CONVERSATION GARDENING– I’M UP.
(authors note: this was ready to post last week, but then all things computer in my life went south, all at once. coincidence? well, yeah actually but it’s fun thinking it was The Invisible Hand Of Jeff Bezos)
so, there is all kinds of crazy shit going on in the world right now.
but, for the moment– this thing with Amazon.
it’s been ongoing for a while, but a bunch of it came to its most recent head this past year. my friend Anders Nilsen crafted this beautiful response, and called the project “Conversation Gardening”. i urge you to read the great little comic he did (part 1, part 2), explaining his viewpoint and reasoning behind the project. the concise explanation is this: Amazon is (and has been) attempting, through various means, to undermine and destroy the “conversation” of ideas between books (and the ideas contained in those books, as well as the creators of those ideas) and the people who read them.
so, in a very small way “Conversation Gardening” is about extending that conversation, rather than killing it like Amazon. in that spirit, he’s passing the idea along through other artists, and i’m happy and honored to take a turn, here.
it works like this:
1) you buy a book by me from me or a comic shop/ independent bookseller.
2) then you send me a piece of paper, in an envelope, with a question on it.
zak/ la mano
3) i draw my answer and we scan it and put it up so everyone can see it (thereby extending said conversation), then i send it back to you, and you get to keep it.
obviously, for me, there’s a 97% chance that you DID get it from me or a comic shop. only a couple of my books are available on Amazon. all my stuff (and a bunch of other fantastic artists’ work) is available at the La Mano site, if you feel like going there. and since i just put a new thing out, i’m extending this to the FIRST 15 I GET IN THE MAIL. if you already bought a Recidivist, that counts. if you’re buying one now, that counts as well. Eleanor Davis is doing this too at some point, and i wouldn’t blame you bit if you took her up on it, she’s an awesome lady and draws so good i want to cry.
and here’s the blog where Anders has been posting the drawings he’s been doing for this thing. we’ll post mine and presumably Eleanor’s too as we do them, just to keep them all in one spot.
that’s the short version. Again: i’m happy and proud to contribute to this. it’s been pissing me off for some time and Anders coming up with this deal provides a way to do something cool and positive in the way of a response. that’s it, you can stop there of you want.
but i’m going to keep going, here, because i want to add something to the conversation Anders started.
and what i want to add is this– this situation is not without its precedents, and its nuances. i’ve heard that there is a significant population of self-publishers who feel that Amazon has allowed them to make a living, and make it in a way that cuts out the middleman, i.e publishers (and the entire structure that goes along with it). and further, that this is a pretty revolutionary idea in terms of what “publishers” mean and represent: publishers as “gatekeepers”, and that this new model can put the writer’s art (and potential financial gain) in their own hands, rather than held within that NYC dominated literary culture; no one decides what “worthy” of being published or not– if you can build the readership, it’s worthy. and Amazon can provide a platform for that, with some authors.
if you’re reading this post, on MY blog, you probably know that there are parts of that argument that are very appealing to me.
but. there’s other parts that i seriously disagree with. there are publishers that i love and respect. lots and lots of them, actually. there are many, many bookstores that i love and respect.
maybe Amazon does facilitate a new openness and freedom on certain levels. that’s a good conversation to have, and i’m sure it’s true in some cases.
but what i know for certain, beyond that, is that Amazon as an entity behave like fuckheads, and the specific WAY they behave like fuckheads is, for me, What Is Wrong With The World.
and if you’re not in for the long haul, bail now, because this is where i’m not going to edit myself, on purpose.
for quite a while, i — like many people in the world– just accepted Amazon as “the way the world is going”, and their growing dominance of the sales of books/ replacement of the brick and mortar store as an unfortunate but natural result of “our digital age”. they were quick, easy and cheap. i love my bookstores, but realize most people don’t “love” them– they are just a place where you’ve got to go to buy books, by necessity. now that we have a way to facilitate that “transaction” without having to leave the comfort of your home, it stands to reason that many people are going to choose that option.
i will even say that for a while i thought “damn! this is so cheap! this is great!”.
and therein lies the problem. i slowly became aware of just how dominant they must be… they were undercutting retail prices to the degree that i–as someone who has been involved somewhat in the selling of books– began to sense that something was wrong, here (and i was right). obviously, they could sell at those prices because of volume–this new mode of operation must have had a CRAZY HUGE response. that’s how i reasoned it anyway. and that if that volume of books were being sold, it had to be good for authors and publishers as well, somewhere along the line. what i was blissfully unaware of is how they achieved that dominance.
my first Amazon-As-Shitheel moment came when i read an article some years ago about a premium they were offering– which was this: take a picture of the price of a book at a mom and pop/ independent store, and send it to Amazon. they will then reward you, the consumer, for buying it FROM THEM instead of the independent bookseller by giving you an extra 20% off.
i was stunned. that is some fucked up behavior. no-holds-barred dickheadedness of the first degree.
soon after, i did a signing at Minneapolis’ best independent bookstore, Magers and Quinn. my pal Jay worked there at the time and i asked him about that; he said in a very matter of fact way, “oh yeah. they are awful. unbelievable bullies. every bookstore knows that they are actively trying to run them out of business.”, and proceeded to give me some sense of how they conducted themselves within the book world. and the way he described it felt like a given, something he’d been dealing with for a good long while. it is not pretty, and you could most certainly read all about it in the book they (Amazon) tried to suppress for a while until people called them on it and they stopped.
it is perfectly clear that they are behaving exactly as every good capitalist organization should– don’t get some, or even a lot. get all of it. no market share is too large, or too complete.
and Amazon has made it very, very clear that their goal is not to be “the biggest”; they are that now and have been for some time. their goal is to utterly wipe out any and all competitors– big, small, medium, tiny. the way in which they go about this is ugly, and pernicious; they use that huge market share to bludgeon and muscle their way into your home and they have a clear and stated mandate to decimate competitive businesses whenever possible.
and let’s take me as an example– i’m not rich. between me and my wife, we do ok. we’ve recently clawed our way into “middle class”. i like books; it’s actually about the only thing i regularly spend money on. so, i want some book, probably some full color hardcover about some obscure cartoonist (ok actually it’s Alley Oop by V.T Hamlin. god i love me some Alley Oop.). it’s at the bookstore (well, comic store actually but same difference in this case) for retail, $75. ouch. i’ve got a friend here who owns a great, great comic store. obviously, i want to give him my business. my PERSONAL FRIEND, the SMALL BUSINESSMAN, who in both a personal and professional and ethical sense, i very much want to succeed and prosper, sometimes can give me a 10% discount. because he’s MY PERSONAL FRIEND. so now it’s $68 (add tax and its basically over $70 again, but still).
that book is on Amazon for $47. arrives right at my door in a week.
it makes a very easy decision–”buy book from friend. support friend’s business” pretty goddamn difficult. and, i’ll say it– political. CHOOSING to pay SIGNIFICANTLY MORE for something is…. not easy. we’ve been hardwired our entire lives to NOT do this. it’s downright UNAMERICAN. as i said, my family is doing…ok. but spending a third more on something i maybe shouldn’t even be buying in the first place (because “doing ok” doesn’t mean we actually have a savings account to speak of or any of that crazy stuff) feels just wrong. and i’ll cop to it– in leaner times 6ish years back, it was just an imperative (if i did it at all). i can barely afford $47, i can’t justify $75 on a non essential item. period. i’m not proud, but i ordered a few books from Amazon that way. but there’s my point– they HAD me. and maybe they have you, too. the lowest price? yeah , well, somebody pays, somewhere.
what is a normal store owner supposed to do in the face of that? match that price? that’s what he or she buys it for WHOLESALE. (ps– Amazon was hauled before court for these Monopolistic tactics, but they said “we’re not price controlling, we’re keeping prices LOW for consumers!”. and they won. assholes.)
they are doing that so that there will be no one left. and you better fucking believe that when there’s nobody left you’re not going to be getting the cheapest deal any more. you will be getting the only deal, and that deal will be every dime they can get out of you. THAT’S “the way things are”. is there anyone stupid or naive enough to believe differently?
and we accept that fuckheadedness as “just business” (ever notice how often “it’s just business” is just a justification for behaving like an asshole and exhibiting reprehensible ethics?). this is, obviously, a systemic problem that extends far beyond Amazon. it’s deeply, deeply troubling, and far smarter and more well-informed people than me are crafting much more reasoned and intelligent responses to this phenomenon. but Amazon makes a damn fine example of why and how things are so critically fucked up right now, economically (and by “economically” i mean– for PEOPLE. for HUMAN BEINGS. for sizable business entities, it’s going pretty damn good, i think.). and it also speaks to why so many thoughtful, sane people (and i aspire to count myself in that group, if possible) walk around in an apoplectic stupor all day in the face of this heinous bullshit.
and yes, i know; that is just the way things are. i’m not stupid, and i’m not a child.
my point is– do you LIKE it? are you ok with that? because yes, it is the way things are, and has been for a long damn time, but it also doesn’t change the fact that it totally blows. one fact does not negate the other.
me, i don’t like it at all.
i can’t wrap this up in a bow for you, me, or anyone.
this is books. but it’s also…take your pick. Amazon or not. and i don’t pretend that ME not shopping at Amazon, or that doing drawings for questions that nice folks send me in the mail is going to solve any of this.
i think we’re faced with this particular situation a hundred times a day, around very corner. sometimes we know it, a lot of the time we don’t. in this case, we do.
so i’m going to spend my money elsewhere, and do drawings for people, because it’s a cool thing to do. it’s why i like all this stuff in the first place. it’s just my tiny investment in a possible future where these douchebags don’t run the show.