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Amazon retreats to its Seattle compound after traditional retail arms shun...

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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

17 Comments

  1. Shannon Stacey
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 06:44:04

    I wonder if disappointment with the print situation will lead to Amazon wanting a bigger slice of the self-publishing pie.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 07:05:54

    The biggest book retailer in terms of volume is ASDA/Walmart, followed by the other supermarkets. You don’t need to be in New York to sell to them. You need to guarantee volume. And with some big self-publishing names slipping through their hands to other publishers, you bet Amazon will be looking at their numbers more closely. Amazon has that big advantage that nobody else does. They have the detailed numbers.

  3. Cindy
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 08:15:00

    I don’t know, with Wal-Mart and Target’s ever shrinking book departments, are they really that large of retailers for books. Our local Target only a few months ago had three aisles of adult books, now it’s one. Every thing else is children’s books. And Wal-Mart’s has been small for years. Heck, you can’t even by a Harlequin Historical locally…and we have 2 Wal-Marts, 2 Targets, a myriad of grocery stores and a BAM. No one has them.

  4. Jane
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 08:23:00

    @Cindy: I know that for trade paperbacks and “big” books, Target is a really major account and that Walmart is still important in the mass market business.

  5. Cindy
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 10:21:35

    Must be our area then. Maybe Target and Wal-Mart figured out how cheap our residents are that they refuse to buy a book new. Target did have a lot of the trade size, very little mass market…in fact here they did away with Harlequin entirely.

    ETA: But then the stores here are getting rid of most everything people need. I had to order my father’s cranberry pills from Amazon because Wal-Mart was out and even the drug store didn’t carry the brand/dosage he takes.

  6. Darlynne
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 11:00:22

    @Cindy: Our Walmart and Target are doing the same. Their book departments a couple of years ago were significant, mostly MMPB and an unbelievable selection of Harlequin. Hardback and trade books were represented, but not to the same degree. So, yes, I also wonder about their continuing influence.

  7. Mike Cane
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 13:26:47

    Interesting, reading about books being scaled back at Wal-Mart and Target. Books are lower-velocity items than, say, soda or batteries or disposable diapers. Someone in accounting must have done some charts that influenced this change. I’m sure all of their customers who bought from Amazon instead of Wal-Mart and Target also brought about that change.

  8. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 13:52:51

    There’s another factor I *believe* went into WalMart’s downsizing of its book selection and that is, with the mass redesign to make it Target2, not only did the fabric department get taken out, the book/magazine section got moved to the back of the store instead of at the front. It’s in a high-traffic area, except that it gets lost between CDs/DVDs/iPhone accessories and pet care.

    And don’t underestimate the importance of the fabric section as a rainmaker. WalMart lost a lot of money with that decision and traffic (especially in rural areas) tanked. It’s still not up to par and people in rural areas will wait until they have to make a trip into “the city” (whichever town is close enough to support a JoAnne’s) to shop for fabric.

  9. Glittergirl
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 14:01:08

    As a mass market paperback reader/collector (I have an addiction, I admit it, lol) I am a frustrated purchaser. I used to cruise Walmart and Target every week to pick up my new releases. Now I’m only finding 1/2 of the ones I’m looking for locally at a discount. I’ve given up on Target as they’ve reduced mm shelf space to almost nothing and the discount is now 15% instead of Walmart’s 25%. As a last resort I’ll wait for a 20% B&N coupon to pick up one I can’t find locally except there. I’m having to purchase books via the internet because they are just not available on the shelf and that just stinks. I want to support the local economy but I can’t if the stores won’t cooperate. I feel I’ve been forced by publishers and stores to purchase digital books because it’s the only way I can get many of them anymore. By the way ~ Walmart’s books online are now 40% off again but watch their free shipping because last time I ordered it wasn’t free at final checkout. Huh? You can’t argue with a computer…

  10. hapax
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 14:10:28

    @Moriah Jovan:

    Oh, was I mad when Wal-Mart got rid of the fabric section — they really tanked their craft section as well, and I hate to shop at Hobby Lobby.

    The good news is that after a coupe of years, we now have a Michael’s and TWO independent fabric / craft stores!

    (We also have a Barnes and Noble and an indy bookstore, plus the best used bookstore I’ve ever seen — but B&N is mostly a toy store now, the indy concentrates on literary and non-fiction, and the UBS has a fantastic stock of every genre EXCEPT romance)

  11. Morgan
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 14:34:23

    @Cindy:

    Same thing happened at my Walmart. There used to be a whole section, with three aisles for books, and now it’s down to barely one. It’s a shame, since they used to get books by some of my favorite authors before B&N (the only local bookseller).

    Though thankfully, my Walmart still has its fabric section (well, one out of two does).

  12. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 14:52:10

    @hapax: Their removal of the fabric section was a ginormous deal on Wall Street. It was not happy, and it showed. Heads rolled.

  13. MaryK
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 15:32:32

    They’ve brought the fabric/craft sections back at the WalMarts in my area.

  14. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 16:37:18

    @MaryK: Yes, but they are a shadow of what they once were.

  15. Cindy
    Oct 27, 2013 @ 20:36:18

    @glittergirl Exactly. Not only did I have to also order Dad’s pills from Amazon, I had to order the dustpan I wanted because Target only had it available through online with over $5 shipping. You can’t buy bookends around here. Buying clothes that fit is hit or miss More and more you ave to go online retailers only have themselves to blame at this point

  16. Isobel Carr
    Oct 28, 2013 @ 09:12:10

    With Amazon paying taxes, I’m wondering when/if we’ll them open small stores/fulfillment centers. I can totally see Amazon reinventing the mall bookstore and using them as expansion placement for their locker program. They could carry their own books as well as those of all the NY houses and simply drive B&N out of business.

  17. Ether for Authors: Is Amazon Really in Retreat? | Publishing Perspectives
    Oct 29, 2013 @ 02:00:59

    […] In Amazon retreats to its Seattle compound after traditional retail arms shun it, Jane Litte goes on to explain that the idea of a towel being thrown in came to us with the first glimmer of the news of Kirshbaum’s departure. Shelf Awareness’ report, sourced to unidentified parties, was headlined Amazon Publishing: Kirshbaum Leaving, Ambitions Scaled Back. […]

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