Meet the producer: Will Amazon dominate book publishing, too?

Amazon makes an ambitious move into publishing, print as well as digital. It's snagging both obscure and bestselling authors. This means more alternatives for readers and scribblers -- for now, anyway.

Nordic noir from the AmazonCrossing imprint.

Nordic noir from the AmazonCrossing imprint. Amazon.com

Yes, it's a book jacket - 'Poke the Box' from Amazon Publishing's Domino Project.

Yes, it's a book jacket - 'Poke the Box' from Amazon Publishing's Domino Project. Amazon.com

Jeff Bezos during a 2005 presentation: What do I have to do to sell you a book?

Jeff Bezos during a 2005 presentation: What do I have to do to sell you a book? James Duncan Davidson/Wikimedia Commons

Who says Amazon doesn’t care about books? Jeff Bezos’s mom was a librarian, and he’s fascinated with what other people are reading. Or at least he was, back when he started the company and it sold only books.

In late 1996, before Amazon.com went public or Bezos made his first billion, a venerable East Coast magazine asked me to write, literally overnight (and I’m one of those fogeys who still use “literally” to mean literally), a short squib on this company out in Seattle that, whaddaya know, had started selling books over the Internet. Bezos was taking the day off, but he came in, eager for the coverage.

As he gave the tour, his eyes lit up even brighter than usual (which is saying something) when he slid into a chair at a computer station and announced that with a click we could see what any customer was reading. “Let’s check on Myrhvold,” he said with a conspiratorial giggle, and the (extensive) order history of Nathan Myhrvold, then Microsoft’s chief technology officer, filled the screen: lots of paleontology books, some on Mayan archaeology, something on astrophysics, as I recall. But nothing on food or climate change; Myrhvold hadn’t yet reinvented himself as a patent troll, modernist chef, or proponent of screwy geo-engineering schemes to forestall global warming.

More than 15 years later, after becoming the Walmart and Milo Minderbinder of the Internet, Amazon is more involved in books than ever. It’s become not just an enormous vendor of tomes both new and, on consignment, used; it's now a publisher of print as well as ebooks, threatening to do unto mainstream publishers as it has done unto Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the corner bookstore with the cat in the window.

In a little over two years, it has launched six imprints, with more reportedly on the way, starting with previously self-published and out-of-print titles it thinks have commercial legs and expanding to mysteries, romance, sci-fi, translations, and short business/self-help books by “thought leaders.” The latest addition: a Book Lust Rediscoveries series of out-of-print favorites from Nancy Pearl, Seattle's celebrity librarian. A general fiction and nonfiction imprint is due in spring.

By last November, Amazon had published or announced 263 titles, according to the digital-media news site Paid Content. It’s moved beyond low-risk deals — paying no advances but offering authors a larger share of sales than traditional publishers do — to paying a bruited $800,000 or $850,000, $100,000 more than the next-highest bid, for a memoir by Penny Marshall, TV’s Laverne in the ’70s. At that price, can Shirley be far behind?

Marshall’s agent denied that Amazon outbid other publishers by such a high margin; Amazon itself is secretive about its deals and sales, and makes its authors agree not to disclose what they get. It’s likewise waxed modest about the potential transformative or, depending on your point of view, devastating impact it may have on publishing, leaving others to bang the drum and sound the alarm.

Amazon.com has taught readers that they do not need bookstores,” The New York Times' David Streitfeld wrote in October. “Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers.”

“My decision to collaborate with Amazon Publishing wasn’t just a question of which publisher to work with,” Timothy Ferriss, author of the bestsellers The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Chef and the biggest authorial brand Amazon has so far hooked, told Paid Content. “It was a question of what future of publishing I want to embrace. My readers are migrating irreversibly into digital, and it made perfect sense to work with Amazon to try and redefine what is possible.” Next from Ferriss, The 4-Hour Literary Career?

Proclamations like Ferriss's have struck terror in traditional publishing circles. When one of your biggest vendors becomes your competitor, with the means to promote its products while excluding yours, how can you not worry?


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 18, 10:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for a very interesting discussion of this issue. I am not an e-reader but do play the field in where/how I buy my books, depending on a variety of circumstances. The publishing issue requires that all of us think seriously about this topic.

Posted Wed, Jan 18, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

In the very near future the only books that will still be physically printed will be on-demand paperback printings of e-books, or special hand-bound art-book editions of important works. Dominating the print publishing world is clearly not Amazon's or Apple's or anyone's focus these days, and that is probably wise.

Although Amazon's moves stir up much controversy about the fate of the independent bookstore and the fate of the small (medium, or even large) publisher, this piece does make mention of an important consideration almost always overlooked in discussions about where the industry is trending, namely, how these moves impact writers, authors, artists, i.e., the actual creators of these works, who have been long abused by the publishing industry.

Established authors are typically just as pleased to be selling Kindle editions as they are any other edition (and nowadays most books are selling more e-editions than print editions). But self-published authors and authors on the verge of becoming established can benefit immensely from an Amazon-like business model.

For one thing, it cuts out the middlemen (i.e., publishers) who in recent years have not been adding value to the products they sell. That means a bigger cut of royalties for the actual CREATOR of the material, the author or the translator. In my view, this is extremely healthy for the art and industry of writing in this country, because it allows creators to benefit more from their creations, freeing them to create more.

In years past publishers provided the editorial guidance and oversight and marketing to shepherd talented but inexperienced authors and translators to success. Nowadays, instead authors and translators typically have to hire their own line editors and copy editors and agents so that they have ready-to-print manuscripts to sell at book fairs. In particular, translated manuscripts of terrific works typically languish in obscurity in the United States because publishers almost never add value to these projects and shepherd such works out onto the U.S. market or market them. Indeed, most publishers don't understand how to market books generally in this day and age, and as a result no one is buying the vast majority of books published.

It can be argued that all Amazon has done is notice that other publishers haven't been doing their jobs or adding any value at all or taking care of the artists upon whom the industry is based, so in many ways Amazon is simply returning to the bygone model of publishing combined with its own (online) store. It's anachronistic and innovative at the same time. The only traditional publishers that will survive the next half century will be those that embrace a similar model (and probably get out of New York more).

smacgry

Posted Wed, Jan 18, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Eric Scigliano writes: "Proclamations like Ferriss's have struck terror in traditional publishing circles." Exactly, and the traditional publishers richly deserve their terror. There are individual exceptions, but as an industry, they have been self-absorbed, stagnant, and unresponsive to change. In recent years they have offloaded most of the manuscript development and editing duties onto literary agents and dumped nearly all the marketing responsibility onto the author. We might well question what they ARE now doing to justify their existence. And since the answer is "practically nothing," well, here comes Amazon. The traditional publishers have nobody to blame but themselves.

Posted Wed, Jan 18, 7:44 p.m. Inappropriate

@larrycheek: Onnesha Roychoudhuri offers an interesting reversal of your chicken and egg sequence: "When mega-retailers have all the power in the industry, consumers benefit from low prices, but the effect on the future of literature—on what books can be published successfully—is far more in doubt." Mega-retailers of books (B&N; and others, followed by titanic Amazon) have driven major publishers to be less venturesome in their choices and marketing of books, and small publishers get bullied - see the Ten Speed Books tale in Roychoudhuri's article.
http://www.bostonreview.net/BR35.6/roychoudhuri.php

Posted Fri, Jan 20, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

"Predatory pricing? At some point, antitrust watchdogs might ask that question."

The Department of Justice can start with traditional publishers, whose standard author contracts look suspiciously similar. Or did they just happen to arrive at the same royalty percentages and escalator clauses on their own? What a shocking coincidence It's collusion like this that drives authors to Amazon, which has treated most of the dozens of authors I know very well with enlightened deals — particularly in regards to e-book royalties — that reflect current realities and future likelihoods.

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