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

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

Perhaps by looking at how Amazon has actually fared so far in the full-tilt, print-as-well-as-ebook publishing game, Paid Content’s Laura Hazard Owen suggests after examining its numbers. Owen found that Amazon was indeed moving seriously on the print as well as ebook market, offering 251 of its 253 titles as of November in both formats. The “most successful so far” is Amazon Publishing’s first foreign import, Oliver Potzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter, originally published in Germany. But Amazon brought it out with a blue-chip traditional publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which bought the trade paperback rights to it and nine other Amazon titles.

Even so, The Hangman’s Daughter had sold far more digital copies as of November — 250,000, according to the Times — than print (25,657). That print tally is still good, but hardly world-shaking. And Amazon Publishing’s  numbers drop off quickly from there: Owen reports that its next-biggest print seller, marketing guru Seth Godin’s Poke the Box, had sold 23,436 copies, and its third seller, Stephen Pressfield’s Do the Work, also from Godin’s Domino Project imprint, just 8,288. And down from there. “With the exception of Godin’s books and The Hangman’s Daughter, print sales for Amazon Publishing’s books appear mediocre,” writes Owen.

As Owen notes, Amazon faces one big hurdle in the print book business: its toxic relations with the brick-and-mortar stores where, Owen writes, most book buyers discover new titles, even if they don’t buy them there. Amazon has acknowledged the stores’ gateway role, and incited further resentment, by offering an app that enables shoppers to scan UBC codes in stores and order them, for less, from Amazon. (It even, briefly, offered a discount to encourage such parasitical scanning.)

Not surprisingly, many stores want nothing to do with Amazon’s own editions. Barnes & Noble refused to carry The Hangman’s Daughter in print, reports Owen, after Amazon refused to release the ebook for its Nook reader, which competes with Amazon’s Kindle. Several years ago Jane Adams, a Seattle author with a long nonfiction track record, failed to sell a novel, Sugar Time, she thought could be a hit (“chick lit for women old enough to know better”). So she published it via CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing operation. The royalty arrangements sounded great, but the result was a bust: Reviewers wouldn’t touch a self-published book, even from her, and bookstores that had supported her before wouldn’t take any volume bearing the taint  of Amazon. “If the animus against Amazon among booksellers, particularly the independents, continues to be that strong,” says Adams, “I don’t know how readers are going to be able to see the new books in print, except by ordering them online.”

All this gives heart to at least one industry veteran. “Publishing, like creative writing, is not an easy business at which to succeed commercially,” literary agent Elizabeth Wales told me in an email. (Disclosure: She reps me, and many other Seattle scribblers.) “So it’s no surprise that, though advantaged with vast resources, lots of fanfare, and a huge distribution engine on the Internet, Amazon is not having an easy time of it as a publisher. They are making the so-called ‘old-fashioned, traditional publishers’ look like they know a few things, which they do. But what established publishers know best is the uncertainty and risk of publishing. … Like everyone in publishing, we’d like to see scaled-up unit sales, but not at the expense of devaluing books and making bookselling no longer a viable business.” 

Amazon has navigated uncertainty and risk before, however. Given all the hazards in publishing, I’m not sure it’s actually lagging at the game. It has a matchless trove of information on reader tastes and interests to guide (and target) its marketing. And, as Wales notes, its capacity to promote and advance its own products — the potential for vertical integration — is huge. It can price them to move and rack up sales numbers: Amazon offers Godin’s Poke the Box and his imprint’s Do the Work for just $6.29 in hardback and (for Poke the Box) $3.99 for Kindle — less than half what it charges for Godin’s previous books from other publishers. The Kindle editions are free to those who pay $79 a year to join its Amazon Prime loyalty club.

All that reflects Amazon’s familiar strategy of sacrificing profits to low prices and free shipping in order to build market share. Predatory pricing? At some point, antitrust watchdogs might ask that question.

Right now, Amazon offers a liberating alternative for authors who’ve been neglected, snubbed, ill-treated, or simply put off by the New York-centered publishing establishment. But the potential for it to steer not just the industry but the culture is enormous, should it achieve in publishing what it has in retailing — should it become a new mono-establishment. It will not only collect a toll from every traveler on the road, while alternative routes disappear for lack of traffic and maintenance. It will determine who gets to pass through the gate and which vehicles they can use — favoring of course its own handy Kindle.

Farfetched? The road to e-commerce’s brave new world is littered with investors and competitors who’ve bet against Amazon.

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