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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Surprise! Or Not? Amazon Enters Publishing, Part II

By Carol Baicker-McKee
Amazon logo, upside down
In yesterday's post, I discussed this recent New York Times article on Amazon's expansion from bookseller to book publisher and summarized some of the positive comments I've been seeing about their move. Today, I'll describe the negative reactions and over the weekend, I'll wrap up with some questions.

Fears and Jeers
Basically the most common concern voiced is that Amazon is on its way to becoming a book monopoly, and that it will then stop being responsive to readers or supportive of writers. Other reactions include a sense that opening up the market will lower quality and increase confusion for consumers, as well as skepticism that Amazon's model will prove significantly different from traditional publishing's. Finally, many express satisfaction and/or loyalty toward traditional publishing.

  • Amazon and the big box booksellers forced most small, independent booksellers out of business - and now Amazon is forcing even the big box booksellers out of business (i.e., Borders). This has been bad for readers, reducing shopping choices; harming the book buying experience, for example by eliminating access to knowledgeable staff; and adversely shaping publishing choices by promoting popular books of lower literary merit over high quality books with smaller audiences. The same thing will happen in publishing if Amazon isn't checked. Do we really want a world where one organization controls the written word at every phase?

  • Once Amazon has a monopoly, they will no longer have an incentive to offer favorable terms to authors or be responsive to readers except as doing so benefits their bottom line. Whatever expansion/improvement occurs during the entry phase will be replaced by retraction/worsening over time.

  • Traditional publishing does a good job of gatekeeping, ensuring that most of the books that make it to market are of good quality and likely to appeal to consumers. They've been reviewed at multiple levels by multiple eyes, content-edited, fact-checked, copy-edited, designed, and produced with high quality materials. Amazon is deliberately setting out to reduce the amount of gatekeeping and speed up the process - and that will ultimately reduce the quality of books on the market, making choice harder for consumers.

  • There is really no evidence yet that Amazon's main publishing venture will be significantly different from the traditional model (except possibly bigger and more controlling). It is headed by a publisher from a traditional firm, and rather than developing new editors and authors, it is staffed with folks from traditional publishing, and it's stocking its list by wooing established, popular authors away from their old houses. So what will be better for writers or readers?

  • Whatever its flaws, traditional publishing has been good to me as a writer or reader. (What follows is a smorgasbord list!) As a writer, although entry is difficult, getting a book accepted for publication gives me a justified sense of accomplishment. My editor/publisher has a personal  relationship with me and has taken time to help me develop my career. I don't want to shut out my agent, who has helped me for years, from the process or profits. Also, I'd still need my agent to help me develop and submit only my best work and to negotiate a contract whether that's with Amazon or someone else. Almost no one in publishing gets rich, so the fact that most authors don't make a lot of money just puts them in line with others in the business. As a reader, I have a diversity of choices without being overwhelmed, and I also know what to expect in terms of quality/style from various imprints. Why fix what's not broken? 
Whew! A couple reminders: first, the points expressed here are a summary of others' views, not necessarily mine or any of the other members of this blog; second, you can read my original post with positive reactions to Amazon's transition here. Again, I urge you to do your own research and thinking about this development.

I'll be back over the weekend with questions related to these industry changes.

Breaking News! Today's New York Times (10-20-11) has an article you can view here about how three of the Big Six publishers have announced that they are (or are in the process of) giving authors access to online sales data and help with social media marketing tools, things many authors have been seeking from them for years and which Amazon has been offering for a while. Simon and Schuster's president and CEO denied their move was in reaction to Amazon's practice but was something that's been in the works for several years.

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