There is some interesting news this week about the ongoing struggle within the book business to define the protean changes that are going on, mostly having to do with the exponential growth of the ebook market and of Amazon’s seemingly inexorable march to dominate book publishing at all levels.
Last spring Amazon announced that it was creating a trade publishing division. They hired publishing insider and veteran, Larry Kirschbaum, to head it up. Larry had been for many years the CEO of Hachette Book group, one of the “big six publishers.” He retired from that position several years ago and became a literary agent. He is about as much of an old school publisher as you could get. Prior to this, Amazon had been dabbling in publishing but they were more involved in the “self-publishing” end of the business.
This new development puts them in direct competition with the New York trade houses. Not to put too fine a point on it, the big publishers are not happy. Maybe this is simply sour grapes, maybe the publishers just don’t want another competitor to split off their business and to steal their best authors. That is certainly a component of it. But Amazon has never been satisfied being a part of a larger whole. Their stategy has always been to be the whole whole. And they have the money to do that. Amazon’s market capitalization is moving north of 80 billion dollars. — Res ipsa loquitur. They also have the infrastructure. They pretty much control the retail end of the ebook business and they have surpassed Barnes and Noble as being the largest retailer of print on paper books as well.
And they don’t believe in open platforms. If you are going to buy a Kindle edition, you must buy it from Amazon. They won’t permit their competitors to sell it. And, of course, you can only read Kindle editions on a — Kindle. In comparison, the iPad and Barnes and Noble’s Nook accept books in the Epub open format edition.
It is true that Amazon over the past few months has been snagging some big name commercial authors and paying big bucks. Tim Ferris, Deepak Chopra, James Franco, and Penny Marshall are frequently mentioned. And Amazon has announced that they will be bringing out over 100 titles in the fall. And that is just the beginning. Amazon has downplayed their threat to the publishers saying that for them [commercial publishers], “it’s always the end of the world.”
Well, of course Amazon is always savvy at business and they realize that in order to bring in the big authors and get on the best seller lists, they have to have their books available in all venues and in all editions. Since most other bookstores loathe Amazon as much as the publishers, one can assume that there might be some reluctance on the part of these stores to order Amazon titles from Amazon. So in January, 2012 Amazon announced that traditional publisher Houghton Mifflin would be distributing Amazon print on paper titles to the trade.
If Amazon really wants to encourage their erstwhile and ongoing competitors to buy Amazon Publishing titles in hardback and paperback, one might think that they would make nice about the e-book editions as well. No. Amazon will not publish their e-books in the Epub format. This means that Barnes and Noble and pretty much everyone else selling e-books will not be permitted to sell the e-book edition of the Amazon Publishing titles.
This month Barnes and Noble announced that they would not be carrying titles by Amazon Publishing in their physical stores. They said that any publisher who would not make all their editions available to B&N would not have their books represented in their 700 stores. Today the second largest retailer in America, Books-A-Million announced that they had made the same decision. One can assume that you will have difficulty finding these books in independent bookstore as well, even if the books are carrying the Houghton Mifflin logo, not Amazon’s.
Although it is always troubling to see fewer outlets for any book, most of us in publishing seem to be feeling a kind of exquisite sense of schadenfreude at what appears to be Amazon’s overreach. About 70% of all books are still sold in physical bookstores. I think authors are going to think twice about signing a book contract with Amazon Publishing knowing that their books will not be available at most stores nationwide.