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Melville House spears its “predatory” white whale —

November 1, 2010

Dennis Loy Johnson with partner Valerie Merians.

Dennis Loy Johnson doesn’t mince words in announcing that Melville House will boycott the Best Translated Book Award now that Amazon is a sponsor: “Taking money from Amazon is akin to medical researchers who take money from cigarette companies.”

The boycott is important because Melville House, founded by Johnson and wife Valerie Merians in 2001,  published the most recent winner of the fiction prize, The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu.

Melville House publishes some 20 translated titles a year — “that’s more,” notes Johnson, “than Knopf or FSG.”

Johnson praised the two-year old prize, administered by the University of Rochester, as “a good thing” for small publishers trying to produce good books in “a market and culture made difficult in many ways by the predatory and thuggish practices of”

“So we were saddened — and puzzled — by the surprise announcement last week that the award would now be underwritten by none other than,” Johnson wrote at his blog, MobyLives.

Amazon has ponied up $25,000 for administrative costs plus $5,000 prizes for the authors and translators of winning titles. Chad Post, director of Open Letter Books, the university’s publishing house, says the the cash prize will “greatly enhance the reputation and reach of the award.”

Johnson, however, goes beyond name calling, providing numerous links to examples of Amazon thuggery and predation, including examples of the giant e-tailer bullying readers, publishers, bookstores, and many more.

He might have included today’s item from Publishers Weekly, showing how Amazon manipulates sales figures to make it look like e-books are much more popular than printed books, when the opposite remains the case.

“Amazon’s skill at crafting catchy headlines detailing its strong e-book sales is one of the chief things contributing to an impression that the e-book market is bigger than it actually is,” PW observes.

Taking Amazon’s list of hottest titles and then asking publishers for sales figures, PW discovered that print books outsell digital versions by a large margin — 67 percent print to 33 percent digital in the case of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

That’s not to say digital books aren’t a growing and important part of the market, but they are nowhere near to taking it over. Nor does it seem inevitable, as Amazon would have us believe, that they ever will. E-books, PW reports,  account for only 10-15 percent of publishers’ revenue.

Of course, Amazon has a huge stake in promoting the narrative of e-book inevitability. If most readers ever do convert to digital books, then Amazon will gain a stranglehold on books, publishing and literature. Bookstores will disappear, and maybe publishers, too. (“Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Jeff Bezos sound effect).

In subsequent remarks, Johnson has made it clear that Melville House translators or authors are not barred from nominating their work for the translation prize. But it would do “our authors more harm than good” if the publisher participated in the process.

“The point is, it’s clear to us that Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical,” Johnson says.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 1, 2010 3:22 pm

    What would happen if all the computers stopped? I bet the upcoming generation would not even be able to find the library (or know what one is).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 1, 2010 10:41 pm

      All it would take is a good big electronic pulse bomb to wipe out the databases. Just think, if all the books were digital.

  2. November 1, 2010 9:05 pm

    History repeating itself: David takes on Goliath again. And again. Only this time I’m sorry to say that Melville has no chance other than to make a moral/ethical statement. I wish them well. The Kindle thing may catch on and pass hardcopy sales as the generations wax and wane, but that cold plastic glaring eye-straining tool of now & the future will never find its way into my house. I just bought a copy of the most recent translation of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO & and running my hands over it & thumbing the pages gives me a psychological erection. The smell of the print & paper is as arousing as the breath of my lover. When an ebook can do as much I’ll surrender.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 1, 2010 10:43 pm

      I don’t care how they doll up the Kindle or the iPad or the Nooky or whatever, it’s still a screen, and screens make people stupid. I’ll write about this soon, too. Unless I get distracted.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        November 1, 2010 10:59 pm

        I do love it, though, when someone like Johnson speaks truth to power. Without the clarity of courage and the courage of clarity, everything is hopeless. I’ve been slagging Amazon since the beginning of this blog. It’s refreshing — in the purest sense of the word — when someone of Johnson’s stature does it, too.

  3. November 2, 2010 11:10 am

    Boy oh boy.

    As a new owner of a Kindle, I have mixed feelings. I bought the thing for a four-week vacation France and knew I would not be anywhere near an English-language bookstore. I refuse to apologize for not wanting to tote six paperbacks and the hardcover of Pete Dexter’s latest.

    I was convinced I would hate it. I didn’t. The quality of the storytelling trumped the mechanics of delivery. I still prefer the real thing but I acknowledge the usefulness of the reader. I had lunch with my French editor/translator who confessed he, too, is being slowly converted, esp because of the sheer volume of books he has to read to keep up. And when he raved about an obscure mystery by a South African author, with two clicks I was able to start reading it that afternoon.

    There’s a lot to be said for the availability the Kindle provides. With bookstore shelf space bought and paid for in the nefarious symbiotic practice of co-op advertising, and exposure in decline to all but the megaselling authors, I like knowing I can access a quirky book of quality “out of the ether” and discover a new author.

    Then there’s an even more selfish reason — professional survival. Today, I got an email from a reader in Perth Australia who wanted to know where she could find my backlist. I had to send her to Then there was the woman in Cadillac Michigan, whose bookstore just closed down, and the guy who needed a large-print edition. Had to hold my nose and tell them “you can get it at Amazon.”

    My bottom line: I love books but as a reader, I want access to ALL books, not just the ones some book-buyer at Wal-Mart deems appropriate to her politics. And as an author, I want readers to find ALL my books, not just the ones publishers and Barnes & Noble suits have deemed profitable enough to keep in stock.

    But don’t get me started…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 2, 2010 11:17 am

      My antipathy to digital readers is boundless, but I admit you make some cogent arguments in their favor. However, this column is not against digital readers per se, but in particular. Amazon is not the only Internet bookstore. Indeed, you can even order books on the web from traditional independents like Books & Books or Powell’s. Nor is Amazon the only place to buy e-books. But it wants to be, which is why it is evil and must be resisted to the greatest extent possible. But I’m not so pure that I would not buy an item from Amazon if it were not available elsewhere.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

  4. Holey Cow permalink
    December 13, 2010 1:51 pm

    A wee bit off topic but still pertaining to possible Amazon thuggery and deck stacking: Have observed them make disappear without a trace all 1 star reviews (and comments on those reviews) on a book I also had reviewed. All of the critical reviews coincided on what was objectionable about the book.

    Now, whether this came as a result of an honest “clerical error” or in response to being leaned on (incentivized) by the publisher (one of the largest in the world) or their own effort to keep a turd polished to maintain sales makes no difference. The result is that this sort of thing renders the whole customer review a sham. And, runs counter to Amazon’s claim that ” We welcome your honest opinion about the product–positive or negative. We do not remove reviews because they are critical.”

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