the-equalizer-bannerWriter and writing teacher Lorraine Berry has shared an article on LitHub with the telling title “How the Literary Class System is Impoverishing Literature.” She details the financial and other barriers that conspiring to exclude from American writing “the great American underclass, that perpetually poor group on the bottom tier of society that includes all races/genders/creeds.” But she exhibits attitudes that look to me like they might be part of the problem. And she completely misses one of the great potential levelers of the literary landscape: self-publishing in general, and in particular, Amazon.

Berry instances “the failure of [her] students to feed at the Golden Corral of publishing internships that is Manhattan” because many “never even bother to apply for an internship because there is just no financial way to swing it.” She also cites an editor speaking at a writing conference in Boston who stated that he always looked first for the MFA holders in his slushpile, “not because it guaranteed that the submitter would be a better writer, but because taking a year or two off out of one’s life to dedicate oneself to writing proved that one was serious as a writer.” Now, I and many others have written at length on the pernicious effect of the MFA industry on creative writing, and its creation of a subset of American writers quite often displaying more entitlement than talent. But then again, why is Berry assuming that editors are the gatekeepers and arbiters when it comes to getting published? Time was, maybe, that they were, but no more.

Berry’s article, written in December 2015, doesn’t mention self-publishing once. It doesn’t mention ebooks once. It doesn’t mention Amazon once. It doesn’t even mention online writing groups and forums of the type that gave rise to Fifty Shades of Grey. She seems to take it for granted that who gets into print, or gets a writing-related job, is still determined entirely by “who gets to forge the connections that help one find an agent, or get a job with a publishing house.” She also notes, of her students, that “it’s been drilled into their heads that real writers in America live in New York City, and that the only decent jobs, if you’re not heading to an MFA program, are to be found among the magazines and publishing houses, many of which are located in Manhattan.”

For the (very) traditional world of traditional publishing, which still seems to run to the script of a Wilt Stillman movie, she may well be right. But the latest AuthorEarnings report indicates that almost 45 percent of Amazon’s daily ebook sales are coming from single self-published authors, who presumably never had to find an agent, join an MFA program, or go anywhere near Manhattan.

Yes, there’s no question that ” by being more inclusive, we will increase the quality of our collective storytelling.” You only have to look at Jonathan Franzen to see what we’re lumbered with instead. But Bloom is not helping by ignoring, at least in her article, a whole alternative ecosystem that requires none of the privilege and passports to success she rails against – and is coining money for its beneficiaries hand over fist. That could help anyone out of the underclass – and give them a voice that America badly needs.


  1. The privilege absolutely drips from Lorraine Berry’s article: “…the great American underclass, that perpetually poor group on the bottom tier of society that includes all races/genders/creeds” (‘cos surely the top tiers could not include “all races/genders/creeds.” Perish the very thought.). And “…taking a year or two off out of one’s life to dedicate oneself to writing proved that one was serious as a writer…” Yes, let’s all serious writers just take a year or two off and see if starvation will grant us entry into the published elite, shall we? Could there possibly be another reason why more and more young writers don’t bloody their fists on the gates of Manhattan? Nah.

  2. The headline asks a question: “Writing for the underclass: Is Amazon the great enabler?”

    The answer an emphatic “No.” That’s not even debatable.

    I once knew a guy from the poor side of the Dupont family. He was just like most of us, but had cousins on a different branch of the family tree who’d inherit millions in trust fund money when they turned 21. He’d have a tough time making it as a writer. They wouldn’t. That unfairness is what this article is about.

    And that’s precisely why Amazon is not the “Great Enabler” for writers who don’t come from advantaged backgrounds. I’ve said this so many times, I feel like a scratched record, but here it is again. Just keep in mind that I also have my gripes with Apple.
    Apple pays 70% of retail at all ebook prices from $0.99 to $199.99 and charges no download fees. Contrast that with Amazon, whose FAQ about royalties muddles the water and confuses authors about how much it’ll pay them with the obvious intent of looking like it pays a well as Apple pays. Here’s the actual breakdown for Amazon by retail price for U.S. sales:

    $0.99 and $1.99—Amazon pays only 35% of retail. That means that for a introductory novel from a new author that’s priced at $1.99, the author will get about 70 cents while Amazon banks $1.30 for a transaction that costs it, at the most, a few pennies. Can you say “ripoff?”

    $2.99 to $9.99—Amazon claims to pay 70% but charges a grossly inflated download fee that three or more times what cellular companies charge for the most expensive data plans and ten time what Amazon charges those who use its own AWS. That typically means that per sale Amazon is only paying about 60-65% rather than the 70% it is claiming. Deceptive business practices anyone?

    $9.99 and above—Again, Amazon reverts to paying authors and publishers a mere 35% so those fat Amazon profits I describe at sub-$2.99 prices become very fat indeed. My own back-of-envelope calculations suggest Amazon’s profits from ebook sales run several thousand percent. Yes, Amazon does use some of that to subsidize ereader and tablet sales, but why should authors be expected to do that?

    Fiction writers who want to collect a multi-volume series into one $14.99 package certainly get screwed here. But the real losers are students. A nursing textbooks that must earn $20 to break even for its publisher must sell for over $57 on Amazon to break even. On the iBookstore, the publisher’s breakeven price is under $29. Keep in mine that Amazon claims about lower prices mean greater sales don’t apply to textbooks.

    Not only are authors getting cheated by Amazon, nursing student are paying, in this case, some $18 more than they should for their textbooks. That’s also why, if you try to sell your books cheaper elsewhere, Amazon’s lawyers may get very nasty with you even though the two varying prices earn you the same income. For any lawyers out there, that’s an abuse of market dominance that should be taken to court. Amazon, not the publishers, is also why digital textbooks are so expensive. Any reporters listening?
    In short, that’s why Amazon isn’t the Great Enabler for authors with limited incomes. The Great Cheater would be a better name for the company. If you simply want to vanity publish, by all means go with Amazon. They pay poorly, but they do reach more potential readers. But if you’re not from the rich side of the Dupont family and need to earn a living, Amazon isn’t your friend.

    It’s also why, as an author you should be doing your best to steer your readers to other retail platforms. Apple isn’t the only one who pays far better than Amazon. Every major ebook retailer I know about pays better than Amazon. Every reader you steer to a different retailer is money in the bank for you. Show some business sense.

    I certainly hope Amazon will change and pay authors market rates. But until they do, authors and readers should be taking their sales and purchasing to an ebook retailer who doesn’t pay authors as poorly as Scrooge paid his unfortunate clerk, Bob Cratchit.

  3. I think the great enabler is the internet. I love the way anyone can set up a blog and put out their point of view. Setting up a blog is very easy and it can even be done for free.

    If you want to narrow it down to writing a book, then Amazon is terrific. Mr. Perry is correct that Amazon may make a bit too much money from an authors’s work but at least Amazon allows an author to publish their work. Apple is way too restrictive and also takes a hefty chunk from any sales.

    The traditional publishers are described as gatekeepers and therefore, do not allow many works to go through their gates and if they do, they also take a large chunk of the revenue (for a very very long time).

  4. “. . . a subset of American writers quite often displaying more entitlement than talent.”

    Well said! This likely applies to the majority of American writers — including Michael W. Perry as well as an even greater majority of Canadian writers.

    As for me, I occasionally find myself criticizing Amazon. I then have to slap myself on the head and acknowledge that Amazon is one of the big reasons (there are other reasons) that I am successful as a self-published author. If writers want to be as successful as I have been (over 900,000 copies of my books sold worldwide), they should focus on the opportunity that Amazon provides and not on bad mouthing Amazon.

    Here is a passage from the soon-to-be released print edition of my inspirational fable “Look Ma, Life’s Easy (How Ordinary People Attain Extraordinary Success and Remarkable Prosperity)” that applies:

    “Forget about destiny.
    You don’t need destiny to soar to greater heights.
    You need to tune into higher frequencies.”

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