BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 19, 2011
Peeking into the Amazon Publishing booth at Book Expo last spring, I felt like a member of the Rebel Alliance in the Death Star. While the main floor of the hall was crowded with readers lining up for giveaways and editors huddled around tables, the corner Amazon had staked out—right up front by the entrance—exuded a suspicious calm. Though it had the plushest carpeting anywhere in the hall (always the most reliable Book Expo status indicator) and the comfiest looking chairs, few books were to be found. I steered around it, reluctant to be caught hobnobbing there, even though I was curious about what was going on.
There is no longer any doubt, as The New York Times reported (rather belatedly) on Monday, that Amazon is fashioning itself in the model of a traditional publishing company. There are currently six separate Amazon imprints: AmazonEncore, called the “flagship,” focusing on “exceptional books and emerging authors;” AmazonCrossing, devoted to literature in translation; Thomas & Mercer, for mysteries and thrillers (“an exceptionally popular genre among Amazon customers”); Montlake Romance; 47North, with “a wide array of new novels and cult favorites;” and The Domino Project, for pamphlet-style books. New editorial hires have recently been reported, from former agent and Time Warner Book Group executive Laurence Kirshbaum to Ed Park, the author of the acclaimed novel Personal Days and a onetime editor at both The Believer and The Village Voice. A score of new paperbacks have already appeared, many of which seem to have done respectably, even if none was a breakthrough bestseller—as the most recently signed authors, including lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss, are virtually certain to be.
The news that Amazon is preparing to release more than 100 books this fall was predictably greeted in doomsday tones. “Amazon.com has taught readers that they do not need bookstores. Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers,” lamented the Times. The mood was summed up by Richard Curtis, an agent and e-book publisher who was one of the few publishing professionals willing to speak on the record. “Everyone’s afraid of Amazon,” he said. “If you’re a publisher, one day you wake up and Amazon is competing with you too. And if you’re an agent, Amazon may be stealing your lunch because it is offering authors the opportunity to publish directly and cut you out.” The trouble isn’t just that Amazon is stealing some money-making authors. It’s that “the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.”
Note the past tense. If traditional book publishing is failing to provide services that once were standard, someone will inevitably step in to fill the vacuum. There are three major steps in publishing and selling a book, and in each of them Amazon is offering a service that has been neglected by the mainstream:
1. Discovering new authors. Publishing houses used to have “slush piles” that were skimmed by junior editors in search of new talent. These days the slush pile has largely been transferred to the offices of agents, who can take six months or more to respond to queries. An unconnected author who knows how little chance he or she has of getting in the door at any of these places might well consider self-publishing—as an e-book or with a vanity press—a worthwhile gamble. One of the authors quoted in the Times article as having had a happy experience with Amazon started out with a vanity press after her memoir was rejected by mainstream houses. After it was reviewed favorably in Publishers Weekly, Amazon offered to republish it, complete with “an editorial once-over, a new cover and a new title.” Another “success story” is the German historical novel The Hangman’s Daughter, an e-book bestseller now in hardcover from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“The great and fascinating thing about Amazon’s publishing program is that there can be these grass-roots phenomena,” an editor there told the Times. These phenomena always existed—but publishers have now outsourced the job of looking for them.
2. Creating beautiful books. The relationship between an editor and a writer can’t be quantified, of course; it’s the main reason why I wouldn’t consider self-publishing. But not many writers still get old-fashioned attention. An editor responsible for two dozen books a year will be lucky to give each of them a single decent read. By hiring well-regarded editors, Amazon has signaled that it values the editor-writer relationship, although it remains to be seen whether these editors will be just as overworked as their counterparts elsewhere.
The looks department is where publishers are still clearly coming out ahead. A self-published paperback can’t compete with a hardcover from a mainstream house, where professional designers still put together attractive covers and layouts. But as e-books proliferate, the book as physical object matters far less. Beyond the cover graphic, most people would be hard-pressed to spot the differences between a self-published e-book and one from a major publisher.
3. Getting the word out. A big house theoretically offers access to an experienced marketing and publicity staff, which will be mobilized around a publishing date to contact reviewers and pitch features. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work that way. Unless you’re the lucky recipient of a giant advance that the publisher is motivated to recoup—that would be mid-six-figures and above—there’s little incentive to devote valuable staff hours to promoting your book. Galleys will be sent out and phone calls made, but within a couple of weeks everyone will have moved on to the next big thing. And for all but the top sellers, a mainstream publisher won’t pay for bookstore co-op placement—those coveted tables in the front of the store. A smaller press might have little bookstore distribution at all, so you’re functionally limited to selling on Amazon anyway.
As a critic, I haven’t been on the receiving end of much in the way of promotion from Amazon—just a couple of galleys in the mail. But the in-house Amazon marketing efforts for these books are noticeable. Many (if not all) of the Amazon imprint books have features on the site like author Q&As, a service the publicist for my last book did not provide. About half of them have close to 100 customer reviews, a number that’s hard to achieve through word of mouth alone, especially for books that aren’t high sellers. Interesting.
THE TIMES WONDERS if Amazon can “secretly create its own bestsellers.” Actually, it already has, although they aren’t the books in its publishing program. Of the current top ten e-book bestsellers on Amazon, four of them are self-published. These aren’t flukes: They’ve been in the top ten more than 50 days on average. They’re books by authors you probably haven’t heard of—Darcy Chan, Chris Culver, Michael Prescott, Douglas E. Richards—right up there with James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks. At 79 to 99 cents a copy, they’re priced to sell. But considering that sales estimates for some of the top indie e-book sellers start at 2500 copies a month, that’s money most authors would be quite pleased with. Self-published e-books occupy several slots of the top ten on all the genre lists, too—sci-fi, romance, mysteries.
This is staggering, and it’s a part of the story that hasn’t yet been fully explored. When nontraditional e-books are taking such a large cut of the market, why on earth is Amazon building an editorial apparatus? It would seem to be exactly the wrong move—unless there’s some other piece of the puzzle we don’t know about.
Amazon can be faulted for a lot of things, but making bad business decisions isn’t one of them. If the company has calculated that the gain of bringing edited books to market is worth the investment in an in-house editorial staff, that’s not an assault on the publishing industry. To the contrary: It’s a signal that the services the industry has traditionally offered are still of value. What’s under assault, rather, is the bloated, arrogant, and conservative culture of the publishing conglomerates that for so long have enjoyed far too much control over what we read.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.