Larry McMurtry Challenges Amazon’s CEO

Image courtesy of The Dallas Observer

Larry McMurtry has a question: “Will Amazon kill the book?” At least, that’s the headline for a new article that he’s written for this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine. The 75-year-old author provides a very thoughtful answer, looking for historical precedents to the rise of Amazon. But I also learned that besides being famous — Larry McMurtry also owns a bookstore!

“My own bookshop, Booked Up Inc., consists of four buildings and about 400,000 books,” he explains in the article — establishing his credentials for weighing in on the future of publishing. The store sells mostly used books, and he reports that since the dawn of the ebook, he’s actually seen an increase in orders from overseas. “Of course it’s not all roses for traditional booksellers now, and in part the downturn is due to the digital revolution. We have bought the stocks of some 26 booksellers, but it wasn’t just the e-book that caused these shops to die, it was a withering of generations.

“The owners of these shops had no one to pass them on to…”

McMurtry himself is the son of a Texas rancher, so he’s seen first-hand how the world can change. In 1986, McMurtry even won a Pulitzer Prize for his historical novel about cattle drivers — Lonesome Dove — and he’s also been involved in several Oscar-winning movies. (He wrote the novel Terms of Endearment in 1975, and co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.) But for his article in Harper’s, he casts a skeptical eye on the claim that the death of the book is inevitable. “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever,” he writes. “It might be a bubble; history grinds slowly, and despite impressive sales of the Kindle, it seems to me a bit too early for Bezos to gloat.”

McMurtry is reviewing a new book about Amazon’s CEO, called One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of He writes sardonically that “There were rivalries, failures, and leadership crises, and Amazon is now one of the largest book suppliers in the world.” But it takes a certain amount of ego to run a $40-billion-a-year corporation, and McMurtry wonders if bookstore owners recognize something that’s being overlooked by Amazon’s CEO. “He is so accustomed to the very vastness of his own empire — 850,000-square-foot distribution centers — that he may not see the tenacity of our appetite for variety: for good books of all formats, including old-fashioned ones.”

I thought McMurtry’s assessment of Bezos was ultimately pretty fair — and it was grounded in a real sense of history. He reports that like Henry Ford, Bezos “had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.” And he applauds Amazon for the way that they’ve already revolutionized the purchasing of printed books. “Bezos is a farsighted merchant whose company provides an excellent service,” McMurtry writes. “Want a book? Use Amazon and you can have it the next day. Such literary expeditiousness has never existed before and all readers should be grateful that it’s here.”

But McMurtry also notes that despite the popularity of the Kindle, printed books are still competitive, and he considers the position of Amazon’s CEO to be “less attractive”. “He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks its time for these relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”

I know that I don’t know, for sure, what’s going to happen in the future. But I do know that something big is going on, and it’s fun to watch writers — and corporations — as they try to make sense of these changes. So I enjoyed reading what Larry McMurtry had to say — especially knowing that it comes from a man who’s owned a bookstore for more than 40 years.

“Jeff Bezos and his colleagues are free to make and sell as many Kindles as they can, but Bezos shouldn’t be persuaded that our Gutenberg days are over, at least not from where I sit. One thing we offer that he can’t is serendipity — a book browser’s serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find.

“Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”

3 thoughts to “Larry McMurtry Challenges Amazon’s CEO”

  1. “One thing we offer that he can’t is serendipity — a book browser’s serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find.”

    Comments like that make you wonder if he has ever really used the Amazon bookstore. The last four books I read on my Kindle were from browsing the Amazon store to find something similar to something else I had read and liked.And they were by authors I doubt if any bookstore would have ever heard of – first time writers or non-fiction writers dipping their toe into fiction. Amazon’s recommendations, links, sample chapters and reader reviews opens up a great deal of opportunity for serendipity.

    I’m not against bookstores, but if they are going to survive, they need to find a real need of their customers that they can meet better than their online counterparts. Browsing and serendipity ain’t it.

  2. What a strange strawman Mr McMurtry is fighting. Amazon sells both paper and e-books. To read his quotes you would think that amazon was hell bent on the destruction of the paper book rather then the largest books seller on earth.

  3. I quite agree both with Greg and Francesco : You can browse on Amazon who thus gives lots of “serendipity” to the browser, and Amazon also sells paper-books.
    What’s more, Amazon books, the e-books and the used ones, are NOT expensive,
    Finally, as a French person who loves to read in English, I can get very quickly masterpieces in English for 2 or 3€ (both e-or paper books, which I can’t in France.
    BUT, BUT, BUT, nobody, so far, not even MacMurtry, has mentioned the fact that Amazon exploits and pays poorly the new “slave-workers” who work/toil for this company, and the fact that Amazon doesn’t pay taxes implies the Amazon CEO doesn’t care for countries’economies or for the issue of worldwide poverty.
    I admit being part of this cynicism, only because, like thousands of people, I enjoyreading. But who is the more cynical : the Amazon CEO or the Amazon-purchaser?

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