Along with Penguin CEO David Shanks, our Person of the Year, we honor these notable people who changed the publishing world in 2011.
Jeff Belle by Jim Milliot
Amazon Publishing may have assembled what Jeff Belle, v-p of the publishing division, calls a “fairly small team,” but the company’s fast-growing group had an outsized impact on the industry. Publishers and agents have been closely monitoring the group’s moves, and the industry will have plenty to watch in 2012. Belle says that Amazon Publishing’s total output will likely double next year from about 200 titles across all of its imprints this year to 400 in 2012. During 2011, Amazon Publishing started the Montlake Romance and Thomas & Mercer imprints, and more imprints are likely to be launched in 2012.
While Amazon Publishing’s new imprints have been based in Seattle, Belle said an imprint or two could be created in the company’s East Coast publishing group, which is operating under Belle’s major hire in the year, Larry Kirshbaum. Belle said he picked Kirshbaum to lead the New York unit because he was looking for someone “who has a passion for books and authors, is forward thinking and is fun to work with.”
Amazon Publishing’s Seattle imprints are focused on specific genres—”ones that sell best on Kindle”—Belle says, with the list balanced between submissions from agents, and authors identified by Amazon through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. The East Coast division, which is putting its early focus on literary nonfiction and other nonfiction areas such as business, is more heavily submission driven. Belle says he has been happy with the quality and quantity of submissions received in New York and that one of the objectives for 2012 is to “get better organized” in how to handle the growing number of manuscripts.
A second goal is to “work to expand our distribution beyond the Amazon platform,” Belle says. Brilliance Audio sales reps have been selling the publishing group’s titles into accounts, but that could change next year. “We plan to expand our distribution in bricks-and mortar stores,” Belle says, but stresses that while Amazon wants retailers to carry its titles, it’s up to the stores to decide what they want to sell. Amazon Publishing’s five top sellers in 2011, in both e-book and print, were The Hangman’s Daughter; A Scattered Life; Elizabeth Street; Easily Amused; and Alison Wonderland. While Belle is encouraged by the early success of Amazon Publishing and its projection for growth, he observes, “Our definition of success is how well we’re able to find new and better ways to connect authors with readers.”
Amanda Hocking by Claire Kirch
Amanda Hocking is exhibit A that self-publishing has come of age. The 27-year-old author from a small town in Minnesota was labeled “her generation’s first literary phenomenon” by the New York Times, having sold between 1.4 million and 1.5 million copies of the 10 novels and one novella she’s self-published since April 2010. To generate that number of sales, Hocking has taken advantage of the tools now available to self-publishers using Amazon.com and other online bookstores to sell her e-books, sending review copies to bloggers, and creating buzz on the social media Web sites she frequents.
Hocking spent eight years trying to get the stories she’d been writing since her early teens published through traditional means before deciding to self-publish. Like every other aspiring writer, Hocking notes that she’d “taken writing classes, wrote in different genres, studied trends, and edited my books over and over again.” Publishers weren’t interested in her queries. “I knew I had to do something else. So much of the focus seems to be on the platform in which something is being published and not on what is being published,” she insists. “I strongly believe that a book that resonates with people will find an audience, no matter how it’s published.”
Although it’s estimated that Hocking has earned about $2 million from her self-publishing endeavors—she herself says she has “no idea” how much money she’s made—she is convinced “perseverance, hard work, Red Bull, and timing” can take her only so far. The business of self-publishing her books drains too much time and energy from actually writing them, and that is what led her to sign a $2 million deal earlier this year with St. Martin’s Press, which will release the first novel in her four-volume Watersong series in 2012. St. Martin’s will also reissue her Trylle trilogy next year. And Hocking is also working with Dynamite Entertainment, adapting into comic book format her Hollows series of zombie adventure novels.
Borders Booksellers by Judith Rosen
With sadness, humor, and resignation, Borders booksellers, managers, and warehouse staff kept the nation’s number two book retailer going for the first nine months of the year with limited inventory, computers, and toilet paper—and the inevitability of unemployment. Because Borders neglected to pay its utility bills, it looked like they might be working with no electricity as well at one point. Top management’s severance pay came from KEIPs and KERPs, bonuses intended to incentivize and retain key employees; the rank and file got nothing. “We were let down,” says Renee, who worked at Borders for 23 years as a general manager in Florida, in an open letter to then Borders president Mike Edwards.
Closing stores posted humorous signs next to dwindling inventory—a handful of For Dummies titles were displayed under the banner “Are You Dumb?”; Marijuana Cultivation could be found under “Kids Study Aids.” In more than one location, store hours were changed when the last employee walked out the door for the final time: “10 a.m. to Never.” In the final weeks, workers in distribution centers put in 10-hour days Monday through Friday and another eight on Saturdays and occasional Sundays sans air conditioning. “Oh, yeah, we’ve got fans but that doesn’t mean you will have one or that it will blow on you. We don’t get any extra break time due to the overtime or heat,” wrote one worker at the iworkatborders blog on LiveJournal when temperatures hit 100.
Despite the circumstances, most employees remained professional. “Our store was organized, clean, and employees were efficient, cheerful and helpful till the bitter end, because that is who we are,” posted sdbookseller, store 111 in Carmel Mountain, San Diego, on LiveJournal.
And despite one bookseller’s screed, which went viral, on “Things We Never Told You: Ode to a Bookstore Death” about the many ways customers drove staff crazy, most booksellers more closely resembled Rosie Scott. In a post on the Borders class of 2011 Facebook page, she wrote, “What I miss the most are my customers. The people I served for so many years, the people from whom I learned so much.”
Steve Potash by Calvin Reid
Under the direction of its CEO and founder Steve Potash, OverDrive, which distributes e-books and audiobooks to more than 15,000 public, academic, and school libraries, has been instrumental in fueling the popularity of library e-book lending—indeed, the popularity of e-book reading in general. According to OverDrive, through the fall of 2011, library e-book checkouts are up about 200% over last year, with total checkouts for the year projected to be about 16 million. Nearly two million new users signed up to borrow e-books through the OverDrive library network, a pace likely to be double the number of users in 2010. The use of smartphones and tablets to borrow e-books is likely to hit record levels after the coming holiday season as consumers add millions of new tablet devices and smartphones to the installed base.
“The traffic, exposure, and popularity of e-books at public libraries are proving their value in connecting authors with customers,” Potash said in an interview with PW. And while some publishers are reviewing their e-book lending policies, Potash emphasized that “2011 saw a record number of publishers and titles made available to our nation’s public libraries for lending. Online library users are one of the most valuable demographic audiences and most likely to become a retail book buyer.”
OverDrive is also at the center of two of the most controversial e-book ventures of the year, both likely to attract millions of new digital readers. It will partner with Amazon to help enable the Kindle and Kindle Fire to borrow library e-books; and also partner with J.K. Rowling to support the retail distribution of Harry Potter e-books exclusively through Pottermore, Rowling’s new online site for gaming and new Potter content.
On top of all this he has to mediate between the warring parties of an evolving library e-book marketplace—that is, publishers fearful that library e-books undermine physical sales, and librarians, who believe they are instrumental in creating the readership upon which publishers depend. It’s all in a year’s work for Steve Potash.