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.
“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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