Not since Hester Prynne walked out of prison with an infant in her arms and “a rag of scarlet cloth” in the shape of the letter A has there been such public hue and cry as Amazon has provoked in the past few weeks. Amazon’s latest miscreant behavior is its “predatory practice” of encouraging customers to browse in bricks-and-mortar stores, e-mail a photo of the barcode on whatever item they want to buy, and receive a $5 to $15 discount on the product from Amazon if it falls into certain categories. This is just one in a series of actions by Amazon that has publishers and booksellers wringing their hands, venting their spleens, and girding their loins. While no one is suggesting (yet) that Amazon’s behavior is illegal (as opposed to an investigation into the so-called “agency pricing” practices of the Big Six publishers and Apple), the consensus is that Amazon uses its resources to take unfair advantage. Coming from the modern publishing industry, this smacks of the pot calling the kettle black.
In the face of the current brouhaha, I’d like to review, briefly, my history as an independent publisher with Amazon. In 1994, I left my position with a major New York trade publisher to start Front Street, a tiny juvenile publishing house in Asheville, N.C. We published our first list of three titles in 1995, the same year Amazon went live. In some ways, Amazon enabled us to function, because through its online catalogue all of our books were available for sale everywhere. Although we published the usual array of genres and formats, the company quickly became known for young adult fiction, and our sales were mostly to libraries. In fact, booksellers seldom stocked our books because hardcover young adult fiction, with rare exceptions, did not sell in bookstores. But Amazon did stock all of our titles, and returns from them were negligible.
More recently, in 2009, I started another tiny house, namelos llc, this time in cyberspace. Again, we focused on young adult fiction. Again, Amazon made this possible. Our new company publishes titles simultaneously in hardcover and paperback using print-on-demand technology, and e-books. Because our books are nonreturnable, most booksellers will not carry them. Amazon does. Moreover, we have approximately 90 titles available as e-books. With the timely help of a member of Amazon’s publishing team, we managed to get all our titles into their system a few days before Christmas 2009, thereby achieving our first substantial digital sales based on the success of the Kindle. A year later, in 2010, our digital sales increased by just under 1,000% in the first quarter. This year, with the launch of the new Kindle line, we anticipate another substantial increase. (A shout-out to Barnes & Noble for the success of its Nook, which now represents about 25% of our digital sales.)
Let me hasten to add that we are a minuscule company, but we are able to publish a few good books successfully thanks to ongoing library sales and digital sales. Amazon is one of our most important customers and a publishing partner through its Kindle Publishing Program. Full disclosure: I purchased a few hundred shares of Amazon stock a few years back. That stock was a good investment, having almost tripled in value, often spiking while the general market slips. I am not writing in support of Amazon because I own stock in the company. I bought stock in the company because I saw the strength of its business and wanted to capitalize on it.
Big publishing was enchanted with Amazon for a decade when it was their fastest-growing customer, and it still is one of their largest customers. Now Amazon is the big bad wolf. They can’t have it both ways. Booksellers have a tougher row to hoe, but they’ve been here before in competition with the major chains. Independent booksellers will adapt and survive. I believe technology will work for them, just as it has for small independent publishers.
F rom the point of view of this lunatic fringe publisher, Amazon, with all its glitches and stumbles, is crucial to our success. And I, for one, applaud the innovation and transformation Amazon has brought to the publishing world.
Stephen Roxburgh is president and publisher of namelos llc.