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Aug. 31, 2011, 9:30 a.m.

Amazon’s new @author feature launches, and changes (just a bit) what a book is all about

Got a question for Susan Orlean? Now you can ask it through Amazon.

Back in May, Amazon asked what seemed to be a rhetorical question: “How can authors more easily connect with their readers?”

Well, rhetorical no longer. Last night, Amazon announced its answer in the form of the official rollout of @author, its, yep, author-focused community page.

The feature is pretty much what its title would suggest: “a new way,” Amazon Kindle’s Jason Kirk wrote in a post announcing the new page, “for readers to connect with authors and engage in the community around their favorite authors’ books.” The format is question-driven, the framing is book-based: By way of the Kindle’s Share functionality, @author lets users query authors (@stevenbjohnson: “So where do good ideas come from?”; @tferriss: “Four hours? Really?”) from within the Kindle platform. From there, Amazon says, it tweets the question to the intended author and posts it on his or her Author Page; “you’ll automatically receive an email if the author answers your question.” (You can also ask a question on the web, via the Author Page itself, at which point the question will ostensibly undergo the same from-Twitter-and-back-again process.)

So, yeah! A direct route to conversation with authors! Through Amazon. And through Twitter.

There are a couple points to note here. First, most obviously: @Author represents yet another step in, yep, the personalbrandification of the publishing business — book-wise, news-wise, otherwise. The title of Amazon’s new feature, after all, isn’t @book or @genre or @publishinghouse; it’s @author. The identity of the author herself — as defined and measured and bolstered by her ability to create a community around her content — is, here, itself a kind of product. The participants in the feature’s beta are authors — (former Nieman Fellow) Susan Orlean, Steven B. Johnson — who’ve made Twitter into another platform for their writing, as well as authors — John Locke (not that one, or that one; this one), Timothy Ferriss — who, through talent or charm or force of will, have cultivated devoted audiences for their work. They’re authors who are also community leaders and book-promoters and fan-interactors. Philip Roth, you’ll note, is not one of @author’s beta testers.

So while @author is, clearly, a marketing-campaign-by-way-of-a-digital-feature…it’s also an insight into a book culture that is increasingly author-driven. Amazon, a publisher as well as a platform, is charting a new course for the publishing industry (and doing so pretty much, er, Single-handedly). It’s also — through initiatives like Domino and, of course, the Kindle itself — disintermediating publishers and drawing the line from author to reader a little shorter, if still through Jeff Bezos.

And @author itself is doing something subtle, but significant: It’s commodifying the charisma of the authors who sell material on its platforms. That’s not entirely new, of course: The Author, the construct, has always been an economic proposition as much as a creative one. But it’s still worth noting the shift (maybe even the paradigm shift) that @author represents. In an analog environment, book marketing takes place largely via mechanisms — cover design, table/shelf placement in bookstores — that are largely independent of authors. Sure, there are book tours (though fewer now than in flusher times); sure, there are media appearances (ditto). Mostly, though, one’s work as an author has been done with an emphasis on the “done”: Once you submit the final draft, the thing’s out of your hands. Which is to say, to be just a teeny bit Marxy about it, that the author has been the laborer; the book, his product.

But! @Author suggests the opposite transaction: the engaged author, the accessible author, the ongoing author. (And also: the self-marketing author.) While “authors will not be able to respond to all questions,” Amazon is careful to make clear, @author’s whole framing implies, overall, the continual availability of the author to the reader — to answer questions, yes, but also, more broadly, to exert her authorship over her work. Authorship in that sense being not just about creation, but about influence more diffusively. Amazon is encouraging users to ask questions not just about personal influences and narrative decisions, but also about the characters in books, about information contained within them. (“When Eric asked Marie to meet him at the coffee shop, did he already know they would end up together or was it really just a business deal?”) Amazon is encouraging, in other words, questions whose answers aren’t just supplemental to the books they address, but also literally extensive to them. The answers, in effect, become part of the books. Which means that the Author Pages do, too.

And that’s a big deal, you know, Philosophically, because once a book stops being a product, a thing-in-itself that is defined and evaluated according to that very thingyness…it also, just a little bit, stops being a book. Already we’re seeing new, largely tablet-driven publishing platforms challenging and transforming our assumptions about what a book is and can be; already we’re seeing publishing platforms that emphasize authors’ fan communities as value propositions unto themselves. @Author is the next step in that process: the digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation. That whole death of the author business? Digital platforms, with Amazon leading the charge, are bringing the poor guy back to life.

Image by Erin Kohlenberg used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 31, 2011, 9:30 a.m.
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