Dave Eggers’s newest book, The Every, is about a near-future mega-monopoly clearly based on Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s his follow-up to The Circle, and follows a different protagonist, Delaney, who seeks to destroy the company from the inside.
Appropriately enough, Eggers has found a way to avoid Amazon during of The Every’s initial release. The hardcover edition will not be sold through the site. If you want a copy when The Every is released on October 5—with one of its 32 different covers—you’ll only be able to get it from independent booksellers.
The Millions spoke with Eggers about Amazon’s grip on the publishing industry, authorial self-censorship, public surveillance, and much more.
Rachel Krantz: Congratulations on your book, and also on figuring out how to subvert the Amazon behemoth.
Dave Eggers: Thank you. It has been really illuminating, because the last time I really tried to not have Amazon distribute books, that was almost 20 years ago, and Amazon’s market share and power have grown exponentially since then. So it’s been enlightening just how difficult it is to work around the tangle of Amazon’s influence in every aspect of the book business.
Still, I believe that books will be sold and read and passed around if they’re good, and if you read them and enjoy them and passionately push them onto the next person—that’s how I think our books get read and last and persist. And I think that’s how booksellers and bookstores will last. A bookseller goes, “Oh, this new book just came in the other day,” and tells the customer about it. And if you want that [experience] and choice, you have to remember monopolies will limit choice and always will—that’s the nature of monopolies. If you want choice, you have to put in the work.
RK: My book is coming out in January, and I’m in this group with a bunch of other debut authors. There have been a lot of people grappling with how to reconcile their politics with the fact that there’s basically no way to avoid being dependent on Amazon if you’re at this stage in your career and want to make any money, or get any sort of major book deal. What would you say to authors who feel like they don’t agree with Amazon or want to support them, but have to profit off of them if they want to have a career as an author?
DE: I think it’s a lot more difficult for a first-time author to try and experiment than it is for me. I have the benefit of being around for 20-odd years, and I can hope that I can depend on an existing audience that will support this book, and my platform, I guess, for lack of a better word, where I talk about these issues and bring people into independent bookstores. But I would never prescribe or expect anyone else to be able to follow the same path, because everybody’s situation is so different and I honestly do not know what the landscape is for a debut author now.
RK: I think what’s scary is that I was having these conversations with friends while reading The Every, and knowing many of the things that you’re predicting about publishing and self-censorship are already here. People I know who are writers right now and are not as established as you are have expressed that they’re afraid to ever say anything negative about Amazon, because how do we know there’s not some sort of retaliation in the algorithm?
DE: I don’t think Amazon is a retaliatory company in that way. I think that there is more machine-driven presence than you think. I have no fear whatsoever for retaliation, nor would I care, but the fact that your friends have to think about that is a terrifying reality. Really. And we have empowered this monopoly to strike fear into the hearts of authors. And that may be unprecedented in history. Through our own complicity as consumers, their market share only grows. Right now, Amazon sells 45 percent of print books [and 75 percent of e-books] in the US. If it grows from there, then we’re at a really terrifying place. So if we want to avoid algorithms deciding which books are published and which are not, it has to end now.
But as to the amount of fear that there is out there about Amazon, I think it is a function of their predatory business model and also this sense that their power is too great and everyone else is little. The fact that we have empowered a machine that controls books is beyond irony.
RK: And many of us new writers would be completely terrified of going on the record as saying the same, even though we know that probably Amazon’s not a retaliatory company, and could care less about us. But just the chance of that, it’s scary to envision potentially speaking out.
There’s another thing I really see authors grappling with right now, in terms of “what am I allowed to say,” even in fiction, and how much more important the author’s personality and visibility has become. There’s this fear that if you write a negative character who’s not obviously a villain or satirical, that people are going to think it’s you, or your opinions. And so I see a lot of self-censorship happening, just in terms of what you can even imagine as a writer. I’m curious how you think of that impulse, if it ever arises in your own writing, to self-censor.
DE: I’ll answer it more in terms of the characters who live on this campus in the book. Everything said on campus is recorded and then analyzed by AI for any potential wrongness. And then there are certain words that you have to get permission to say, essentially. They think that they can perfect humanity by having a closed ecosystem and 24/7 surveillance. And that they are uniquely qualified to protect and defend what they deem right, and prevent any wrong action or sentiment. And they can do that with the help of digital tools…
And then in real life, our society, you have a tragedy of a high schooler who tweets something when they’re 16, and has been canceled. I think it’s definitely a culture that lacks the ability to forgive. And we have got to forgive each other and not judge anybody by their worst day, and a word that they used when they were 16. I think that we have to open our hearts a bit and allow people to develop and improve. I think and I hope, because I believe in humanity, that we will find our way to move on to being a forgiving culture, but I do think that when we give this power to an algorithm, to a big company like Amazon to surveil, we become part of the machine altogether. So we find ourselves in the situation that we’re in, and then we become a population of fury.
RK: I’m kind of surprised to hear that you’re maybe even a little optimistic, because I definitely felt like, reading your book, oh, okay, this is the direction he thinks it’s going — and it’s not particularly hopeful. So is part of your hope expressed in trying to create a severe warning?
DE: That’s the point of this kind of fiction, to present a dark path that might be avoided when you wake up, and you’re painting a vibrant and terrifying truth of what it could become, in the hopes that people say, “I don’t want to live there. I don’t want that to be our reality.” So to write something like this, I think one has to care. You are painting a picture that—I was trying to terrify myself.
Like, imagining what would happen if it became a law that you had to have audio surveillance in your house? Well, I think that there’s a 50/50 chance that we’re going there within 10 years, because it’s very hard to defend not having it in your house. On the one hand, you have the right to privacy. On the other hand, it might make families safer and protect children that otherwise might be in harm’s way at home. When we have become a surveillance state, and we are almost a surveillance state right now, how will that change our lives?
RK: Well, social media has already changed people’s conception of self. That line has blurred already, so it’s not so much of a jump to have these other forms of surveillance, because everyone thinks they’re living a public life and are a celebrity in their own minds anyway.
But then I was thinking, also while reading your book, about all the people refusing to wear masks. And that this is happening at the same time that we’re mostly comfortable being surveilled by corporations—but there’s so much more resistance to the government telling people to wear a mask. So people seem much more willing to let corporations impede on them than the government. How were you thinking about how that was playing out as you wrote the book, why the resistance is stronger in that area?
DE: You nailed something I thought about a lot, that it essentially cuts against a lot of the theories in the book, that I feel like people have sort of a limitless tolerance for surveillance and enforced behaviors. I will say that I feel like those flare-ups as anomalous. When you write a book like this, you have to sometimes leave out some exceptions, I guess. But I think that mask-wearing and vaccine-getting is much more visceral to people than digital surveillance, passive trolling, passive surveillance, passive acquiescence. Whereas if you put a needle in somebody’s arm, that’s a lot different and will evoke a much more passionate response than the sort of slow, pot-burning, boiling-hot way of doing things.
RK: I also think the mask itself is such a perfect symbol for all of these white people who feel that there are all these things they’re not allowed to say—aka racist things. It’s kind of this perfect symbol for feeling like they’re supposed to be quiet and cover their mouths.
DE: Right. And there’s so much that’s so analogous about the Trump era that I could never have seen coming. So many strange forces—and so much ignorance, hatred, racial tension, homophobia—all of these things that we California liberals thought were dying quickly off. I spent time at Trump rallies as a reporter trying to figure out exactly what was happening, how this could have happened. I was surprised just how much hatred and homophobia was still out there, and I think that’s the function of this San Francisco bubble I live in.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.