Public Relations Blog

Amazon dispute shows the separate and not always equal sides of publishing

amazonI have had the pleasure of growing up in the publishing industry before and during the digital age.  When I first started working in the industry, there were Barnes & Noble, Borders, and a slew of independents.  Then came Walmart, Target, Costco, etc. Along came Amazon during and in-between the others.

About ten years ago I had a conversation with a reporter, off-the-record, about how Barnes & Noble (B&N) was dictating what people read.  The premium merchandising space was paid for, and yet the books that got to sit there had to be approved.  For example, I recently read something about the big fiction buyer at B&N and how much she controlled what made it and what did not.

If B&N said “we don’t like the jacket”, you changed it.  If they said they would take “x” number of copies, you adjusted your print runs accordingly.  At that time, B&N controlled about 20% of retail sales; Borders about 5%; Amazon about 5%; and the rest was in the wholesalers, clubs, libraries, and independent stores.

Today it appears that Amazon controls around 20% of the retail market.  I don’t know the other figures, but I’ve seen this one reported in various places.  Now the screaming has begun about Amazon dictating what we read, but this is unlikely to happen.

For one thing, Amazon does not discriminate (unless in a pricing war).  If you are a teeny little publisher, a self-published author, a big five or six publisher–it does not matter.  You can sell your book through the e-tailers.  I would argue that there are more different books available for sale on Amazon (or other e-tailers) than in any other traditional store.

In some ways, these e-tailer outlets may deserve a bit of credit for the rise of small indys and self-published authors.  What would have happened to Lisa Genova or the Shades of Grey erotica books without the online marketplace? How would we have learned about them and acquired our own copies?  Certainly no brick and mortar store was going to order these books for their shelves.  There are far too many books already.

It’s interesting to see how clear the divide is between the authors fighting Amazon and those quietly supporting it.  The 900 members of the Guild that approached the DOJ about a suit against the e-tailer for monopolistic practices are mostly, if not all, traditionally-published authors, publishing veterans, and the like.  And I wonder if it is really about the price so much as it is about the principle of the matter.  Is this ultimately an issue of “Why should we let them tell us what to do?”

For the independently published authors, it is not a principle: it is a matter of fulfilling a dream, perhaps earning a living, and generally more practical concerns. The people who are out there trying to get their voices heard have a vehicle to sell their books: the internet.  They set their prices, pay their portion to the e-tailers, and hope to make a buck or two in the end.

I have been reading and watching all that has transpired even as I hear the authors talk about their Amazon rankings, and getting reviewers to post on their pages so they can move even higher.  I can’t condone the behavior of a big giant like Amazon (forcing a publisher to bend to its will), but neither can I condemn it, because it is having some positive effect.

I will posit this:  What if publishers had been able to brand themselves a bit and increase their own market share?  What if the market is becoming truly segmented to the point where publishing books will be about which format to focus on as much as what books?  What if hardcovers were printed mainly for collectors and die hard fans in small runs and paperbacks were made available for some books right away (and e-books as well of course)?  What if the print book was made available first and the e-book three months later like a DVD or download on Netflix?

And on a much bigger picture scale:  Is the art of reading dying?  Is publishing dying?  I’ve heard some people say it, but I refuse to believe it.  Especially when I see my daughter who has access to a Kindle and a tablet, but who chooses to read physical books that I race to the store (a real store) to buy for her.  She takes her little book light on the school bus in the morning and has a lamp attached to her bed for nighttime.  She’s 10.  A pre-teen I met told me he likes all three formats of books (hardcover, soft, and digital) but for different reasons.  So he will have different titles in different formats or even all three for varying reasons.

I think things have been changing and that’s hard for an industry reaching toward 200 years old.  But I think the bad press on all sides is not doing anything for the cause and hopefully sooner rather than later we will all be able to move on.