On Friday it was announced that Larry Kirschbaum was leaving Amazon Publishing to return to agenting. At first, it seemed like Amazon was retrenching entirely but later reports indicated that Daphne Durham would be taking his place but that she would be headquartered in Seattle. Shelf Awareness broke the Kirschbaum story and blamed Amazon’s retreat on the fact that Barnes & Noble and indies refused to stock Amazon published works. You can order a print copy of the Amazon books via BN.com but no physical store would carry these books including the non traditional but big accounts like Walmart or Target.
Kirshbaum wanted to buy and sell literary titles and that audience is more fixated on print books than they are digital.
Barnes & Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon titles mattered less for Amazon’s niche-y science fiction, romance and mystery books, which it could target to very specific audiences on its website. But the big, general titles that Kirshbaum wanted to publish needed more of a push from bookstores, and they didn’t get it.
It could be that a messy sexual assault lawsuit against Kirschbaum may have influenced the parting (although some of the details reported sound so incredible as not to be believed) but a digital only presence for big books is problematic for authors who want to reach the 50% or more readers who haven’t migrated to digital.
With digital adoption on the rise, print readers may decline in numbers but today and for the near future (meaning the next few years), the print audience is a substantial one. Amazon’s move from New York back to Seattle makes a lot of financial sense for Amazon and it doesn’t necessarily signal a retrenchment. However much like a digital book can’t be a huge success if it is not sold on Amazon, a print book isn’t going to be a huge success unless Barnes & Noble is on board as well.
And even in this day and age of digital successes, print has meaningful cachet to authors. For some authors, it isn’t just about the money but it’s about seeing one’s book in the bookstore or on the shelves of a library. To those friends and neighbors, you aren’t truly published until they can go to their local bookstore and buy your book off the shelf. For others it means foreign rights and seeing their books in different languages and in different bookstores around the world.
For Amazon to sell its publishing arm to authors other than self publishers, they’ve got to find a way into bookstores and given the animosity toward Amazon from all retail quarters whether it is Target or Barnes & Noble or Wal-mart or indies, Amazon is unlikely to be able to sweet talk its way through those brick and mortar store doors. Ultimately it is likely that Amazon’s grand plan to become a major publishing threat is going to be scaled back.
However, this actually makes the KDP arm of Amazon all the more important because the more authors that achieve success self publishing, the more that Amazon erodes publishing’s underpinnings. At some point, literary authors will start self publishing with some success and there will be literary salons where literary authors gather together and sell their books with their Square attachments.
Already new genre self published authors expect agents to come to them and self published authors expect large six figure contracts. When the self published authors expect this the traditionally published authors chafe at their lower royalties and more modest advances. And publishing houses wanting to capitalize on self publishing success spend millions of dollars on books that have already seen their digital component play out. These losses pile up. Authors are treated poorly and then retreat to the self publishing arena. I’ve read more bitter posts and subtweets about publishers in the last six months than existed in the six plus years this blog has been in existence.
Self publishing success can’t come to everyone. The sheer numbers of books published each month outweigh the buying power of all those Kindle owners. But the lure of self publishing is potent and Amazon’s currying of authors through the self publishing portal will be just as powerful as the attack on the front doors of traditional publishing.
In sum, Amazon may have limped back to Seattle to tend to its wounds but it’s insidious underground attack is still there.