Amazon: the Next Big Publisher?

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The evidence is piling up: Amazon is gearing itself to become the next big publisher. Will it make it?

First take a look at the evidence: the drums have been rolling  recently around the birth of two new imprints, Thomas & Mercer for mysteries and thrillers and Montlake Romance, thus bringing the total to five (with Amazon Encore, AmazonCrossing and the Domino Project).

The biggest news last week were, of course, the appointment of Larry Kirschbaum as the new manager, as of July 5th, of a new general imprint yet to be named that will publish an  array of diverse things, fiction and non-fiction presumably known to be high selling. In fact, the announced categories are rather broad: business and general non-fiction, literary and commercial fiction, young adults - to be published in both print and digital formats. Basically this will be the top-of-the-line imprint covering everything except genre. The avowed goal according to Amazon management is to eventually cover everything Amazon's "voracious readers" are reading.  

Why is the hiring of  Kirschbaum such big news? Because as the former CEO of Time Warner's book division and  founder of a highly successful literary agency with 40 agents, he is a heavyweight in the traditional publishing industry. He is bringing not only his experience but an aura of  "legacy publisher" to Amazon. That's important because for many people Amazon is still nothing but an aggressive, upstart mail and digital library. In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, Kirschbaum acknowledged  he had been trying to find a way to do some publishing as an agent, but  in the end realized "it was cleaner to do this working for a company totally committed to digital publishing and that has the resources and structures to make this successful".

Cleaner? Yes, there have been questions raised in the industry about the possibility of conflicts of interest for writers if their agents cease to represent them and instead go straight to publishing them. So Kirschbaum's decision is undoubtedly cleaner from an ethical standpoint, avoiding all possible code of conduct problems.

Is Amazon, as he puts it, "a company totally committed to digital publishing"? Not quite the case, since the imprint he'll manage will publish printed books in addition to digital. But in the sense that Amazon's strength resides in its digital publishing capacity, it is indeed the case. In fact, therein lies its winning card, and I'm sure Kirschbaum knew what he was talking about when he referred to Amazon as "having the resources and structures to make this successful".

Because Amazon, compared to traditional publishers, has an extraordinary winning card that none of them have (at least for the time being) - and neither do traditional bookstores like Borders (hence its demise). Only those who go digital, cleverly combining the physical with the digital, like Barnes & Noble (vide its Nook, a real rival to the Kindle), can look forward to a serene future in the digital age.

What am I talking about? Those of you who have a Kindle will know right away what I am referring to: their computers' capacity to track your digital purchases, memorize them and the next time you turn up in the Kindle shop looking for a new book, to propose new titles to you on the basis of what you've bought. This is a very powerful tool to catch customers. Physical libraries have traditionally used shelf space, organizing them by genres and types of books to help their customers and make new titles accessible.

This possibility is of course denied to Amazon as an Internet company. They have had to devise digital search tools to make books accessible - but in so doing, they've developed an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Much more powerful than the "genre" system used by traditional publishers which is necessarily based on the history of past sales of their stable of authors.

Herein lies the main difference: traditional publishers know what their authors sold (how many copies, when, where, in what genre) but they don't know who bought them. Amazon does - perforce, it's on Internet, every transaction is written, a complete contract between seller and buyer, with credit card and home address. It's not like when you buy a book in a bookstore or at the WalMart with cash. And at the end of the day, knowing who bought what is going to win the race.

Provided, naturally, that Amazon keeps playing the game above board. I know of one person who got upset when she searched for the latest thrillers published by traditional publishers and instead got a whole lot of indies thrown at her. That happened, of course, because in the past she had bought (or looked, downloading a sample - that counts too) at a lot of self-published authors, and the machine, not being intelligent, thought she wanted to keep doing the same thing. Clearly, with the millions buying on Amazon, computers cannot give the required individual attention, but surely search functions can be improved, to respond better to every kind of requests, including the unexpected ones. My bet is that Amazon will be careful about this sort of glitch, it is in their interest.

Amazon has already started to put this knowledge to good use. For example, in publishing international literature in English with its imprint AmazonCrossing,  it is careful to pick the winners on the basis of customer feedback from Amazon stores worldwide. Result? Its first title, the Hangman's Daughter, sold 100,000 copies in the first six months after publication. And it seems AmazonCrossing is fast becoming a roaring success in the US market that is not particularly given to reading foreign authors.

Then you have the example of author Barry Eisler who just signed up with Amazon's imprint for thrillers and mysteries, saying it was the best, most straightforward contract he had ever signed (remember, he's the guy who walked away from a $500,000 advance with St Martin's Press, saying he wanted to self-publish). His advance was "comparable" to traditional deals and his royalty rate would be 70% since his book would first come out in digital edition (with the standard low royalty on the printed edition to follow). This too is interesting: the traditional model followed by legacy publisher (come out first with a printed edition then follow with digital) is here reversed: first digital, next printed.

So is this Brave New Publishing World going to be a paradise for authors and readers? Hard to say. Some of my friends worry that the craze of self-publishing on Kindle, particularly at the 99 cents price, will create an unmanageable slushpile that will demean the art of writing and turn off readers.

Maybe so but so far it hasn't happened. Amazon makes money on every title sold (even at 99 cents) because it costs next to nothing to deliver it by whispernet and the rest of the expenses (editing, book cover, marketing etc) is the author's, not Amazon's concern. And if the book is bad, the reader will blame the author, not Amazon and simply stop buying books from that author. So the slushpile stays there, unread, invisible, hidden somewhere in an internet cloud.

On the other hand, if a self-published author starts selling a lot of copies, Amazon will necessarily notice. They let famous Amanda Hocking walk away. Remember her? The paranormal romance writer who made such a splash last year, when she signed up with St Martin's press for a reportedly $4 million deal. But now they're not likely to let others get away. A friend of mine noticed recently that a self-published thriller author who'd acquired a consistent following and ranking on Kindle made it into their Thomas & Mercer imprint. More are sure to follow.

So, as blogger Jane Friedman said, will self-publishing on the Kindle replace the query letter to agents? Will publishing on one of Amazon's imprints become a goal as important for writers as reaching one of the Big Six publishers?

My guess is yes.

What do you think?
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