The Wolf at the Hearth
I like dogs. I’ve had dogs my entire life, always working class dogs, always big dogs. My first dog, a Bernese Mountain blend, ran with a pack of semi-feral mutts in the mountains of North Carolina for most of my youth, but he was fiercely protective of me, so I never shared the common fear of large dogs that some of my friends expressed whenever that pack trotted around the bend and overtook us on our bikes or at play. He was my dog. He wasn’t born to the leash.
This might be why it’s easy for me to look at my dog and see the wolf. For all their variety of size and temperament, dogs are an evolution of the wolf, a trick of breeding and the imposition of human will on the raw savagery of nature. Our ancestors lived in fear of the darkness of the woods and the monsters that lurked there. The wolves that lingered at the edges of our village, that loped between trees at the limits of our sight, whose howls echoed off the moon and filled our nightmares with teeth and blood and the feral stink of fear, eventually those wolves came into the circle of our campfires, rested their heads on our knees, and took food from our hands. Our fears became our best companions.
This isn’t a post about dogs. I’m sorry if you don’t like dogs, and are struggling to find a reason to be interested in this article. But I wanted to frame an idea for you, an idea about fear and the domestication of savagery, so bear with me.
This is a post about Amazon, and publishing. About the quiet domestic bliss of the traditional publishing world, and the unsettling fear that is nipping at the edges of our pleasant dream. There are echoes coming off the moon, and a lot of people are pretty worried about it. I don’t think there’s a reason to worry. I think there’s more reason to hope, but it’s the kind of hope that comes with the possibility of getting your hand bitten off.
Publishing has been pretty comfortable with itself for a long time. We’ve created a way of doing business that we find pleasing and comfortable. And I’m not just talking about the actual business of publishing. I’m talking about the entire business of readership, of writership, of delivering narrative and processing books, of distribution and marketing, all of which are virtually unchanged since the middle of the last century. Sure, there have been incremental changes, but the core system is the same.The problem, of course, is that that system of business is no longer valid. It’s no longer sustainable. I subscribe to a number of industry newsletters, and every week I have to read about how sales are down at bookstores, about how this or that indie is closing, publishing houses shutting down or merging or changing focus in an effort to stay afloat.It’s an old industry, and we’re in a new economy. And so we have to adapt.For a while now I’ve believed that the primary product of the old publishing industry isn’t books. It’s the nostalgia of books. We hear a lot of talk about the weight of a book in your hand, the smell of its pages, the experience of browsing a disorganized bookshelf and the joy of discovery at finding that perfect novel, guided by the wise hand of a bookseller. And let’s be absolutely clear, I love all of those things. But as a business model, it’s faltering, and no amount of wishing that it wouldn’t collapse is going to keep the roof up. Music went through this. Newspapers went through this. We’re going through this. And the way forward is the light at the end of that tunnel, not clustered around the pilings at the center.So. Let’s talk again about that wolf. Amazon is our wolf. Amazon is the harsh wilderness at our doorstep, the naked reality that the way readers buy books and experience stories has changed, and they’re not going to go back to an older, inefficient and largely outdated way of doing those things just for the sake of nostalgia. We need the fear of that reality to fully penetrate the industry. We need publishers and editors and marketers and writers to go to bed each night with the howl echoing off the moon, and the taste of blood in their teeth.Fear can bring change. The natural reaction is to raise the walls and stoke the fire, and huddle closer to what’s comfortable. But the wise move is to tame that wolf, to change both our expectations and our practices to match the new world. The industry as it stands is not sustainable. But the industry that might be, the one that lives just over the horizon, the one we create from the wreckage of this one… that industry might be pretty amazing.Or it might bite off our hand. But that’s better than living in fear.