A couple of big articles, including one in the New York Times, have come out touting the new publishing branch of Amazon and proclaiming it wonderful for authors and terrible for traditional publishers. But is it? I found a lot of hyperbole in the articles and a lot of red flags that leave me with some serious questions.
First, let’s look at the article in yesterday’s New York Times. It says:
Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.
122 books? Array of genres? That’s rather ambitious for a fledgling publisher. Exactly what makes Amazon qualified to pick quality submissions out of the slush? Who will be editing these books (and what are their qualifications)? Who will be designing the covers? What kind of publicity/marketing plan do they have? According to the article, publicity plans are top secret, as are details about the deals they’re setting up. That secrecy is NOT normal within the industry. Big red flags.
What the article conspicuously fails to mention at all is distribution. It plans to publish books in both print and digital form, but does it plan to sell those book anywhere other than Amazon.com? Will those books be available on bookstore shelves anywhere? Oh, I have no doubt that they’ll be *available* to stores, but will any actually choose to shelve them? If you were Barnes & Noble, is there any long-term benefit AT ALL to shelving books published by Amazon? Amazon is not their partner — it is their competitor, and a damn powerful competitor at that.
Next, the article discusses the case of Kiana Davenport. It presents an extremely biased version of the events. It claims that Ms. Davenport lost her contract with Penguin because Penguin is shaking in its boots about a collection of short stories she self-published on Amazon. They say:
“They’re trying to set an example: If you self-publish and distribute with Amazon, you do so at your own risk,” said Jan Constantine, a lawyer with the Authors Guild who has represented Ms. Davenport.
I… disagree. You can make up your own mind, however. I recommend reading Kiana’s original blog post on the subject AND all the associated comments (oh wait, she deleted the ones that disagreed with her, so that may not be worth your time), and then reading the thread on Absolute Write. Or just read Absolute Write. One thing I love about the people on that site, is that they have a wide range of experience (published authors, unpublished authors, agents, and editors), and so they look at situations like this from all sides.
Bottom line: Lots of authors self-publish and traditionally publish at the same time. But if the books overlap, the authors work with their agents and publishers to ensure they are not breaking their contracts or damaging the future sales of the book under contract. Those contracts are not set up to stifle a writer’s ability to write and publish but to protect the publisher’s investment. Publishers want to ensure that when their book is released, it is the newest, shiniest, best book a writer has to offer at that time so they can maximize sales. Oh yes, how evil and unreasonable those publishers are. </sarcasm>
The article then discusses a deal made with Laurel Saville. Well, sort of, since details are secret. Apparently Laurel wasn’t paid an advance. The question then becomes, what is Amazon offering her as a publisher that she wouldn’t get by self-publishing with Createspace, particularly since she seemed to be doing just fine on her own? I can’t help but wonder how Amazon picked its 122 books, and how many of them are of high enough quality that they would have been picked up by a traditional publisher — and how many non-celebrities will get a super-high advance.
Next, there was an article published in The New Republic today called, “Why Writers Should Embrace Amazon’s Takeover of the Publishing Industry.” I don’t for one second believe Amazon is taking over the publishing industry. Agents will happily tell you that there are more publishable books out there than there are publishers to sell them. Publishers can pick and choose and easily fill their lists. They are not begging for submissions, hoping for a breadcrumb. Contrary to what articles like this would have you believe, publishing is doing just fine, thank you very much.
Once you get into the meat of the story, the writer lists three services that have been “neglected” by traditional publishers. Let’s review her arguments, shall we?
- Discovering new authors. First, she says that agents can take six months to respond to a query. Nonsense. No agent takes that much time with queries. Not even close. She then mentions “unconnected authors,” which implies that writers must know someone to get picked up by an agent or publisher. Bullshit. Unknown writers are picked out of the slush every single day. I see nothing in what I’ve read about Amazon to make me think they’ll be better at picking books than anyone else. They’ll have winners and losers, just like other publishers. If they woo away experienced writers who are proven best-sellers, Amazon may appear to have “picked” more winners, but really that just means they have deeper pockets. Those writers weren’t exactly picked from the slush, and Amazon’s association with them means nothing for aspiring writers.
- Creating beautiful books. The writer claims that big publishers no longer edit the manuscripts that come to them. More bullshit. They do. They spend an extraordinary amount of time with their writers. We know nothing about the Amazon editors. We don’t know who they are, or how many books they’ll be assigned, or how talented they are. We don’t know if the big name writers will get more editing attention than the newer writers.
- Getting the word out. Amazon’s publicity plans are “secret,” so I’m not sure how any claim can be made that it will be better than a traditional publisher’s plan. Will their marketing dollars be more heavily invested in those proven authors or in the newbies? Gee, let me take a guess. The writer of this article complains that traditional publishers don’t market the newbies enough, but I think that depends on the book and the publisher, and I see zero evidence that Amazon will do better. I would also point out that not being able to get the book anywhere but at Amazon is a pretty significant handicap at this stage of the game.
Bottom line, I don’t think we know enough about the Amazon publishing venture to know how good it will be for writers or readers or whether it will, in any way, impact publishers. I’m willing to keep an open mind, but I’m definitely not drinking the Kool-Aid yet.