere that the narrator doesn't direct our attention.
The reality of the Spheres is that if you have an Amazon badge, you're allowed into the story of the corporation. You get to hang out in treehouses and write code surrounded by exotic plants. If you don't have an Amazon badge, you're cast into the Understory. You wander around a rinky-dink museum with one exhibit that enthuses about what it's like to be allowed into the world above. You crane your neck and peer at the ceiling, and you wonder what it's like up there, in what you're told is the only story that really matters in Seattle right now. And then you'll realize you're never getting up there. And so you return, dissatisfied, to your story — to the understory.
Once you leave the Understory, you'll probably wander around the Spheres, trying to look inside. You'll walk by the tiny dog park, and by all the people bustling around with orange Amazon Go tote bags. You'll walk in that direction for a half-block, and you'll walk by the long line of people who are waiting in line to get into a cashierless convenience store that's plastered with signs promising you'll never have to wait in line again. None of it will make sense to you, but you'll just shrug and keep walking away from the Spheres. It's okay that it doesn't make sense to you. It's not your story.
Holy cow: Amazon announced yesterday that they're adapting Seattle author Neal Stephenson's sci-fi classic Snow Crash into a TV series. And they also announced that they're adapting Portland comics writer Greg Rucka's comic with artist Michael Lark, the dystopian bioengineering epic Lazarus, as a series, too. And they also announced that they're adapting Larry Niven's Ringworld series into a TV series. I can't say that I think Snow Crash should be a series — I don't even know if it would be an effective movie; I think it's better left as a novel that was ahead of its time when it was published — but the other two are ripe for serialized storytelling. As much as I hate to admit it, I think Amazon's television arm is really on to something here.
Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is a must-read book of the fall season. Subtitled The Existential Threat of Big Tech, World is a full-frontal assault on the fallacious idea that the big four tech companies that shape our world — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple — are benevolent firms that have the advancement of humanity in mind.
Foer smartly couches his polemic in memoir, relaying his experiences as a beloved editor of the New Republic. When the storied magazine was bought by a tech gadfly, its century-old dedication to the art of journalism and thoughtful opinion was discarded in favor of click-hungry content farming. Foer was fired, and the majority of his staff left with him in solidarity.
A lesser writer could seem like an aggrieved party in World, and Foer certainly does acknowledge that his pride was wounded in the aftermath of the New Republic’s Silicon Valley-styled meltdown. But instead he makes a compelling case for considered, intellectual thought in the public sphere, even as he rages against the slick digital robber barons who have consumed our attention in exchange for a few baubles of convenience.
Foer reads from World at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, September 27th at 7 pm. The event is free; no purchase is necessary. I hope you'll go hear him out. You’ll likely think a little differently about the urgings of the vibrating hunk of glass and steel in your pocket after the event.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone conversation I had with Foer last week.
I assume you heard the news that Amazon recently announced that they're looking to found a second separate-but-equal headquarters in another city?
Now we're watching cities bow and scrape in the hopes of bringing Amazon to them. Tucson just sent a giant cactus to Amazon management, like some sort of a weird dowry or something. I was wondering if you had any advice for cities that might be trying to entice Amazon to set up in their city?
Let's just look at Amazon's track record when it comes to exploiting civil government. Part of its business model has been to fleece local municipalities — with its refusal to pay sales tax over time, or all the concessions that it extracts when it goes about setting a warehouse down.
I think the right metaphor is the sports stadiums that get built in cities, where owners come in and exploit civic pride and sense of civic purpose in order to get these fantastical deals for themselves, where cities empty their coffers in order to build these monumental facilities that teams then make money off of.
I just think it's sad. And part of the sadness is that we can see where this is going over the long run, which is that Amazon may bring jobs in the short term, but they really don't want those jobs over the long run. In the long run, when Amazon puts down a warehouse, it's going to automate it, so there are not going to be workers.
I wonder whether these cities are doing anything to remotely try to calculate the long-term economic benefit for themselves. I doubt it.
One of the things that I thought was especially interesting in this book was the writing about media, especially the parts that focused on your own experience. I left a publication soon after management installed [analytics software] Chartbeat because they devalued arts coverage after they learned that it wasn't as popular as they had assumed it was.
I've done a lot of thinking since then that maybe the original sin for the marriage between media and the internet was the decision by Google founders that a click on an ad was only worth a fraction of a cent. It's a system that doesn't allow for the fact that some clicks could be worth more to some advertisers than to others. It's very rigid. Do you think there's a way to change that discussion — to revalue the importance of writing as valued by advertising — or is the advertising model basically dead for media?
My sense is that the advertising model is kind of dead in the short term. I fundamentally agree with you that Google has deflated the advertising market as it exists now beyond any reasonable significance to media companies. We need to move on to something different.
My preference is to move to a subscription model, but I also think that it's possible that there's some form of advertising that hasn't been invented yet that could be more valuable than display advertising, and less corrupting than the native advertising that we've seen people moving towards over time. But I'm not smart enough to know what that is.
Do you think anyone's getting close to it? Do you see anybody doing things that you like?
What I like is the resurgence of subscription models. I like that the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be selling subscriptions in some volume, re-acclimating people to the idea of having to pay for what they read.
But I also think that the subscription model as it exists now for digital journalism isn’t valuable on its own because the prices are set far too low. We're kind of in this place where everything has been deflated. The value of digital advertising has been deflated, the value of digital subscriptions has been deflated, and it's hard to see where exactly the fast-forward is.
One thing that I do think -
Sorry that I don't have the cheerful, optimistic solution for you.
It's okay. Nobody has those solutions, that's the thing. That's why it's important to keep thinking about it. But one thing that I do think the internet has done really well — and I don't know if it gets a lot of credit from people in the media on this — is to provide a platform for people who have never before had voices in the media.
I find it really difficult to argue for a return to the old gatekeeper model when there's now more representation in culture than ever before. Is there a way to reclaim institutional thought and consideration while still maintaining the representational progress we've seen in the last 10 years?
Yeah. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me. I think that institutional journalism has responded to the internet, and also a shift in times, by being much more representative. I think that when it comes to a lot of these questions about new technology and old media, it's easy to slip into Manichean thought. The choice isn't between going back to the old media of the 1980s — which was stodgy, excessively white male, etc. — versus the status quo. I think we have the ability to do better on all fronts. I don't think that we need to abandon all the good aspects of change in order to respond to the bad aspects of change.
As you were collecting ideas for this book, where did you draw the line between reality and conspiracy theory, and between apathy and malevolence in the intent of these companies? It's very easy for me to get too wrapped up in this sort of good guy/bad guy paradigm, when the truth of their intent is much more complex. Is this something you've had to think about as you’ve put this book together? This is kind of a vague question and I'm very sorry — can you retrieve anything of value out of that?
I think you're saying that it's possible to look at what the tech companies do and come to the conclusion that they're highly malevolent, when in fact they may have a lot of ideas that could be caricatured as malevolent, but in fact are relatively benign. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah. That's a good, solid place to start for sure.
I would say that what makes these companies interesting is that they're idealistic and ambitious. I think one does need to take seriously their own self-description. I think that we need to treat them as not just money-making corporations, but treat them also as companies that have ambitions to change the world. Sometimes they're self-justifying ambitions. I think that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg does a lot of self-justifying, but in other instances I think that they're perfectly sincere in describing how they want to change the world.
[Calling it] a conspiracy makes it sound like people are sitting in a back room somewhere in Palo Alto devising a hidden plan. My point is that the plan isn't actually very hidden. I think that a lot of times these companies, for the most part, are very naked in describing what they're up to, so I don't really think it takes a whole lot of reading to go to the place I go when I'm describing them.
Do you worry when you put this book out that there's a chance that you might be pigeonholed in the role of the curmudgeon — like, CNN will call you to fill out a panel whenever they need someone to just complain about Big Tech?
Yeah, I've clearly cast myself as grandpa. I don't understand why that's a worry. Am I worried that I'm a token, is that what you’re asking?
The media tends to find value in people who say “no,” but they value them only if they say “no” in the same way again and again. I wonder if there's a possibility of you being typecast as the man who said “no.”
I feel like I'm just writing my opinion. Really I wasn't thinking about being on a CNN panel when I was writing about this book. I want my argument to be heard, so I'd probably go on a CNN panel, but really I live to write books and arguments, not to be on CNN panels, so that's what I think about most.
Do I worry about getting typecast as a curmudgeon? If that's your question, I clearly don't really worry about that because I wrote a book that can easily be described as curmudgeonly.
What has the response been like at your events? Is there anything that you think that people can expect coming out to your reading in Seattle?
One of the interesting things in the moment that we've arrived at is there's this concept that's become cliché in describing our politics, which is this concept of the Overton Window, which is when the discourse expands to include ideas that resided outside of the mainstream.
When I started working on this book, I felt like people looked at me weirdly, and they couldn't understand why I was going to be criticizing these companies in technology that people have so much affection for.
Over the last couple months, I happened to make an argument that lined up with a shift in thinking. In large part, I think the election started to change people's minds about Facebook, and then Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods elicited a lot of anxiety about Amazon's size, and etc.
One of the fascinating things is that there are a lot of people who I thought would hate my argument. I've just been surprised at the people who are either centrist or in finance — or even in Silicon Valley — who seem sympathetic to my argument. It feels like I thought I was going to be throwing a stone at the Overton Window, but instead, it feels like I'm just climbing through the Overton Window just as it's opening.
Regarding yesterday's news that Amazon is looking to build an "equal" headquarters in some other North American city than Seattle: I was a bookseller for twelve years, first at a chain that Amazon destroyed and then at an independent bookseller. I have learned through painful experience never to trust Amazon. Yes, it's probably true that Amazon will soon be too big for Seattle alone. But if you think Amazon isn't going to use this opportunity to pit one "headquarters" city against another in a race to the bottom, you're mistaken. They will gladly take Seattle's future hostage in exchange for a shiny new tax cut. I have learned from experience that Amazon will do whatever it takes to come out on top.
Speaking of chain bookstores, there's no good news coming out of Barnes & Noble these days — particularly in the ebooks division:
Total company [first quarter] revenues fell 6.6% to $853 million, while Nook revenues fell 28.1%, to $29.5 million. That is literally the lowest Nook revenues ever recorded.
So that book written by Hillary Clinton's pastor has just been pulled from shelves due to rampant plagiarism.
Big changes at Vanity Fair, as editor Graydon Carter is retiring. Here is where I'd ordinarily say this is a great opportunity for an enterprising young editor to make her mark and reimagine the glossy magazine for a new generation, but come on. We all know that's not going to happen. It's been sad watching Vanity Fair shrink to anemic sizes; that last Hollywood issue was a shadow of years past.
...a few thoughts that weren't necessarily pertinent to today's Lunch Date column that I still wanted to collect:
It's now clear that Amazon Books, the brick-and-mortar bookstore Amazon built in University Village, was the trial run for Amazon buying some national retailer like Whole Foods. They wanted to get a handle on signage and displays and all the other practical elements of physical retailing before buying into a real-world sales environment.
The signage in Whole Foods now definitely resembles the signage at Amazon Books. It's not as enthusiastic as the signage you'll find in other grocery stores, and that makes it interesting. It may only be a matter of time before we see signs over displays of turnips referring to customer data, the way Amazon Books proudly displays bestseller ranks on their marketing materials.
Like the Amazon site, there are sales that follow you around the store at Whole Foods. Last weekend, for instance, all Kleen Kanteen water bottles were 50 percent off. As you walked around the store, you'd encounter signs for Kleen Kanteen displays, directing you to different places. Clearly, the Kleen Kanteen deal was a loss-leader — something ridiculously attractive to draw you inside the space and keep you hunting around. Amazon is most definitely applying their online sales philosophy to the physical spaces. And I bet it works really well.
We're very likely to see some widescale experimentation in the grocery space, and I bet every other grocery chain is sending employees into nearby Whole Foods to keep an eye on them. Expect to see every chain — not just the high-end grocery stores — start to emulate Whole Foods.
I think the next thing we'll see from the big chain stores is an attempt to shake off their unionized employees, claiming that the cost of competing with Amazon is too high to pay union wages. (Amazon was probably interested in Whole Foods in part because they're not unionized.) If unions know what's good for them, they'll argue that it's their expertise and customer service that's keeping non-Amazon grocery stores afloat. Amazon isn't interested in the Whole Foods workforce; they've demonstrated in the way they treat warehouse pickers that they believe ground-level employees are disposable chattel. Grocery stores should respond to the threat of Whole Food by paying their employees more, not less, and making sure their employees are better at their jobs than Whole Foods employees.
I would advise other grocery stores to keep the bookstore model in mind. The bookstores that are still around after Amazon are around because they're very good at what they do: they're attractive and interesting places to visit, and they provide experiences that Amazon can never duplicate. Put it this way: Amazon isn't going to put PCC and other quality region-specific retailers out of business, the same way Amazon couldn't put Elliott Bay Book Company out of business. But Safeway and QFC and other large chains, if they try to out-cheap Amazon by cutting corners on labor and variety, are very likely to go the way of Borders and Books-a-Million.
Do not doubt that this is war. Amazon doesn't get into a space unless they plan to dominate that space. Sometimes they make mistakes. (See the Fire Phone for the best example of an Amazon failure.) Most times, they don't.
Now that former White House senior advisor Steve Bannon is back in charge of hyperconservative news outlet Breitbart, it's vitally important to note that Amazon is one of the last remaining mainstream advertisers on Breitbart.
.@amazon Please stop advertising on Breitbart— Andy Richter (@AndyRichter) August 19, 2017
The organization Sleeping Giants has been on a crusade to convince Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart. They responded to comedian Andy Richter's tweet above with an update on their crusade:
Think about that. More than 2,500 advertisers have realized that posting on Breitbart is bad for business. They've made the moral decision to stop advertising there. Amazon, after months of consumer advocacy from Sleeping Giants, still advertises on the site.
What will it take for Amazon to stop giving Steve Bannon money? What if you sent them an email? What if you canceled your Amazon account and told them that you decided that you could no longer be complicit in advancing a white supremacist agenda? Maybe your voice will be the one that tips Amazon over onto the right side of history.
It's vital to stop Steve Bannon from advancing his white supremacist agenda. Amazon is one of the last major mainstream funders of that agenda. They must stop advertising on Breitbart.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I work at a large independent bookstore. I love my job, but my manager is getting on my nerves — specifically, his tendency to smack-talk Amazon to customers. He’s always launching into lectures about why shopping at Amazon is a bad idea, how they don’t support the community, and stuff like that.
I agree with him! Amazon is bad. But he brings up Amazon a lot. Like, a lot. I know he thinks he’s educating customers, but he sounds like a scold, and kind of a bore.
I’m pretty new at bookselling, but it seems to me that people aren’t going to shop at indies out of guilt. They’re going to do it because they like indies better. And if we lecture them all the time about the “Evil Empire” or whatever, that’s just going to scare them away.
But I’m not really comfortable with lecturing my manager about lecturing customers. Can you think of a way to help me realize that he’s being counterproductive?
You're right – people don't shop at indie bookstores for bitter lectures from staff on what their competitors are doing. You know this, your customers know this, your boss apparently does not.
But I empathize with your boss's Ahab-esque obsession. One of my favorite northwest pastimes used to be lecturing conservative hunters about how safe access to abortion is a fundamental human right. I firmly believed that everyone would agree with me if they just first gave me three hours of their undivided attention, preferably somewhere festively claustrophobic, like the bathroom hallway at a house party.
It's easy to fall into the habit of such selfish soapbox lectures. Everyone loves agreeing with themselves and in these instances your audience is held resentfully captive because they want to buy a book from you or still hold out a vague hope that eventually you'll grow tired of talking and fuck them, and then spend endless mornings making them elk-steak breakfasts until the race wars begin, at which point they might have to hunt you for sport because your name sounds suspiciously ethnic.
I was lecturing one such hunter about abortion and he interrupted me with, "You want to kill babies, get out there and sterilize all those wild horses ruining our public lands. That's the kind of killing I can get behind." And I thought to myself, "This man is an unfuckable genius."
What do northwest rural conservatives dislike more than abortion? Wild horses and wolves. Which is why, just this week I trademarked the names "PlannedParenthoof" and "PlannedParentwoof" and began the process of marketing myself as the northwest's first wild horse and wolf abortionist.
But back to your issue: obviously, your situation is complicated by the power dynamic between yourself and your manager. If your manager is a mostly reasonable person, try approaching him the next time you hear him mention Amazon to a customer and either start screaming something simple like, "ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!" or "I think we'd make more headway with our customers if we thanked them and praised them for shopping with us and left our competitors out of the conversation." If you're uncomfortable with this upfront tactic, you can talk to your manager's boss or write an letter from a "customer" that delicately highlights your manager's Amazon obsession.
To be clear: your boss is not likely to get over his obsession. The key is to find a way to redirect his dour lectures into positive, productive interactions with customers, much like PlannedParenthoof/woof will undoubtedly do for anti-abortionists living in rural communities.