Amazon, Publishing, and the Future

A while back, Amazon made it clear it wanted to compete with NY publishers in the print space as well as digital. They hired a lot of NY editors and opened an office in NY.  Now we hear that Larry Kirshbaum, the man who headed this publishing arm, is leaving and that that editors have been laid off. There were some high profile non-fiction books that were mostly considered failures because Amazon could not get print editions into stores.

I have some thoughts about this that cover several areas, with respect to fiction. I don’t know enough about non-fiction to have an informed opinion.

Same Old Same Old

When I heard that Amazon was hiring NY folks into these positions, one of my thoughts was that all they were doing was bringing the same moribund thinking into their publishing arm. I think that’s a part of the problem.

What self-publishing has proved: Traditional publishing rejects stories that are commercial. It also insists on editorial changes that make stories less successful.

I have heard Amazon authors complain about editorial policies that imposed the same notions about what’s commercial and what will sell. This is no surprise because Amazon hired NY editors who either brought all their traditional mores, if you will, or remained unable to let the author decide because of pressure from the top.

What I think should happen: Publishing needs to take more risks with books and they need to trust their authors more. I’m not saying abandon editorial input. I’m saying let the author take risks.

Print Still Matters

There’s no question print still matters. Self-published authors are frustrated by the roadblocks to print. If the publishing system weren’t fundamentally broken, it would be possible for any reader to buy a print version through a physical store. This is not possible in part because of the returns issue, but also because there is significant ill-will against Amazon.

Amazon Dug Its Very Own Hole

Almost from the get-go, publishers and bookstores expressed a deep and abiding hatred for Amazon. Hatred might actually be too weak a word. Amazon does itself no favors in the way it conducts business with publishers and bookstores.

The bigger deal here is Amazon’s relationship with physical bookstores. If you want bookstores to carry your books, then it’s pretty important to have a relationship that is mutually beneficial. From everything I hear, Amazon has done the exact opposite in this respect. What I hear from booksellers is that they would gleefully refuse to do ANYTHING that would benefit Amazon, and they would do it even if it means forgoing an otherwise profitable arrangement. THAT is some serious hate.

Unless Amazon is betting on the disappearance of bookstores, this is a relationship they should be looking to repair.

Updated 2013.11.07: Indie Booksellers appear to be turning away from Amazon’s offer of 2 year cut of every book purchased from a Kindle bought through that store. While this is an obvious strike at Kobo and its current deal with indie bookstores, it’s also mystifying to me why Amazon thinks booksellers will jump at this. Amazon appears not to understand that they have burned some bridges.

A Clear and Present Danger

Here’s what really worries me.

I see people in publishing saying “See? Print Matters! Amazon isn’t such a big deal.”

This ignores a pretty scary circumstance.

Amazon wants to play in the print distribution world.

The strategy for stopping that relies on distributors and bookstores refusing to distribute Amazon’s products or carry them in stores.

For publishing, this has eventual failure written all over it. If does nothing to address the real danger, which is Amazon finding a way around that. Legal action might be one way. I’m not a lawyer so maybe that’s all fine and dandy. But hmm.

Another might be mending fences with Indie bookstores or even mending fences with B&N. From everything I’ve heard, B&N is in a precarious financial position. Suppose Amazon made B&N an offer too good to refuse. Or even took a stake in B&N?

All Amazon needs is some set of physical bookstores that WILL take the product. Someone, somewhere, will crack.

But is that even necessary? Baker & Taylor will distribute self-published titles under the right circumstances. What happens if those circumstances expand?

The Easy Way or the Hard Way

Amazon has tried the easy way: acquiring books by authors they hoped were big enough that physical stores wouldn’t refuse to carry them. Not a bad strategy. Amazon just seems to have misjudged the animosity toward them.

What’s the hard way? Buying a presence. Paying BIG Co-op to get their books present in Indie stores. Taking a stake in B&N. Solving the returns problem on their own. Waiting to see if someone else solves the POD and returns problem. Waiting for the desktop edition of the Espresso Book machine. (GAME OVER.)

Forming their own distribution company and contacting Airports, drugstores, gas stations, Wholesalers, libraries and schools. “We’ll pay you for rack space in your store, and you keep x% of all sales. Here’s your free desktop edition of a book printing device.” Call up a few professors and say, hey, publish your next textbook with us and we’ll give Universities a better deal than they get now.”

Ultimately, publishers do not own the Point of Sale. They can’t stop Amazon from innovating and/or playing the long game on this issue either.

Publishers could, however, attempt to innovate and problem-solve on their own. They could, perhaps, treat authors a little more fairly so we don’t look to Amazon as the place where we’ll maximize our earning potential.

Who’s Looking Pretty?

Quite possibly authors.

Think about this: If the biggest selling Romance authors left their publishers to self-publish, what do you think bookstores will say when those authors want their print books in their stores?

Pretend it wasn’t just the midlist walking away but the upper-midlist. Lead authors. NYT bestselling authors. Pretend it was oh, say, Theresa Medeiros or Stephanie Laurens and others like them.

Do you see the risk?

It’s the author’s decision where to go, and if authors are getting a better deal elsewhere, and if the print distribution problem is solved in some ingenious fashion by Amazon or someone else, what happens to publishers who took no steps to be viable in that world?

It worries me that publishers might actually be saying, the current print world isn’t going away so we don’t have to innovate, because, what if they’re wrong?

We already know they were wrong about digital, wrong about new genres, and wrong about genre backlist.

3-D printers used to be Science Fiction. Then then were too damn much money. Now they’re something a lot of us could buy right now.

That’s going to happen to book printing.

Updated 2013.11.07: Lookie here: Espresso machine in a Drugstore. Via The Digital Reader.

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8 Responses to “Amazon, Publishing, and the Future”

  1. Erin Satie says:

    I love this post. It’s clear & cuts through a lot of issues in a way that feels obvious and useful. Thanks.

    Just wanted to point out that Fresh Air just did an interview with Brad Stone about his new book THE EVERYTHING STORE: JEFF BEZOS AND THE AGE OF AMAZON & I thought it was REALLY interesting. I’ll probably buy & read the book thanks to the interview, but it struck me as something most pro authors could get a lot out of.

    Not because Stone has so much to say about the future of publishing, but because he breaks down the history of Amazon & analyzes Bezos’ ambitions. Like, Stone thinks Bezos started his ‘everything store’ with books because books are easy to ship. Not as a passion project, but just a practical issue. “I can get this in a box without much trouble, okay, go.”

    Stone seems to be an admirer of Bezos, but the interview left me feeling really queasy.

    • Thanks, Erin. I didn’t hear the Fresh Air interview, but I’ve seen a few things about the book. Bezos has said many times that he started with books because they were easy for lots of reasons, including mailability, but also getting the data about them. Apparently an Amazon employee, who has known Bezos since High School, left a review on Amazon (!) noting that for the details about which he had personal knowledge, 20% were wrong and that he suspected therefore that 20% of the other details were wrong, too. Heh.

      • Erin Satie says:

        Yeah–I don’t expect to learn any secrets. But I think I’d like a better understanding of the company’s trajectory–for clues about where they’re headed, etc.

  2. kyahgirl says:

    I always enjoy reading your insights into things. I know very little about publishing except that there have been big black clouds swirling over the industry for a few years now. Your post offered some illumination!

    • Thanks! I think I should have added that readers would also benefit. But then again, I don’t trust that readers wouldn’t be the ones to (over)pay. Hope not!

  3. Excellent points–Somebody knowledgeable told me Amazon thought B&N was going to happily wedge Amazon titles onto those limitless, free, self-dusting book shelves in every Barnes and Noble store. That Amazon didn’t dot that little i or cross that weeny t BEFORE going into competition with every publisher stocking Amazon’s shelves and before going into the print biz… well, it does puzzle one.

    I also think POD will be Amazon’s amazon. Just as Trad Pubs caught onto digital too late, Point of Sale POD is rapidly becoming cost effective… and then, what are all those warehouses full of “mailable” books going to do for fun?

    • I heard something like that, too. I’m not sure Amazon knows how fiercely they are hated in certain quarters where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. I’ve always wondered why they didn’t play nicer with Indie bookstores in particular.

      I think POD at the point of sale will hurt printers most of all, then publishers unless they get more competitive for authors. Amazon stands to benefit more, since they could, conceivably, be the POD source for books that currently sell very little in print.

      I worry more about publishers because while Amazon has proven itself nimble and ambitious, publishers have not.

      We’ll see!

  4. I’m so happy to have read this. I haven’t been keeping up, and what a nice cogent summary and analysis! Gah, I feel sorry for authors who sold books to Amazon – I didn’t realize there was a challenge with bookstore presence! Though, I think they do get a great deal of presence at Amazon itself, which definitely isn’t chopped liver.