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“Those were my objectives, and I believed self-publishing was a better way to achieve them,” Eisler said in an interview. “But then Amazon approached me with what I judged to be an even better way to achieve those objectives.”
In a digital-first world, Eisler said, “the primary value a publisher can offer an author is direct-to-consumer marketing. And this is why Amazon is so strongly positioned to succeed in digital publishing: its book business is built on its ability to reach tens or even hundreds of millions of readers directly by e-mail. Amazon marketing is both exceptionally focused — book buyers — and exceptionally broad, with tens or even hundreds of millions of customers. Entities that can offer authors compelling direct-to-consumer marketing value will be in a good position to take a cut of the profits.”
“Interestingly,” he added, “there’s one particular group of companies that lacks any meaningful direct-to-consumer marketing ability. That group is New York publishing. Draw your own conclusions.”
Eisler shares the story of a literary agent who approached him at another conference and told him that she and her colleagues “hated” him. What drives the criticism from agents and authors? “I think this is because with choice comes responsibility, and many people are comfortable with a lack of choice precisely because that lack confers the luxury of avoiding the responsibility that comes with choice,” said Eisler, who is married to a literary agent. “So when I say, ‘You have a choice!’, many authors hear, ‘Now you are going to be responsible for the outcome!’ And they don’t like that.”
And what about booksellers? I asked Eisler about Seattle Mystery Bookshop and its owner, J.B. Dickey, who has made it clear that Amazon-published books will never darken his store’s Pioneer Square doorstep. Dickey’s views can be summarized as “Why should I stock books from someone who’s hell-bent on destroying my business?” Eisler, who’s done many signings at SMB as a Big Six author, is sympathetic but sees Dickey’s stance as a “hyperbolic straw man.”
“The legacy publishing world of which you are a part is about preserving the position of paper through high prices and an inefficient system of heavily controlled distribution,” Eisler said, as if speaking directly to Dickey. “The Amazon model is about lower prices and greater efficiency. Of course I have my opinions about which system better serves readers and authors overall, but that’s not the point. The point is, no one’s waging a vendetta. It’s just different players trying to implement different business strategies.”
(The irony, Eisler says later at the conference, is that he personally prefers reading printed books. But: “Despite my personal preference for paper, I recognize that digital has all the everyday advantages and is quickly becoming the dominant form of book distribution,” he said. “The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with is the way the electric light displaced candlelight. Both still exist; it’s just that the former displaced the latter to become the mass market, while the latter became a niche.”)
Based on the better-than-warm applause that followed Eisler’s talk at the Field’s End conference, many saw wisdom in his words. “I felt more hopeful after his talk because he highlighted the options authors have now, like they’ve never had before,” said Wendy Wallace, an island blogger and a member of Field End’s core team. “Whenever a writers’ conference got to the ‘How to Sell to New York Publishers’ session, I always ended up depressed. Barry had a different angle.”
Trish Bittman, an islander at the conference, said: “As I’m sure musicians dream of turning on the radio and hearing their song for the first time, I would love to see my book in a bookstore. But, things are changing and I need to go with the flow. I also like that it sounds so much easier to self-publish and get some marketing than being able to be published by a New York legacy publisher.”
Others, like Eagle Harbor Book Company's Irwin, were more ambivalent: “We are happy that Barry Eisler has found a formula that works for him, and we’re happy to sell his books in our store,” she said. “We agree that the very fluid field of publishing right now is not a black-or-white, either/or business. Both readers and writers have all sorts of options, and that is good. E-book first and print second is good model in some cases.”
But, she added, “we do not agree with all his advice and conclusions. As an institution that has connected readers with writers — and writers with readers — for over 40 years, our connection with our community is way more complex than delivery of paper goods.”
Like many of those who disagree with at least some of Eisler’s message, Irwin does agree that it’s time to tone down the rhetoric and work on solutions.
“There are so many outrageous statements made in this internecine conflict: Amazon is evil. Bricks and mortar stores are anachronisms. E-books will replace paper books except for a few niche markets. All of these are way too simplistic judgments,” Irwin said. “If ‘legacy’ publishers and bookstores are being dropped on their heads, as Eisler seems to insist, we will do what a good friend told us to do recently: We’ll get ready to land with a roll, and get right back up again.”
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