Monday’s New York Times front page article on Amazon’s “writing publishers out of the deal” has been much commented-on. But I think it calls for some rage. As someone who really cares about this industry, the simplistic and narrow focus is infuriating; and the message it conveys to people outside the business is misleading at best and damaging at worst. I would have expected more insight and at least some analysis from ‘the newspaper paper of record.’
Yes, there is something sexy about the “David vs. Goliath” point of view in the piece: Authors no longer need big publishers to give them sales figures; and they don’t need reviewers to get the word out; and they don’t need book tours in order to have personal communication with their readers. In fact, the Times seems to echo certain writers in asking: do they need publishers for anything? Indeed, if there’s any doubt, the Times shows its colors by having the article end with the dramatic quote from an author whose only credential so far was a sale of 600 copies of a book she published herself: “They had their chance!” Right-o, the article is saying: That’ll show Random House and HarperCollins and Penguin Group et al, not to mention William Morris Endeavor, ICM, Writers House and smaller agencies like mine. What heartless beast could not root for the success of scrappy Ms.Saville vs. the lazy overstuffed behemoths of ‘legacy’ publishing who seem to do nothing but turn down worthy writers?
And bravo Amazon! They have finally given the power back to all those unpublished authors out there whose voices deserve to be heard. If this Times piece is a David and Goliath story, Authors are David, the publishers are Goliath and Amazon is the slingshot—right?
Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti points out that ‘the only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and the reader.’ That’s true. But is it really meaningful in the way the Times seems to interpret it? The only really necessary people in the filmmaking process are the viewer and the filmmaker, but does that lead to a general belief that home movies posted on YouTube can and should take the place of films like Moneyball and The Social Network and The King’s Speech?
There is enormous value to writers—and to readers—in the professional job that publishers do: the selection, editorial development, packaging, distribution, publicity and marketing of books. Those are the things that turn manuscripts into the prize winners and bestsellers that we all hear about and want to read. In its new publishing venture Amazon may well prove itself to be just as adept at these things as the current crop of publishers, and they will no doubt bring some new and innovative methods into the process. But that’s not even raised as an issue worth noting in this piece.
And yes, it is sexy to think of Amazon as the great democratizer, and the Times uses that for effect. But of course Amazon could swat any publisher out of existence with a flick of its mighty wrist. If there is a Goliath, it ain’t the publishers. You’d think the Times would address that.
Publishing folk remember that over a year ago Amazon punitively stopped selling all books, print or electronic, from Macmillan Publishing when Macmillanwas the first to change its selling terms to stop Amazon from pricing e-books below cost. Amazon was choosing to lose $2-5 per copy on the most popular books it sold, which gave it a virtual monopoly on e-book sales. No other book retailer could have afforded to lose so much money on e-books, so Amazon was on its way to becoming the only player in the game. Until Macmillan did a little David vs. Goliath act of its own—and Amazon blinked.
The point is: Amazon is so big it can afford to take losses on certain segments of its business as long as the overall business is healthy. They are brilliant strategists. They were very smartly willing to take a loss on some e-book sales to offer great prices and cement their place with consumers as the only e-book store worth visiting. Sadly for the publishing industry, no other retailer of books has such deep pockets and can afford to do what they do. Everyone else needs positive income from the books they sell to stay in business. And the same is true of publishers.
Far be it from me to question a brilliant and successful company who wants to publish authors in these lean days: but this is a complex equation. Do we need to be worried that if Amazon woos away the top few authors from each of Random, Harper, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette and Simon, that those companies will become insolvent and Amazon Publishing will be the only game in town? Do we need to worry that they will underprice books as a way to gain more customers for their Home and Garden and Electronic stores? If they do so, what effect will those lower prices have on authors’ ability to earn a living? To what level—if at all—will other retailers support Amazon published titles? As this race to a segmented one-stop publishing model continues, should we be concerned that we will never again see the likes of a big first novel driven by industry-wide ‘buzz’ like The Help, or The Night Circus or, for that matter, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, published with true national fanfare across all retailers? We don’t know. Those are some of the interesting questions that the Times should have explored.
Ultimately, the industry has been moribund for over a decade and could certainly use some shaking up, and this is one way it’s going to happen. Amazon is making a big investment in books and writers, and that’s exciting. They are putting together an interesting team, and I’m eager to work with them and see what they can do. But it’s not white-hat/black-hat. There is something much more interesting and complex going on than the one-dimensional article in the Times would indicate. It’s unfortunate that people outside our industry got such an incomplete and misleading view of things.