If it Looks Like a Publisher and Smells Like a Publisher – is it a Publisher?

Apple, the world’s biggest technology company, have often claimed that they are at the metaphorical crossroads of technology and liberal arts. Amazon, it could be said, are positioning themselves at a different crossroads: the place where technology and consumerism meet. And Amazon are scarily good at what they do. They’re adept at predicting and exploiting the appearance of that peculiar space where technology and retail meet. And now they want to publish books too. I’ve written before about why I think Amazon might fail at publishing books. But I was wrong. Amazon won’t fail. But they may not completely succeed either.

For the past month or so, Amazon’s publishing announcements have come thick and fast. First it was Montlake (a romance imprint) and then Thomas & Mercer (a thriller imprint). Then they announced they were hiring old-school publishing bigwig Larry Kirshbaum. We can probably expect other announcements to follow. According to the article linked to above, one New York agent summed up the US trade’s response to Amazon’s announcements in one word: “anxious”.

Should publishers be anxious about Amazon moving into the publishing sphere? The short answer is yes, probably. But the full answer is more complicated than that. Amazon seems to hold all the cards when it comes to their newest venture. They have a powerful and vibrant vertical retail presence. They have enviable access to their customers’ personal information – both buying and reading patterns. They are young and technologically adept in a way that big old traditional publishing houses are not.

So why do I doubt they’ll succeed at publishing? The answer is going to sound a bit namby-pamby. But it’s true nonetheless. Amazon lacks passion for books. They may like selling books and they’re clearly very good at it. But from the word go, Amazon have seen books as just another product to drive traffic and make money, along with milk, bicycle tyres and modular arch-shaped window shades (thanks, Amazon!). You only have to look as far as the initial acquisitions made by Montlake and Thomas & Mercer to see this pattern. All of the authors picked up by the new imprints are authors with track records selling books.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with acquiring books that you know will actually sell. Most publishers would probably love to do nothing but that. But there’s not a word about first time authors. There’s nothing in the marketing bumpf about developing or discovering new talent. And as any publisher will tell you, you can’t make a publishing company work long term without finding new authors. Bestselling authors make companies profitable – but if publishers stopped publishing everybody else, there would no longer be an industry.

So here’s how I see things proceeding. Amazon is going to keep the bastards honest. All the people who complain about publishers not tightening their belts will certainly see that happen in the next couple of years. Prices will drop. Print books will go the way of the vinyl record. And it will all be in the name of competing with Amazon. But publishers will survive, and they will modernise. And they’ll continue to find new authors, and develop existing authors in just the same way as they always did. Those authors will still be loyal to the people who found and nurtured them.

Publishing books is not just about selling product, it’s a labour of love, even if sometimes the emphasis is heavy on the labour and low on the love. It’s true that geniuses are sometimes born, but they’re far more often made – an idea that is very unpopular in this new democratised, self-publishing-is-the-future digital world.

So Amazon will keep selling books. They may even keep publishing them. But long term? Until Amazon starts actually contributing to the literary heritage of great authors without just buying them from other publishers or skimming them off the top of the self-published list, I won’t believe they’re anything but a digital clearing house with deep pockets and a really good fake tan.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

10 thoughts on “If it Looks Like a Publisher and Smells Like a Publisher – is it a Publisher?”

  1. What’s to stop Amazon from setting up their own ‘new books’ division? Why wouldn’t they start curating new talent? In this post, you talk about Amazon as if they were one inflexible person. I think perhaps Amazon will develop into an entirely new company that we haven’t seen before. A publisher, an exporter and a bookseller. I think the idea of only ‘real publishers’ being capable of the passionate love for authors and books is not only namby pamby but smacks of ‘smell of books’ publishing nostalgia! Amazon could hire people from publishing who care – in fact that’s what they’re doing already. They’re setting up their own imprints full of the best people, and soon they’ll start discovering new talent and they’ll join the industry as a competitive new player. What is to stop them from doing this? And why would this be bad?

    1. You got me! That is certainly something I was thinking as I was reading this. And I agree with you that there’s nothing stopping Amazon from doing this – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. It would be far better for the world of books if they did. But so far there is no evidence that they will.

      Any other publishing start-up would be sure to mention their desire to “develop new talent” ad nauseam. But they haven’t – not anywhere. And going by Amazon’s track record, their focus has always been on either maximising market share or maximising profit. Publishing new authors, as we well know, does neither. I really hope they do as you say, but until I see it, I won’t believe it.

  2. What’s to stop Amazon from setting up their own ‘new books’ division? Why wouldn’t they start curating new talent? In this post, you talk about Amazon as if they were one inflexible person. I think perhaps Amazon will develop into an entirely new company that we haven’t seen before. A publisher, an exporter and a bookseller. I think the idea of only ‘real publishers’ being capable of the passionate love for authors and books is not only namby pamby but smacks of ‘smell of books’ publishing nostalgia! Amazon could hire people from publishing who care – in fact that’s what they’re doing already. They’re setting up their own imprints full of the best people, and soon they’ll start discovering new talent and they’ll join the industry as a competitive new player. What is to stop them from doing this? And why would this be bad?

    1. You got me! That is certainly something I was thinking as I was reading this. And I agree with you that there’s nothing stopping Amazon from doing this – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. It would be far better for the world of books if they did. But so far there is no evidence that they will.

      Any other publishing start-up would be sure to mention their desire to “develop new talent” ad nauseam. But they haven’t – not anywhere. And going by Amazon’s track record, their focus has always been on either maximising market share or maximising profit. Publishing new authors, as we well know, does neither. I really hope they do as you say, but until I see it, I won’t believe it.

  3. Joel, I like your suggestion that Amazon might help keep the industry “honest” . Any industry can do with a counterbalance and your comment makes me feel a bit easier about Amazon’s influence. I belong to a few online reading groups and am a bit cowed at times by their zeal for Amazon, I mean, it’s only a business. And as a PS, love the “really good fake tan”

  4. Joel, I like your suggestion that Amazon might help keep the industry “honest” . Any industry can do with a counterbalance and your comment makes me feel a bit easier about Amazon’s influence. I belong to a few online reading groups and am a bit cowed at times by their zeal for Amazon, I mean, it’s only a business. And as a PS, love the “really good fake tan”

  5. It may well be a bigger play than just keeping the bastards honest. Amazon may not even be in publishing for publishing’s sake. It’s not inconceivable that their bid is to try and make publishing more flexible and more digital-friendly by going direct to the authors. They tried to do it with retail pricing, but publishers resisted that with agency agreements. This could be a way of doing the same thing, but from a different direction. It sounds quite Machiavellian, but it would be a great way to motivate publishers.

  6. It may well be a bigger play than just keeping the bastards honest. Amazon may not even be in publishing for publishing’s sake. It’s not inconceivable that their bid is to try and make publishing more flexible and more digital-friendly by going direct to the authors. They tried to do it with retail pricing, but publishers resisted that with agency agreements. This could be a way of doing the same thing, but from a different direction. It sounds quite Machiavellian, but it would be a great way to motivate publishers.

  7. Now Borders has announced they’re closing – completely – in Aus, this will surely direct even more people to Amazon (and kindle). Need to advertise booku more widely.

  8. Now Borders has announced they’re closing – completely – in Aus, this will surely direct even more people to Amazon (and kindle). Need to advertise booku more widely.

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