Retailers as publishers – the way forward?

By PD Martin

In today’s Wildcard Tuesday, I want to look at Amazon’s move into the publishing business…

Amazon moved into the publishing realm (sort of) in 2009 with AmazonEncore, a program where Amazon selected self-published titles they felt deserved greater attention and marketed them as AmazonEncore editions. In 2010, the imprint moved into a more traditional role, publishing original manuscripts (some selected via the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award and some via agent submissions). Also in 2010 came Amazon Crossing, an imprint that publishes English-language versions of foreign language books. 

However it was in 2011 that Amazon really launched itself as a publishing ‘house’. In 2011, three new imprints launched from Amazon’s Seattle office:

  • Montlake Romance (romance imprint; launched in April)
  • Thomas & Mercer (mystery/thriller imprint; launched in May)
  • 47North (science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint; launched in October)

Then in May this year, Amazon set up its New York-based imprint, appointing Laurence J Kirshbaum at its helm and focusing on non-fiction and some literary fiction. The imprint made its first acquisition in August, with Timothy Ferriss’ self-help book The Four-Hour Chef (for publication in 2012). 

Amazon’s most recent foray into publishing came earlier this month, when the company moved into the children’s publishing book market through its purchase of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books. The trade publishing list includes over 450 children’s books and the deal was made via Larry Kirshbaum’s publishing unit. One can only assume that acquisitions will follow.

Certainly there’s no arguing that Amazon has been a powerhouse since it launched in 1995. As a retail player, it’s revolutionalised the book buying and selling business and of course Kindle has changed the way we read books — forever. And is it even necessary to mention what Kindle and ebooks have done for an author’s ability to self-publish?

So, has Amazon brought its transformation skills into the more traditional publishing sphere? Will its move into traditional publishing be a Midas touch for authors or the kiss of death? I believe that Amazon still requires ebook exclusivity – so an author’s book is only available online via Kindle. Will this change? As an author, I hope Amazon’s new imprints bring a new opportunity — there’s a new publisher in town, another publishing ‘house’ that agents can approach. At least, I hope that’s how it will turn out. But often when it comes to things like this, I lack insight 🙂

What do you think? And will other book retailers following Amazon’s footsteps? 

18 thoughts on “Retailers as publishers – the way forward?

  1. Lynda Schmeichel

    I hope you don't mean Kindle exclusively for these books. I have recently been given an e-reader & it's not a Kindle brand. I did my research & chose a Sony E-Reader because it gave me the ability to borrow books from my local library as well as purchase them online. Not every book you read (even though it may be wonderful) is something you want to keep for a long time – some books you read once, are glad you did, but would not pick it up to re-read.
    I plan on keeping only titles I would read again on my e-reader.

  2. Gar Haywood

    Having seen what Amazon has done as a publisher for some of my friends (Lee Goldberg, for instance, whose DEAD MAN series is now an Amazon bestseller), I can't say that its shift into publishing has to be all bad. However, the potential conflict-of-interest issues should be obvious to everyone. Can Amazon the retailer be counted on to treat all books equally, Amazon and non-Amazon titles alike? I wonder…

    The view from the inside of the Amazon publishing bubble will probably be fantastic for some. But for those on the outside looking in? Maybe not so much.

  3. Judy Wirzberger

    Interesting and informative overview. As a "pre-published" author I am hearing more and more about self-publishing…which previously assumed you weren't good enough to get an agent to represent you. Not true any longer. Now it seems one of the keys for fiction is having a lot of books out there. I haven't seen a lot of classes and workshops on self-publishing. And my 9 year old granddaughter wants a reader for Christmas. It's always the younger generation that eventually sets the standards.

    And while I'm addressing down-under – I hope you have run into Louise Ure roaming around there talking to people on benches.

    Happy Holidays –

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I'm so much a fly on the wall regarding this issue. I'm just watching, trying not to freak out about it. I have no idea which way things will fall, when they're through falling. I'm in a strange position, too, because the book I'm writing is on spec – I don't have a publisher. So, I can choose to go any direction. I'm just concentrating on writing the best book I can and I'll worry about all this later. Because three months from now we'll have another set of factors to consider, I'm sure.

  5. David Corbett

    Gar has a good point. I know that Jim Fusilli, whose NARROWS GATE has been published by Amazon, is thrilled with how he's been treated. (Here's a video of him discussing the book with a fellow WSJ reporter: — Jim does the pop/rock/jass coverege for the Wall Street Journal).

    But will this transform publishing? I think Amazon has gone from the gorilla in the corner to the doorman. And like Gar, I'm waiting to see exactly how this plays out. Will other houses enjoy the same treatment as Amazon grants itself? Or will publishing houses retaliate by launching their own eBook ventures. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

    What I think is more intriguing is the number of boutique ePublishers springing up, like Alan Guthrie's BLASTED HEATH:

  6. PD Martin

    Thanks for everyone who's pitched in so far!

    Lynda – I believe that at the moment the exclusivity rule applies – does anyone else know? That is, if your book is picked up by one of the Amazon publishing arms, the ebook will only be available on kindle. But one would imagine they'd have to change this – the public will demand it, surely?

    Gar – great to hear an inside story! It's always interesting to hear what authors think of their publishing houses and agents. And I think an Amazon bestseller is something most authors would love! I certainly would 🙂

    Judy – yes, authors have lots of options now!

    Stephen, I'm in the same situation. Actually, I finished a book in March this year and haven't had any luck pitching it to agents so now I'm considering self-publishing too. I only went to 'top tier' agents and am thinking of self-publishing rather than going to smaller agencies. I'll let you know how I go.

    Gar – yes, it will be interesting to see if publishers form their own ebook retail ventures. Just like agents have launched ebook 'self-publishing' specials. And this year Penguin launched its self-publishing 'service' of editing and cover design.

    Times are changing!

  7. Zoë Sharp

    This is a fascinating post, Phillipa!

    I confess that I took a while to jump on the e-book bandwagon. I did so only a few months ago, bringing my entire out-of-print backlist out in electronic format. This has been a revelation as far as reaching new readers has been concerned. I was offered a deal through a small press to convert and sell the backlist titles in electronic format only, but it seemed to have all the disadvantages of a traditional publishing deal without any of the advantages of indie publishing, so I went my own route.

    Only if you are print-published by one of Amazon’s own imprints are you restricted to Kindle-format-only e-publishing. And as the Kindle reader software is available for free download for a wide range of other electronic devices, you don’t have to buy a Kindle device in order to read a Kindle book.

    Yes, in general anybody who has a monopoly on anything is in a position of power. As anyone who’s read Orwell knows, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But for the moment Amazon seem to be treating their authors extremely well so who can blame those authors for enjoying it while it lasts?

    David mentioned that publishing houses are retaliating by launching their own e-book ventures, but sometimes this seems to be at the expense of their authors’ welfare rather than to enhance it. At the moment it’s being given the airport-security approach – they know they need to do something but they’ve no idea what.

    Gar asked if Amazon could be counted on to treat all books equally, but I would counter that by asking when has any publisher EVER done that? If you are contracted to a large house but with a small advance and an editor who is not high up in the pecking order, do you honestly expect the same treatment as the big-name authors with the same house? Yes, I would expect Amazon to promote ‘their’ authors harder, just as I expect traditional publishers to promote some authors heavily and others not at all. That’s the way it goes. At least the old bugbear of distribution and print runs, which have always been the mid-list author’s nightmare, are no longer an issue.

    As things stand at present, Amazon allows mid-list authors – people who’ve been plugging away for years on a pittance and now have a backlist of great books that have for whatever reason been kicked to the kerb by traditional publishers – to get their books back out there and actually make a living wage from their work. It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about this state of affairs.

  8. Reine

    Hi Phillipa,

    You may buy an ebook on Amazon or B&N and read it on an iPad. I do it all the time. I also have their apps on my iPad. Google Books are fantastic on the iPad. I don't know how it works with reading anything from anywhere else on a Kindle or Nook, but their books work fantastically well on the iPad.

    I have a feeling, just a feeling with not much thought (well a little) to support it, that . . . oh god what was I saying? Oh yes . . . I have a feeling that in transforming publishing – with readers' preferences in mind – Amazon will open things wide for writers.

    This is why Apple flourished. All of the major changes in personal computing came about with Steve Jobs' sensing what people wanted and having Apple provide it. Not everything worked, but while he was in charge he upset the apple (ooh sorry) cart and transformed the industry. People who swear they hate iAnything on their smart phones and droid-whatsits are only testifying to Apple's brilliance.

    And so it will be with Amazon. I have a feeling, that is.

  9. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    Sorry – didn't see your post before pushing the comment button! Your input is really much more valuable.

  10. PD Martin

    Thanks, Zoe! Yes, sorry, I am talking about the print publishing arm of Amazon…the 'new' arm that has taken off this year with all the imprints from my post. And great points re mid-list authors. I'm definitely one of those (unfortunately). The only problem is, because I joined the ranks of published authors only six years ago, I don't have rights to any of my earlier work. So for me, it's all about going forward for the self-publishing ebook front and then about a new publisher in town in terms of Amazon as publishing HOUSE. That's if/when I get a new agent.

    Hi Reine – again, I should have been clearer that the restrictions are only for the publishing HOUSE arms of Amazon, not the many, many self-published ebooks that appear on Amazon as Kindle editions! And you're right in terms of the Amazon self-publishing on Kindle…it has opened things wide up for authors. And it will be interesting to see what happens in the publishing HOUSE arm! It was great to hear Gar and David's positive stories about Amazon's new authors.


  11. Lynda Schmeichel

    This has been truy fascinating! As an avid reader I am looking forward to using my new e-reader in a big way. As an aspiring author, it's great to know some of the options available now.

  12. Pari Noskin

    Agreed with several of the comments here. I hope to take advantage of Amazon more in the new year. That's one of my biggest goals: to get the work I've been doing up and out there in the world.

    As to whether Amazon as primary publisher is good/bad; I don't know yet. I think the whole industry is changing so rapidly it's going to take some time to watch the fallout. To me, it's opening worlds of possibility and I'm very grateful to know that I'm not doomed to wait months or years for a book to be shopped, then more time for it to be published, and then get 7 percent of wholesale . . .

    The fact that we writers now have a lot more control of our work is, well, incredibly liberating and exciting!

  13. Reine

    Let me try again: It has been wonderful to be able to get your backlists that were previously unavailable. Now if this doesn't make sense, I won't try again. I love you all, but I hate looking stupid. xo

  14. KDJames

    Interesting post, Phillipa. I think Amazon is two different things right now, in terms of books: a distributor and a publisher. It will be interesting to see whether they keep those roles separate or somehow merge the two. I have no experience with Amazon the publisher (but have heard nothing but good things from those who do; perhaps that's in the contract) but as of two days ago, I do have experience with Amazon the distributor.

    I self-pubbed a short book of (mostly) humorous essays on Sunday. Amazon had it online within two hours. At the same time, I uploaded it to Barnes & Noble — I'm still waiting for them to decide whether they "approve" of me. [sigh] I'm starting to think there's a very good reason why Amazon has gained such a huge advantage. They just do things better than the competition.

    For me, this was an experiment of how the process works, although I am really proud of the way the book shaped up. Am I allowed to plug it here? Is it totally gauche to provide a link? Oh hell, it won't be the first (or last) time I've been inappropriate. I think it would make a great gift. Humor is always appropriate, right? Except, you know, when it's not. Anyone who might be interested, it's here:

    They don't require exclusivity when you go this route, though they do suggest you sign up for their new KDP Select program (which grants them 90 days exclusivity in exchange for a share of some ill-defined "pot" of money). I didn't sign up. First, because 90 days is an eternity on the internet these days and, second, because I think competition is a good thing. So once B&N decides they approve of me (IF they ever do), it will be available there as well. Still debating Smashwords, who distribute to Sony and iBooks and Kobo.

    The process was user-friendly (though it helps if you have a Mac, IMO). Bottom line, from a technical standpoint it's just not that hard to self-pub. Obscurity and lack of visibility/discoverability is obviously the huge issue. Probably that's true no matter how you get books out there, advertising budgets being what they are. Or aren't.

    It's an interesting process and I learned a lot doing it. Anyone who wants to talk about it, feel free to contact me (there's a contact form on my blog).

  15. Flyer Online

    I believe that Amazon's shift to publishing must be connoted as that bad. It just goes to show that sometimes businesses must take risks and new opportunities that could change the industry maybe a little or huge impact.

    – Kevin Weiss

  16. PD Martin

    Lynda – Glad you've enjoyed the discussion! I've enjoyed it too.

    Alex – yes, Amazon self-publishing to Kindle is a fantastic thing. Great for established authors' backlists and new books that are harder to sell to publishers because of an author's poor sales track record or just because publishers are being so conservative these days. And, of course, great for emerging authors too, who haven't been published via the traditional route.

    Pari – looks like it might be you, me and Stephen via Amazon's self-publishing route. Although I will be shopping my current WIP to agents. Maybe I'm just a traditionalist! And certainly it's early days in terms of Amazon as a publishing HOUSE, buying manuscripts from agents just like the Harper Collins and Penguins of the world. I don't know the exact details, but I believe their advances are lower but the royalties are much higher.

    Reine – not looking stupid at all! It IS complicated because there are two issues in terms of Amazon – Amazon via Kindle to self-publish and Amazon's move into what I've differentiated in my comments at a publishing HOUSE. It is confusing!!! And there are interesting discussion points within each of those two Amazon offerings. And we've all be discussing them both 🙂

    KD – nice distinction. Distributor (including self-publishing distributor) and publisher. Good luck with the self-published book. And I agree – the hard part is marketing it and getting it out to Kindle users and readers who use other e-readers.


  17. Reine

    Thanks, Phillipa. This is such a fiction authors' discussion. And I'm not there yet. But I love to read what all of you have to say.

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