Should Authors Link to Amazon?

Dustin Kurtz argues that “there are exactly zero defensible reasons for authors to link to Amazon” when advertising their books on their personal websites:

All of the discussion of the ills of Amazon aside… authors have nothing appreciable to gain by linking to Amazon. Linking to an indie [bookstore] can have real, pecuniary benefits. If linking to the former alienates the latter—and it damned well should—then an already obvious choice becomes something closer to an imperative. Link to your local bookstore.

While I agree with Kurtz that promoting local booksellers is more beneficial than sending customers to Amazon, his defense of indie store linking is incomplete and warrants further argumentation.   Kurtz only conceives of two scenarios for authors to promote their books online:

  • Scenario A- link customers to a single local store, which yields you “new friends” in your town and helps your community through economic support.
  • Scenario B- send customers to Amazon, which doesn’t care about your well-being and effectively harms your community by nabbing a potential local cash infusion.

Kurtz says that “in most cases people looking to buy your book will navigate [to Amazon] first, not your site.”  If this is the case, it’s rational to conclude that most traffic to an author’s website would be for informational purposes rather than actually purchasing their work.  I’d be interested to know what percentage of author sales are a result of clicks from their personal sites, but I’d be surprised if it’s above the low single digits.  So it’s unlikely that linking to a local bookstore will substantially benefit the community on a per-author basis since there would be relatively few clicks with the intent to purchase.

Even if we assume indies do benefit from author links, however, there are still disincentives for authors to send readers to a single local store.  Let’s say I’m based in Northern California and I link to a local Palo Alto bookstore.  My online customers could be ordering from anywhere in the country or the world.  Can I be sure that this bookstore has the infrastructure to efficiently handle and ship these orders?  And why is my local bookstore superior to the customer’s local bookstore?  It would probably be faster, easier, cheaper, and fairer to link customers to their own stores and encourage broader indie growth rather than focusing on a single store in my neighborhood.

This isn’t an argument in support of Amazon, of course, but it speaks to author and consumer concerns that Kurtz does not mention.  Despite of Kurtz’s criticisms of Amazon, it still has one of the fastest and most efficient delivery systems in the world.  It’s also got the benefit of selling other products, meaning customers are more likely to have an account and will actually purchase things there.  While pay sites like PayPal are making online shopping easier than ever, the scope of Amazon’s offerings incentivizes customers to combine their purchases for a more consolidated experience.   There is less variance in ordering from one giant seller instead of multiple small unknowns.

This is not an insurmountable hurdle for indies, though.  It’s surprising that Kurtz paints such a black or white picture of how authors can sell books: either link to only one local store or link to Amazon.  A powerful middle ground would see scores of indie bookstores band together and create a database or algorithm that authors can link to on their sites.  Customers would enter their zip code and the database would link to their closest participating bookstore, but any other store in the network could also be selected.  This kind of network would ensure a baseline quality standard for local ordering and would allow readers to pick which stores they want to support.  Kurtz mentions an indie bookstore network in his article that seems to help authors set up their local links, and it very well might have a service like this set up.  If not, it’s a good synthesis that helps authors support a greater number of indie bookstores and allows customers to purchase books with greater efficiency.

I share Kurtz’s fervent support of local bookstores, which are important hubs of information and social energy for their respective communities.  A stronger network of indie stores would remove the current incentives authors and customers do have from linking to Amazon, creating a better buying alternative where any given indie could be a benefactor.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

In advance of the release of his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal last year about how churches and religious buildings can serve as models for secular society in building communities and relationships.  “One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community,” he argues.  Botton finds that churches, through collective immersion in a shared belief and repetition of liturgical activities, help the individual to more easily develop new friendships and augment the community’s social bond.  Botton believes this is a worthwhile model for secular groups to emulate in order to stem the tide of social alienation in the twenty-first century.

I was reminded of Botton’s article when I read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a short story that finds two café waiters preparing to close their restaurant for the night.  The younger waiter is impatient to get home to his wife and eventually tells the last patron, a deaf old man who had recently attempted suicide, to leave.  The older waiter is in no such rush.  “I am one of those who like to stay late at the café,” he says. “With all those who do not want to go to bed.  With all those who need a light for the night.”

Botton is articulating a similar longing and desire fifty years later.  Hemingway’s waiter does not believe in God (“Our nada who art in nada…” he intones) but finds a deep unease in the dark of the night.  He finds himself attracted to the “clean and pleasant” café where the “light is very good.”  The same is true for Botton’s characterization of unbelievers who, despite their disbelief, find value in the rituals of organized ceremony.  Botton argues that the genius of grandiose church buildings and the Mass service lie in inspiring a bond of heightened purpose:

We leave [Mass] thinking that humanity may not be such a wretched thing after all.  As a result, we may start to feel that we could work a little less feverishly, because we see that the respect and security we hope to gain through our careers is already available to us in a warm and impressive community that imposes no worldly requirements on us for its welcome.

Botton evaluates the benefits and disadvantages of cathedrals and other locations for social gathering in an attempt to build the ideal contemporary and non-religious gathering space.  He settles on the following:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

As the Catholic Church and other religious organizations define themselves in the twenty-first century, it would be wise to keep this model, as well as the café of Hemingway’s protagonist, in mind.  Botton does not specify who or what group should build this Agape Restaurant, but he seems to place the agency of creating these non-religious superstructures and ceremonies in the hands of atheistic organizations.  It would be beneficial for religious organizations to create similar buildings in an attempt to foster interfaith or inter-belief dialogue.  Such buildings would certainly not supplant traditional churches, cathedrals, temples, and mosques, but they could prove to be effective supplemental spaces to more effectively engage modern communities.

The goal of these new religious spaces would be engaging in a more open dialogue with people who long for greater communal belonging but have no allegiance to any faith tradition.  Conversion should not be a priority; tending to people’s spiritual, moral, and communal need, regardless of belief, is more important.  But providing a free dedicated space where anyone could feel welcome would likely be an effective new tool for religious organizations to spread their message.  Though Botton is correct that the grandiose appearance of many worship spaces instills a sense of wonder, this appearance can simultaneously be off-putting to non-believers who don’t feel welcome in this foreign, insular community.   Creating a supplemental space that features minimal religious iconography but emphasizes open and broad religious discussion and debate would be a boon to entice new people to re-evaluate their perceptions of what “worship” entails.  A stripped-down, warm, and simple architectural style for these new buildings could provide a stark contrast to older, more imposing cathedrals and temples which might disincentivize potential participants.

This is not to say Botton’s unaffiliated “Agape Restaurants” are not a worthwhile idea in and of themselves, since creating a theologically-neutral space would provide its own unique benefits to the community.   But the central concept is remarkably applicable to religious organizations as well.  Providing a modern, clean, and well-lighted space for all people to satiate their metaphysical and physical hunger is an admirable goal for all religions, a goal that could redefine how people come to believe in the twenty-first century.

Reasonable Reads: “You” by Austin Grossman

(Editor’s Note: I thought Matt might have a good time with my Chris Christie comparison, and he certainly did.  While I cook up a response to his essay, here are a couple of new pieces I’ve been working on.  

“Reasonable Reads” will be our book-club discussion heading, and we’ll kick the series off with a light read: Austin Grossman’s You, a book I checked out on a whim last month.  I plan on deep-diving into Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul in the next installment.

Plot: Russell, an itinerant late twentysomething, moves home to Boston in 1997 and goes to work for a video game company founded by his high school friends.  The company’s co-founder Simon recently passed away, and as Russell cuts his teeth in the game development world, he revisits his old relationships and reflects on his current station in life.

Quick Summary: A fast-paced but dull and drawn-out story marked by flat characters, mishandled plot strands, and muddled exposition.

Expanded Discussion: I picked up You because it looked like a quick summer read and because it promised to discuss an idea I’m interested in learning more about: the unique narrative experiences that video games can provide.  As books and multimedia are adapted and optimized for digital devices, it seems that games will play a greater role in influencing storytelling’s evolution.  I was hoping Mr. Grossman would encase enlightening thoughts on this theme within an engaging story.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.   None of the characters give the reader any reason to feel invested in the story.  Simon’s isolationist history and quest for the ultimate experience is the closest Grossman comes to developing an engaging narrative thread, but Simon is dead, a passive engine who exists to move the tired endeavor along.   Russell, our driver, is an uninspired protagonist who shows no sense of enlightenment as the story progresses.  The plot hinges on Simon and Russell’s shared search for transcendence in gaming amidst personal turmoil, but Russell’s actions and personality consistently undermine his supposed realization of what this transcendence entails.  We’re left with annoyingly brash and banal comments that make it clear how Russell has learned nothing from the previous experiences he constantly complains about.  “F*** parents, f*** having a real job.  Maybe this is what we do,” he declares at one point in the story, a maddeningly juvenile remark from a 27 year old who is supposedly learning about what it means to be an adult.

Grossman’s development of the story is hindered by his characters’ lack of depth, and the book’s construction mirrors this imprecision.  The history of Russell’s employer Black Arts is interspersed throughout the narrative to parallel Russell’s increasing knowledge of the company, but this decision creates frequent confusion about the mythology’s relation to the main story arc.  Grossman also blends the two stories so that the four game sages appear in Russell’s “real life” to help him learn about the company (and life itself).  This leads to frequent cringe-inducing scenes such as the one when a wizard tells Russell about his dating prospects with a programmer at the company.  These scenes are unnecessary, dull, and only further dilute the tenuous maturity Russell asserts on account of his new position.  They also feel like a narrative cop-out.

I understand that the incorporation of the game characters in Russell’s life, as well as the shifting between first and second-person narration, is supposed to manifest how games require that element of personal investment to effectively fuse the ideal and the real.  But the entire process is done too sloppily to be effective, resulting in pervasive and stagnant narrative ramblings about two-thirds of the way in.  Page after page sees Russell play through various games in the hope of finding a major computer bug, a decision that torpedoes any interest in the four fictional characters.  These constant game jumps preclude the reader’s emotional investment in a lush dreamscape to foil the Massachusetts testing zone, effectively extinguishing the thrill of video game immersion that Grossman is trying to capture.  The incorporation of a “real-world stock crisis” within the last one hundred pages is a gimmicky throw-in that adds a diluted, cheap sense of tension to the climax.

It’s frustrating that Grossman handles his characters and story like this.  At the core of the book lie some very worthwhile and intriguing themes, including how to deal with the ennui of young adult life and the potential for interactive media to lead to something greater than the self.  “In the whole mechanized game world, you are a unique object, like a moving hole that’s full of emotion and agency and experience and memory unlike anything else in this made-up universe,” he writes, a wonderful condensation of what makes games unique as a narrative medium.  Unfortunately, any such insightful observations are subsumed in the text with minimal subsequent development.   The book includes some worthwhile questions and ideas about game theory, but these ideas are shortchanged at the expense of a bloated plot.

Skip You.  There are plenty of other titles that warrant your attention first.

What James Carroll Sees in the Inkblots

Early last week I finished reading Practicing Catholic, a memoir of sorts by the novelist and former Roman Catholic priest James Carroll. The pivotal episode in Carroll’s coming-of-age story is the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops that took place in several sessions between 1962 and 1965. Colloquially known as “Vatican II,” it is widely regarded as having been the most consequential religious event of the twentieth century (among the Council’s most notable acts is its decision to allow the Catholic Mass to be said in the vernacular in place of Latin). So-called ecumenical councils do not happen often: the two immediately prior to Vatican II were convened in 1545 and 1870, respectively. But could another be happening soon?

Unlike Carroll’s earlier book An American Requiem, Practicing Catholic is intended less as a traditional autobiography and more as an overview of American Catholicism from the 1950’s on, with personal anecdotes inserted where relevant. As it happens, this is nearly everywhere, since important milestones in Carroll’s life coincide with key events of the twentieth century in uncanny fashion (Bobby Kennedy is assassinated the morning that he preaches his first sermon as a deacon, he is ordained a priest a few days after Apollo 8 orbits the moon, etc.).

Moreover, the range of prominent figures with whom he has personal encounters or extended personal relationships is astonishing. While Carroll is a high school senior, his family is granted an audience with the pope on account of his father’s status as the “senior Catholic officer in the Air Force in Europe.” In an incident that could be a scene out of Forrest Gump, he spends a night in jail in 1972 following an antiwar sit-in; the very next cell holds civil rights leader and Protestant clergyman William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who leads the detained protestors in singing hymns from Handel’s Messiah. Later on, Carroll becomes a student of the poet Allen Tate and consoles him after the death of his child; meets Cardinal Richard Cushing, the progressive cleric who presided over the wedding and funeral of John F. Kennedy; and interviews the theologian Hans Küng, an early mentor of Joseph Ratzinger and now his ideological archnemesis.

In a coincidence almost worthy of Carroll himself, I unknowingly finished the book on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, the reformist pontiff who convened the Second Vatican Council and who serves as one of the key protagonists of Catholic. I realized this either later that night or the next day, when I read a piece in the National Catholic Reporter about Pope Francis’ remarks to a group of pilgrims from Bergamo, John’s native province in Italy, wherein he praised the former pope by saying that

[f]ifty years after his death the wise and fatherly guidance of Pope John’s love for the Church’s Tradition and his awareness of the constant need for renewal, his prophetic intuition of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and his offering of his life for its success stand as milestones in the history of the Church in the 20th century; and as a bright beacon for the journey that lies ahead.

NCR’s Michael Sean Winters writes that “there is something in the mien of these two men that really is similar, a knack for the common person, a willingness to speak from their own experiences… and the ability to communicate intense love to people in their midst and across the airwaves.” Carroll himself, in a column in the Boston Globe, opines about what this similarity might portend for the future of the Church:

[I]n a homily in the chapel at St. Martha’s, this pope lifted up what he called the “culture of encounter”… [T]he Argentine pope praised every human being as a source of goodness. “Even the atheists?” he asked, giving voice in the homily to his inevitable critics… It has been a long time since popes have incited holy wars, and there is nothing new in the call to tolerate those who believe differently. But [Francis’] sermon suggests a movement beyond tolerance toward an authentic pluralism in which the convictions of others are not only allowed, but valued. Instead of opposing others’ beliefs, Francis emphasizes “encounter”… Is it reading too much into a simple homily to imagine a coming shift? In the case of a pope, not necessarily. The reforming openness of John XXIII first showed itself in nuances like this, and the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II followed. It may be happening again.

Much has been made of Francis’ gestures of humility since becoming pontiff. And while some of these have perhaps been overanalyzed – Francis answered a question from a schoolchild about why he has been living in a Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments by saying that the decision is more about his “psychiatric” need to avoid isolation rather than any kind of desire to intensify his “personal virtue” – they certainly represent a stylistic departure from Benedict XVI. Is Carroll right to suggest that they are more than that: harbingers of a Third Vatican Council?

The reliably middle-of-the-road John Allen, Jr. warns that Francis’ knack for extemporaneous homilies has meant that his public monologues tend to be “open to widely differing interpretations,” and that “they almost seem to function as an ecclesial Rorschach test, revealing the agenda of constituencies eager to put a frame on the new pope.” So while “liberals… jumped on… [a] homily devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, in which Francis criticized ‘those who wish to turn the clock back’ on the council’s reforms,” “conservatives… celebrate every time the new pope uses traditional argot, such as his strikingly frequent references to the devil.” The bottom line is that Francis’ reference to John XXIII as a “bright beacon for the journey ahead” could mean many different things, and those who hope for sweeping changes might, as Carroll puts it, be reading too much into simple homilies.

I think it would be an understatement to say that the odds of Francis convoking a Vatican III are long. But it seems to me that his early statements do indeed indicate an intention to do more than just bring about a slight shift in papal rhetoric. His past remarks about the “spiritual sickness of a self-referential church” and the perniciousness of “rigorous and hypocritical neoclericalism” (a denunciation of priests who refuse to baptize the children of unwed mothers) suggest that, in making episcopal appointments, he will perhaps be looking for men who are more like Sean O’Malley than Charles Chaput.

Carroll’s religious views are undeniably heterodox, so it’s natural that he would be inclined to see Francis’ most publicized comments as declarations of revolution. He describes himself in the book as a “Catholic radical,” although “on the larger scale of culture and politics, [his] being Catholic [disqualifies him] from being radical in any real way” (this notion will come to be a recurring theme at RM).

That said, his optimism about the future may not be wholly unfounded. Yes, many of the most fraught questions facing the Church are ones that previous popes have declared to be definitively settled, like the ordination of women to the priesthood or the use of artificial birth control. But there are plenty of substantive reforms that remain within the realm of the possible. Beyond the more mundane matters of ecclesiastical governance, like the need to overhaul the operation of the Vatican Bank, there are the debates over obligatory priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as deacons, debates that the hierarchy admits are open to discussion.

Francis is not the first pope to function as an “ecclesial Rorschach test,” and by now the phenomenon is probably a permanent feature of the papacy itself. But only time will tell whether James Carroll’s vision of five thousand bishops jam-packed into a basilica actually comes to fruition – or whether it’s nothing more than a mirage in inkblots.