Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will step down as chief executive this summer and assume the role of executive chair. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Twenty-seven years ago, while we were shopping at Borders, a former Wall Street wizard named Jeff Bezos was starting an online business in his garage. He drew up a list of 20 things he could sell and settled on books because, he once said, “there are more items in the book category than there are items in any other category by far” (watch). Barnes & Noble scoffed at the quirky startup and even sued Bezos for claiming he was running “the world’s largest bookstore.” But publishers were thrilled to have a new avenue for selling their wares.
What a difference a quarter century makes. You’ve probably heard of Amazon. This week it’s in all the papers, including The Washington Post, which Bezos bought in 2013. On Tuesday, when Amazon posted record-breaking quarterly sales of $125.5 billion, Bezos announced that he’ll step down as chief executive later this year and assume the position of executive chair (story). The corporation also revealed plans to build a double-helix shaped headquarters in Arlington, Va., designed by an architect from the Andromeda galaxy. (Most of that sentence is true.) Amazon agreed with the FTC to pay $61.7 million to drivers who didn’t receive tips they earned (story). And Amazon is fighting an upcoming union vote in its Alabama warehouse (story). Quite the week!
In 1994, no one imagined that an online bookseller in a Washington State garage would transform the economy of the entire world — and perhaps the solar system (story). Indeed, Amazon’s influence is now so pervasive across so many industries that its effect on the quaint publishing market feels like a rounding error. But nowhere else is its dominance more striking. Customer reviews on its site and rankings on Amazon-owned Goodreads have democratized book criticism. Audible.com has helped drive double-digit growth in audiobooks for years. E-books are synonymous with Kindle. What’s more, Amazon is not just selling books; it’s publishing them. More than a dozen Amazon imprints release hundreds of new titles every year, and Kindle Direct Publishing provides a platform for millions of self-published titles, transforming the relationship between authors and their readers.
While Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores fight for their lives and publishers consolidate to resist Amazon's hegemony, governments are scrambling to figure out how — or even if — the Everything Store can be corralled. Regardless of how that plays out, Bezos will go down in history as the most consequential publishing innovator of the modern age.
Crown; Delacorte Press; Crown
No political couple has ever dominated the book market like Michelle and Barack Obama — and they show no signs of slowing down. Since it was released in 2018, the former first lady’s memoir, “Becoming,” has become an international phenomenon with more than 15 million copies sold in hardback, audio and digital formats (review).
This week, Michelle told her 45 million Instagram followers that she's adapting “Becoming” for young readers (ages 10 and up). In her introduction to this YA edition, which will be released on March 2, she writes, “My promise to you is to give you my story in all its messy glory — from the time I struggled in front of my kindergarten class, to my first kiss and the insecurities I felt growing up, to the chaos of a campaign trail, to the strange experience of shaking hands with the Queen of England.”
Also on March 2, a paperback of the original “Becoming” will finally be released, which will send the title flying up the bestseller list again. This edition will include a new introduction, a discussion guide, a Q&A and “a letter from the author to her younger self.”
Meanwhile, Barack’s presidential memoir, “A Promised Land,” is holding steady on our hardback nonfiction bestseller list at No. 4 (full list). And this week, the former president dropped in — surprise! — on a virtual book club sponsored by indie bookstore MahoganyBooks in Washington (watch).
Future Vice President Kamala Harris in her Howard University yearbook. (Courtesy of AbeBooks.com)
After two weeks in office, Vice President Kamala Harris has already improved the economy of some yearbook owners. Used and rare bookseller AbeBooks reports that a set of three Howard University yearbooks — 1984, 1985 and 1986 — recently sold for $1,500. Those volumes include pictures of Harris, who graduated from the historically black university in D.C. in 1986. A photo of Howard’s Economics Society shows sophomore Harris with her fellow students and sponsor Joseph Houchins, who was once a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Council of Negro Affairs.
Interest in new books about Harris is rising, too. Just days before the inauguration, former LA Times reporter Dan Morain published a biography called “Kamala’s Way” (review). And another biography of the vice president is coming soon. In June, Chidanand Rajghatta's “Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman” will be published by HarperCollins India — a sign of how excited the world’s largest democracy is about Harris’s success. Rajghatta, the U.S. bureau chief of the Times of India, plans to offer an overtly celebratory biography. His publisher says the book will address “her Asian and Jamaican heritage — with special focus on her India connection, and her journey as a woman of color coming to occupy one of the highest offices in the U.S.A.” HarperCollins India is still finalizing details for a U.S. release.
Actor Hal Holbrook in 1959 while in “Mark Twain Tonight!” (Ruben Goldberg/AP)
Thomas Edison filmed the only extant silent movie of Mark Twain (watch). And despite Twain’s fascination with new technology, there are no surviving recordings of the great writer’s voice. So instead, the universe gave us Hal Holbrook. With his one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” Holbrook, who died late last month at the age of 95, recreated the novelist's persona and entertained audiences for more than half a century (obituary). Although they never met — Twain died in 1910; Holbrook was born in 1925 — the two men formed a relationship unequaled in literary and theatrical history. Indeed, it’s likely that most people now think of Holbrook when they think of Twain. (Fellow members of my 9th grade English class may remember my own immortal imitation of Holbrook imitating Twain, of which there are, fortunately, no extant recordings.)
Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks published a lovely piece this week about the time he received a note from Holbrook describing a performance in Emporia, Kan., in 1957. “It was the first time someone wrote down what I was trying to do and it meant the world to me because I knew then that I had something,” Holbrook said. “It encouraged me to keep going and keep digging. I’ve done that” (appreciation).
Twain was skeptical about heaven. He wrote, “When I reflect upon the number of disagreeable people who I know have gone to a better world, I am moved to lead a different life.” But wherever they are, I like to think that he and Holbrook are finally sitting down together in their matching white suits telling each other hilarious stories.
Illustration by Justin Hillgrove (Courtesy of Carpe Noctem Books)
Streaming any movie anytime is great, but in the olden days there was something weirdly exciting about getting a DVD from Netflix in the mail. Maya Gupta wants to bring that thrill back to the world of literature. She’s a former Google employee who recently founded Carpe Noctem Books, a peer-to-peer lending library. For $4.99 a month, you can receive an unlimited number of books in the mail, two at a time (more information). The collection — now about 1,000 titles — will continue to evolve in response to subscribers’ requests.
That business model may sound as fresh as the Wells Fargo Wagon, but under the hood, Carpe Noctem Books runs on artificial intelligence. Gupta and her team have designed algorithms to predict which titles should be sent out next and where users should send books they’ve read. That’s the key: Unlike Netflix's old DVDs, these books don’t keep going back to a central office; they're sent directly from one user to the next.
Solving this puzzle came naturally to Gupta because she also owns Artifact Puzzles, which designs and makes “artsy laser-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles.” Six months ago, as the pandemic raged away, she and her husband started the Hoefnagel Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Club (more information). Their success at getting users to swap puzzles through the mail inspired them to see if the same structure could work for books.
Gupta was moved by Steven Pinker’s speculation that novel reading has increased humanity’s empathy and contributed to a decline in violence. “I love that effect,” she says. It would be nice if Carpe Noctem Books could “eke out a profit,” but she says their “first goal is just to do something fun and good for the world.”
In proposed legislation and her upcoming book, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has announced her intentions to help strengthen antitrust regulation in the United States. (Photo by Ken Cedeno/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock; Knopf)
Watch out, Big Tech: There’s a new sheriff in town. Yesterday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the incoming chair of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, introduced legislation that would dramatically reform the country’s antitrust laws (story). Klobuchar is determined to make the U.S. less tolerant of market concentration or even the risk of market concentration. Among other things, her proposed legislation would beef up the ability of the Justice Department and the FTC to enforce new antitrust laws and make it harder for competitors to merge (Attn: Penguin Random House).
Her bill is essentially a legislative summary of her upcoming book, “Antitrust,” which offers a clear explanation of how we became ruled by a few giant corporations. (Spoiler alert: Robert Bork lost a seat on the Supreme Court but managed to ruin the country anyhow.) “Antitrust” concludes with 25 “solutions to America’s monopoly problem.” You’ll have to wait till April 27 to read her book, but big tech companies are already reading her legislation very closely.
Artists at risk: Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan, Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, Cameroonian rapper Valsero, Chinese-American documentary filmmaker Nanfu Wang, Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu (Courtesy of PEN America)
Yesterday, The Post released a witty video montage of Republican politicians complaining – to millions of people – about how they're being silenced (watch). But while GOP members rehearse their theater of the absurd, actual repression of speech is taking place around the world. With increasing frequency, artists and writers are being harassed, persecuted and even murdered.
In response to these attacks, PEN America recently published an innovative manual called “A Safety Guide for Artists.” The online document, compiled by PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, is based on conversations with artists from Turkey, China, Russia and other countries where repression is rising. Their advice covers such practical matters as “preparing for threats, fortifying digital safety, documenting persecution, finding assistance, and recovering from trauma.”
And for those of us fortunate enough to live in relatively free countries, the report is a quick, grim education in what’s happening around the world:
- In China, “artists who in any way express Uyghur cultural identity — or artists who simply are Uyghur — are often detained.”
- “Egypt is one of the world’s most frequent jailers of artists and writers.”
- “In Russia, travel bans are frequently used against artists currently on trial or under investigation.”
- “In Bangladesh, the draconian Digital Security Act . . . is frequently used to criminalize online dissent.”
- “In Turkey, almost any action related to Kurdish identity or language runs the risk of being criminalized under counterterrorism regulations.”
“A Safety Guide for Artists” is available for free here in English, Spanish and French.
As Black History Month begins, historians Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain have published “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019” (review). In this path-breaking anthology, 80 writers from a variety of professions cover 400 years of Black experience in the New World, five years at a time, with essays, stories and poems. (Blain is a co-editor of The Washington Post’s “Made by History” section.) In his introduction, Kendi writes, “Histories of Black America have almost always been written by a single individual, usually a man. But why not have a community of women and men chronicling the history of a community? Why not a Black choir singing the spiritual into the heavens of history? Four Hundred Souls is that community choir for this historical moment” (profile).
The audiobook version of “Four Hundred Souls” brings that chorus to life with 87 narrators, including:
- Leslie Odom Jr. reading “1699-1704: The Selling of Joseph,” by Brandon R. Byrd
- Danai Gurira reading “1774-1779: The American Revolution,” by Martha S. Jones
- Phylicia Rashad reading “1934-1939: Zora Neale Hurston,” by Bernice L. McFadden
- Angela Y. Davis reading her own essay “1994-1999: The Crime Bill”
This week’s literary awards
At a virtual ceremony yesterday, the American Library Association announced the winners of its annual Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence:
- Fiction: “Deacon King Kong,” by former Washington Post writer James McBride (review). McBride is adapting this best-selling novel for a TV series. An adaptation of his National Book Award-winning novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is currently on Hulu.
- Nonfiction: “Fathoms: The World in the Whale,” by Australian writer Rebecca Giggs (review). Last fall, I sent my dad a copy of this book about the imperiled status of whales; he said it was devastating.
EXCLUSIVE: The Association of American Publishers has named the winners of the PROSE Excellence Awards, which celebrate the best scholarly publications of the year. A panel of 23 judges reviewed 595 entries:
- Biological and Life Sciences: “Desert Navigator: The Journey of an Ant,” by Rüdiger Wehner (Harvard University Press)
- Physical Sciences and Mathematics: “A Philosophical Approach to MOND: Assessing the Milgromian Research Program in Cosmology,” by David Merritt (Cambridge University Press)
- Social Sciences: “Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age,” by Renee Hobbs (W. W. Norton)
- Reference Works: “Frogfishes: Biodiversity, Zoogeography, and Behavioral Ecology,” by Theodore W. Pietsch and Rachel J. Arnold (Johns Hopkins University Press)
- Humanities: “Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period 150-900 CE,” by Simon Martin (Cambridge University Press)
“Ancient Maya Politics” was also named winner of the year’s top PROSE prize, the R.R. Hawkins Award, with the judges calling Martin’s book “a major advance in our understanding of the Maya."
(Grand Central; Simon & Schuster; Grove)
How we identify and how we’re categorized will be the subject of a virtual discussion with three fascinating novelists next week. PEN/Faulkner, the Washington-based literary organization, has invited Tope Folarin (profile), Min Jin Lee (review) and recent Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart (review) for a conversation about how they have “engaged with intersectional identities.” Their discussion will be moderated by Book World columnist Bethanne Patrick on Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. ET. Virtual attendance is free, but you must register here.
Donika Kelly published an incantatory poetry collection in 2016 called “Bestiary.” It won a Hurston/Wright Award and was longlisted for a National Book Award. Her second collection, “The Renunciations,” which will be published in May, contends with trauma and the possibilities of healing. This subtle poem closes the book:
The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings.
The home I’ve been making inside myself started
with a razing, a brush clearing, the thorn and nettle,
the blackberry bush falling under the bush hog.
Then I rested, a cycle fallow. Said winter. Said the ground
is too cold to break, pony. Said I almost set fire
to it all, lit a match, watched it ghost in the wind.
Came the thaw, came the melting snowpack, the flooded river,
new ground water, the well risen. I stood in the mud field
and called it a pasture. Stood with a needle in my mouth
and called it a song. Everything rushed past my small ears:
whir in the leaves, whir in the wing and the wood. About time
to get a hammer, I thought. About time to get a nail and saw.
“The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings” from The Renunciations. Copyright © 2021 by Donika Kelly. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minn. An earlier version appeared in the Black Warrior Review.
Trying to stop laughing long enough to get through one take in our dining room-studio. This required many takes. (Dawn Charles)
When the pandemic began last year, I was just about ready to start a new monthly books feature on CBS Sunday Morning. I thought we’d have to cancel, but my wife and I decided to film the spots in our dining room, which, of course, has a green screen (doesn’t everybody’s?). My biggest challenge has been memorizing the scripts (no teleprompter) and getting a haircut (See: pandemic). It’s been weird working for a year with people I’ve never met, but every month the miracle workers at CBS whip our raw footage into such engaging features that I barely recognize myself. You can watch last Sunday's episode of “The Book Report” here.
Meanwhile, if I seem a little chilly this week, it’s because my elderly furnace finally gave up the gas. We’re getting a newfangled furnace today ($8,514), so my retirement has been extended yet again.
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