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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Surprise! Or Not? Amazon Enters Publishing, Part I

By Carol Baicker-McKee
amazon.com logo

The book world is chattering away about this recent New York Times article, "Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal" (10-16-11). That Amazon was entering the publishing business was not really news - they've been gradually adding imprints in niche genres like romance novels and sci-fi books and helping authors self-publish and sell e-books for a while - it's more that the pace, scope and implications of their efforts are becoming more apparent.

This fall, the bookseller will publish 122 books, all in both electronic and physical versions, across a broad array of genres. It has hired an industry veteran, Laurence Kirschbaum, to head up the program, and it has been signing up (with big advances) some big names like Tim Ferriss (of the Four-Hour books) and most recently, Penny Marshall. And it recently introduced the Kindle Fire, a tablet for Amazon books and media, with Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon's CEO, calling Kindle an "end-to-end" service.

So what does this mean for authors? For publishers? For agents?

Russell Grandinetti, a top executive at Amazon, downplayed the threat to traditional publishing, but compared the change to the introduction of Gutenburg's printing press, noting:

“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

 From comments to the article and around the blogosphere, clearly lots of folks argue that even writers and readers also have both risk and opportunity in this changing publishing/bookselling climate.

I encourage you to read the NY Times article yourself, as well as other pieces like this one in Forbes Magazine (from 2008, to give you a sense of how long folks have been worrying about Amazon's expanding role) and check out the comments to the articles and on book sites, like Verla Kay's Blue Board (you have to be a legitimate book person and join to read the comments there). But today I will summarize the main comments I'm seeing in support of Amazon's foray into publishing - tomorrow I'll review the criticisms and worries.


Basically, Amazon increases competition and opportunity which can be good for both authors and readers. Also Amazon has a history of being good to authors.

  • Traditional publishing has always been too rigid a gatekeeper, shutting out many good, publishable manuscripts that can now make it to market and find readers (and then make money for their authors). This change will particularly benefit niche genres (like poetry or fan fiction) and hard-to-market formats (like short fiction and collections). 

  • In the wake of vertical integration, traditional publishing firms have been gobbled up by media/entertainment conglomerates, making the bottom line all important. Publishers are thus less willing than ever to develop new authors, take risks on unusual or more literary books, or invest marketing in midlist books. This has led to a narrowing of choices for readers as well as limiting opportunities for authors. Amazon's entry into publishing may shake things up and force publishers to change or perish.

  • Traditional publishing is too slow, unresponsive, and controlling. Few houses are open to unagented work, it can take six months or more to hear back about submitted manuscripts and years to get an accepted book to market. Authors have little influence over many crucial decisions, like covers and even titles. Amazon offers a faster, author-controlled process with its self-published ebooks and at least for now appears to be more author-friendly with its emerging traditional program.

  • Authors get too small a share of revenues under traditional publishing. Amazon's e-publishing program allows authors to retain a much bigger share and their traditional publishing one seems to be promising both large advances and bigger percentages, which they can afford by cutting out unnecessary middlemen. This will ultimately benefit both authors and readers, by making a writing career more realistic and appealing for more good writers.

  • Publishers do less and less for most authors, while Amazon has been doing more and more for them, giving them access to sales figures, ways to interact with readers, and the possibility of hanging onto a larger percentage of sales. Amazon already has opportunities that make marketing easier and less expensive for authors, so why not go with them right from the start?

  • Publishers have been entering the bookselling market themselves for years now; it's hypocritical of them to criticize Amazon for crossing into their territory. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

 So what do you think about the possible benefits of Amazon's entry into publishing?

Tomorrow: Jeers and Fears about Amazon's Publishing Program
Later: Questions Related to these Developments
(Added 10-20-11: You can view Part II here)

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