After Borders’s final collapse in late July, things are slower in the publishing industry. Amid the summer calm, though, many are eyeing Amazon’s new publishing unit, Amazon Publishing, which was unveiled just before BEA and which has quietly, some might say secretively, been staffing up. While agents and booksellers are wary of the unit but not opposed to doing business with it, many industry insiders say it’s publishing houses that should really be concerned.
Agents PW spoke to, all of whom talked under the condition of anonymity, said their chief concern is selling a book to an untested entity. One agent said he would be particularly leery about taking a big author to Amazon. “As a matter of rule, I don’t like to test the waters with big authors. I’d rather deal with a firm that is well established.”
Although Amazon has said its publishing unit will have distribution through the key outlets—the chains and the independents—many agents are questioning whether this will actually happen. Jeff Belle, v-p of Amazon Publishing, said the company will handle distribution in-house, with Ingram and Baker & Taylor also providing fulfillment. It is still unclear, however, who will be selling Amazon’s titles (which include those under the Montlake and Thomas & Mercer imprints) to outside accounts.
Given the tense relationship between bricks-and-mortar stores and Amazon, a number of agents expressed concern about the reach Amazon could have with print distribution. Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch told PW the nation’s largest bookstore chain would stock Amazon Publishing titles, with one major proviso: that it can sell both the print and the e-book. “We will not stock physical books in our stores if we are not offered the available digital format,” Lynch said. “Given Amazon’s recent push for exclusivity with agents and the authors they represent, we feel it’s important to be very clear about our position on content going forward.”
Independent booksellers willing to carry Amazon Publishing titles had some of their own conditions. Richard Goldman, co-owner of Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa., said his store has sold some AmazonEncore titles after customers requested them, and if he could get Amazon Publishing titles through Ingram “at normal terms,” he would carry their books. “Generally our position on carrying a book is, if we can get it at 35% or better, and it’s returnable, we’ll order it.”
Potentially more troubling is that so few booksellers were familiar with Amazon Publishing. Sue David, at the Dubuque, Iowa, River Lights Bookstore, said she had not placed any fall orders because she hadn’t been apprised of the program, but “if there’s demand, or if [a title] makes the Indie bestseller list,” she will place orders. Jacqui Hasan, at the Fort Collins, Colo., Old Firehouse Books, does not know what Amazon’s terms are and has no account with the company, but would carry its books if it was publishing a major author.
Nonetheless, a number of independent booksellers said they will not sell Amazon books, no matter what. “We’re not doing that,” said Harvey Finkel at Clinton Bookshop in Clinton, N.J. “I’d love to stock their books and give them more money to put me out of business.” Other indie booksellers said they would order books from Amazon, at customers’ request, but would not dedicate any shelf space to Amazon titles. As Lisa Sharp at NightBird Books in Fayetteville, Ark., said: “I hope not to [stock Amazon titles]. I mean, if somebody calls and wants one, I’ll order it, but I’m not going to keep it in the store.”
Although many agents are confident that, when it comes to promoting e-books, having Amazon as your publisher could be more beneficial than going with a traditional house, almost all agents interviewed still see Amazon Publishing as a startup business. One source said she and most of her colleagues will be taking a “wait-and-see approach.” That Amazon has been so tight-lipped about its plans is also raising some eyebrows. Although many insiders assume the publishing unit is looking to make a splash by signing a big-name author, there are questions about operational structure. A number of editorial hires have been made following the big announcement that Larry Kirshbaum would be heading the unit’s new New York publishing office, but a rep at Amazon said the company is not, as a matter of policy, announcing new employees.
How the New York and Seattle offices will work together, if at all, is something agents are also wondering about. One agent said she thinks the company will be doing its genre fiction out of Seattle, while Kirshbaum will be overseeing everything else from New York. Another agent, expressing some concerns about quality control, spoke of rumors that the company is currently outsourcing its editorial work. When asked how heavily Amazon Publishing will be relying on freelance editors, Belle said, “Like many publishers, we do outsource some copyediting for our books. There are a lot of talented editors out there who have set up their own shops, and we’re happy to work with them where it makes sense. Over time, we will find the best balance of in-house and outsourced editing.”
For many agents, along with some booksellers, the real concern about Amazon Publishing has to do with what it could signal for traditional publishers. If Amazon lands enough bestselling authors, it could dominate traditional publishing the way it has come to monopolize online bookselling. Jeff McCord, owner of the Atlanta shop Bound to Be Read Books, thinks Amazon has long “wished to take over the book industry from top to bottom” and its recent foray into publishing is proof. “Amazon Publishing is a bigger worry for publishers than for bookstores,” he said.
While agents don’t want to see Amazon gain more control over any part of the business, they will go where they find the best deals. If Amazon is offering better royalty rates on both print and digital than many traditional houses—as some reports suggest—agents will be forced to do business with a company that, as one insider put it, “there is a lot of bad blood with.”
Thomas & Mercer
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