Amazon Author Blogs

I suppose the move was inevitable, but Amazon has started hosting author blogs. The highest profile name on the list is Meg Wolitzer, whose posts can be found here. But I can’t buy into the ethics of a retailer pushing a blog while simultaneously encouarging people to buy things. Whatever the merits of Wolitzer’s posts, however much she feels that “Anything that can get fiction on people’s radar is good,” I get the unsettling aura of Shirley Maclaine talking with the dead during an infomercial.

Even the language of Wolitzer’s posts sounds as if it’s been lifted from a sleep-inducing MBA seminar. One reads, “I feel that writers need to remind readers why they ought to read novels. Fiction writers need to put the truth about the world into their books. Actually, in some sense, they need to put the world into their books.”

If we switch “readers” with “consumers,” “writers” with “corporations” and books with “Coca-Cola,” we get the following entry: “I feel that corporations need to remind consumers why they ought to drink Coca-Cola. Corporations need to put the truth about the world into their products. Actualy, in some sense they need to put the world into their Coca-Cola.” We’re clearly leagues away from Paris Review-style insight.

Granted, it’s easy to argue that 90% of blogs are vapid. But even a lousy LiveJournal is written with a voice of integrity and authenticity, likely because the shady influence of advertising is far from the impetus.

I understand the need to market books, particularly given the oversaturated fiction market. But author websites seem to me a better way to do this. Not only do they serve as a reference point which is compatible with both buying the book (if desired) and finding out about an author, but in the case of such authors as Michelle Richmond, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and Jennifer Weiner, they become blossoming entities which emerge from their initial purpose, leading to impassioned discussions about plagiarism, race and the stigma against chick lit. But I doubt very highly that these conversations could have developed had these respective sites been hosted by Amazon (let alone any monolithic sponsor) because the concerns of offending the boys upstairs or attracting a broad readership tainted the posts.

And here’s a question someone should ask: does Amazon “place” blogs the same way that Barnes & Noble cuts deals with publishers for placement? Is there some clickthrough rate tied into whether or not Meg Wolitzer, for example, will get placement on the main page? When the overwhelming reason to blog is to move product, surely the motivation behind the posts will be moulded to ensure presence and survival.

In the end, I think the Amazon blog is going to hurt Wolitzer more than it’s going to help her. What could have been a way for readers to elicit honest feedback from Wolitzer has turned instead into one of those Gap Kids commercials. Initially, you’re dazzled by the performance. But as the initial allure wears off, you begin cluing into the fact that it’s a commercial (in this case, the realization that Wolitzer isn’t going to rock the boat, much less provide anything even slightly subversive). My guess is that Wolitzer will be communicating with the dead, blogwise at least. Sooner than she thinks.

[UPDATE: Galleycat's Ron Hogan challenges my assumption, suggesting, for example, that a Uzodinma Iweala essay (by comparison, a one-shot deal rather than a continuous commitment) appearing at Powell's might be reified as "too corporate." I should point out that, although Iweala's essay appears on a major retailer's site, at least Powell's has made more of an effort to distinguish its content from its marketing, confining all marketing links in rounded yellow boxes. In other words, we have a clear separation between marketing and editorial rather than Amazon's "anything goes" principle, with its links just under "Meg Wolitzer's Amazon Blog" going directly to "buy this book" links. Ron is misconstruing my argument. Again, as I pointed out above, I raise no objection to the need to sell books (in fact, while I'm not a fan of advertising, I nevertheless applaud Media Bistro for placing its advertisements in clearly delineated squares so as not to mislead readers). My concern here is over the blurring of marketing and editorial and the impact this is likely to have on worthwhile content (meaning that Wolitzer's blog is not so much about Wolitzer the author but Wolitzer the book merchant, for her books, without the pivotal distinction, are now contextualized as laundry detergent rather than as works of art). It is no less invalid an argument than the concerns raised earlier in the year over the Target-sponsored New Yorker or what's referred to in the MeFi world as Pepsi Blue. (See also this OJR article about ethical standards in the blogosphere.)]

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6 Comments

  1. Is there really much difference between an author blog hosted on Amazon and an author blog hosted at typepad? Particularly when blogs are available free everywhere, the threat of ‘offending the big boyds upstairs’ seems rather toothless.

  2. Beth: The difference is that Six Apart is not draped across a Typepad blog, nor are there various entreaties for the reader to buy a Typepad subscription or a Movable Type license. The conscious decision by Wolitzer, et al. to blog under the Amazon moniker thus suggests a blurring of the fine line between advertising and editorial.

  3. Plenty of bloggers place ads on their blogs, or sell items on CafePress, or use their blogs to advertise their books or other products (sometimes through Amazon Associates). I agree with Beth – until we see evidence that the Amazon blogs are actually toothless, it seems harsh to dismiss them simply for being backed by a commercial venture.

  4. Apologies for any possible misconstruction (is that the form? well, it is now) of your argument, although your effort to distinguish Wolitzer’s project from Iweala’s smacks to me more of Voltaire’s distinction between philosophers and perverts. And “no less invalid an argument than the concerns raised earlier in the year over the Target-sponsored New Yorker” is, to me, pretty invalid; I never quite accepted the big fuss about that issue then and I still don’t. The lines between the content and the ads seemed pretty obvious to me. It’s like suggesting Marty wasn’t a good television drama because it was part of “Goodyear Playhouse,” with the sponsor’s name right there in the title…YMMV, of course, and it doesn’t mean I don’t still love you.

    Unless the Amazon authors are getting paid, which I don’t believe is happening, this isn’t a “Pepsi Blue” scenario–heck, for that matter, since they’re already openly blogging on a commercial site, there’s no way it could be “Pepsi Blue,” which is all about covering your tracks. I don’t see any ethical dilemma here, since I don’t believe there needs to be so sharp a distinction between “Wolitzer the author” and “Wolitzer the book merchant.” (Or Scalzi, or whoever…) Unless you’re extremely lucky, or independently wealthy to begin with, if you’re an author, you’re a book merchant by default. I don’t want to invoke Johnson’s famous dictum, but it’s not entirely inappropriate.

    Basically, if you think Wolitzer’s blog is toothless, that’s a perfectly understandable (albeit debatable) opinion, but I don’t see that it necessarily extends to a full indictment of explicitly sponsored blogging.

  5. Ron: I believe the noun form is “misconstruing.” The word “misconstruction” seems to me as blasphemous as “irregardless.” But therein lies the rub, they very disagreement we’re having here: To what extent should one codify one’s writing, both in content and in context. And it seems to me that if one is to write with clean hands and composure, it is the author’s responsibility to ensure that the writing is an entirely separate entity from any advertising in place to support it. Writing may be a mercenary act, and indeed should be, but this doesn’t mean that one cannot take steps to ensure that it is devoid of product placement, that the content is reasonably separate from the advertising, and that the venue itself is not suspect or contrary to the interests that motivate an author’s voice. (Indeed, DFW’s “Consider the Lobster” essay, which appeared in Gourmet magazine, seems to me an interesting case of how a mesage, contrary to the periodical’s or the advertisers’ intent, can in fact remain intact and distinct and still allow the twain to remain unsullied.)

    Paddy Chayefsky certainly understood this. To use your example, did, for example, Rod Steiger hawk Goodyear tires to his mother during the course of the dramatic presentation? Of course not. There were natural pauses between drama and advertising, clear indicators to preserve the integrity of the production and the faithfulness of the message.

    The nice thing about blogs and the Web is that it is a low-cost form that empowers an author to maintain a certain credibility of voice. An author can, without too much effort, ensure that there is no conflict of interest between the thoughts she offers and the potential tainting (or perception of such) of the intent. If this seems like a trivial issue to you (and that is an impression I’m getting), then it’s clear to me that we have widely differing views of trust and ethics. For me, trust is far more important than any promotional visibility, yet I believe the two can co-exist in clearly delinated realms. Certainly that’s been the case for years already. What’s precisely wrong with that model? It seems too easy a betrayal to do otherwise. I think a little something of an artist dies when we see a prodigious talent like Orson Welles hawking Gallo wine or Meg Wolitzer intertextualizing with Amazon or even a so-called “talk show” or “news program” devoted to nothing less than unquestioning plugging and shameless sycophancy.

  6. Oh, I agree that a world where Orson Welles didn’t have to do commercials to pay the bills would probably be a better one, at least on the artistic level, than the current model. But while I don’t think this is a trivial issue, it would appear that we set the bar for trust quite differently. To pick one example: you criticize “Amazon’s ‘anything goes’ principle, with its links just under ‘Meg Wolitzer’s Amazon Blog’ going directly to ‘buy this book’ links.” But that’s no different, really, than the links to my book on my blog’s home page; the only reason I don’t link directly to a bookstore is to more tightly control the pitch. (Well, that and I can link to three bookstores.) For that matter, I’m constantly linking to books with their Powell’s links, as any number of bookbloggers do, within editorial content, and though there’s a notification of that affiliation somewhere on the site, it doesn’t accompany EVERY instance of linkage. And yet my venue remains unsuspect in your eyes (at least I hope it does), even though the only substantial differences between my blog and Wolitzer’s are our host servers and the specific thrust of our opinions.

    Would it be nice if Wolitzer had her own blog on her own website? Sure. But maybe she doesn’t want to bother with the technical details, and if Amazon’s willing to host one for her, I don’t see any particular reason not to take the opportunity, because “what other people will think about it” doesn’t strike me as a nullifying consideration. She, and Scalzi, and all the other Amazon blogging authors, can’t control what everyone thinks of their actions, and if they fail to live up to some readers’ ideals, well, whose ideals should we set as the gold standard for acceptable blogging?

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