Readersforum's Blog

April 13, 2012

Amazon’s $1 million secret

(Credit: iStockphoto/stokato)

By quietly supporting small presses and literary nonprofits, is Amazon backing book culture or buying off critics?

By Alexander Zaitchik

The Brooklyn Book Festival’s website debuts a new feature this year called OnePage. Every week from March through September, OnePage will post part of a previously unpublished work — chunks of correspondence, scenes from books in progress — by authors such as Darcey Steinke, Martha Southgate, Paula Fox and Stefan Merrill Block.  There will also be mini-profiles of participating small presses, including indie mainstays McSweeney’s and Akashic.

That a Brooklyn book festival would promote small presses and their authors isn’t surprising. But the sponsor of OnePage has raised a few eyebrows. As the festival’s press release noted, “The project is made possible with a grant from Amazon.com.”

Yes, much of the literary world is in full-throated revolt against Amazon’s dominance — bookstores fear Amazon will push them out of business, authors worry about deep discounting, and the Department of Justice is considering the major publishers’ challenge over the price of e-books. But amid the public and private rancor, the massive e-retailer is very quietly trying to make friends in the book world. Its strategy is simple and employs a weapon Amazon has in overwhelming supply: Money.

The Brooklyn Book Festival is just one of many recent beneficiaries of Amazon’s largess. According to a list on Amazon’s site, prestigious groups such as the PEN American Center, journals like the Los Angeles Review of Books, One Story, Poets & Writers and Kenyon Review, mentorship programs such as 826 Seattle and Girls Write Now, and associations including the Lambda Literary Foundation, Voice of Witness and Words Without Borders have all received grants.

While the dollar figures are not always announced, according to interviews and press reports, many recipients said they have received between $20,000 and $25,000. With the more than 40 current grants listed on Amazon’s site, this suggests the company distributes approximately $1 million annually to small presses and other literary-minded nonprofits. (Publishing sources confirmed that number, but Amazon would not.)

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