Category Archives: Amazon

11

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

3

Amazon bucket list

Okay, it’s not exactly Amazon’s bucket list– that would probably involve gathering every shred of your personal info while putting every indie bookstore out to pasture… But seriously, folks, Amazon just put out a list of 100 books to read in a lifetime, or as they put it, “a bucket list of books to create a well-read life.” I know we see lists like this all the time, but given that this one comes from a retailer, and the dominant one at that, I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

Right off the bat, it’s really striking how contemporary the majority of the titles are–like, now contemporary, not just the last 50 years. Usually, lists like this are super-heavy on the classics and completely ignore current non-fiction, of which there are commendably a healthy number of entries here. On the other hand, a “well-read life” used to mean a whole lot of philosophy, particularly the Greeks. I know Plato isn’t as fun as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but I’d like to think the Republic is a bit more instructive…

Similarly,  as much as I enjoyed them, are Henrietta Lacks and Unbroken essential for a well-read life? Or, to be cynical, is the Amazon algorithm at work, in that contemporary titles sell more than classics? In that vein, I’d love to give them kudos for presenting a good number of picture books, MG and YA on equal footing with the grown-up books… but again, is that a statement of purpose or a sales ploy?

 Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think of Amazon’s list–is it a legitimate syllabus or a clever gimmick? Maybe both? Which omissions particularly get your goat? Discuss, discuss…

2

Game, Set, MatchBook

Last week Amazon announced a new program, Kindle MatchBook. It’s  not, as some hoped  wondered, a dating site for book enthusiasts, nor is it something out of Fahrenheit 451, as the funny folks at Book Riot suggested. But it’s still something to get fired up about: MatchBook essentially bundles paper and digital together by offering you the e-book at a discount when you buy the print edition.

There’s a lot to love about this. Many avid readers still care about the look, feel, smell of a book as an object, but also love the ease and affordability of e-books, and have been eager for an affordable way to enjoy both formats at once. Do you like to buy books for gifts? Now you can delight your friends and family with brand new hardcovers, and snatch up the e-book for yourself for just a couple bucks more. Did you lend your favorite Neil Gaiman book to a friend who then moved to Australia? No worries, mate – replace it with the e-book for pocket change. That’s right! MatchBook applies to books you’ve purchased on Amazon.com going all the way back to 1995 when the bookstore launched. That’s quite a few lifetimes in internet years.

The titles available with MatchBook depend on publisher participation. So far HarperCollins has signed on, as well as all of Amazon Publishing’s imprint, and titles self-published through Amazon KDP. It remains to be seen which other publishers will jump on board as well. But it’s an exciting first step towards having your book and e-reading it too.

What do you think? Have you been wishing for bundling to become a thing?

2

There’s a lacerating but effective essay in this week’s New Yorker by Giles Harvey.  In “Cry Me a River:  The Rise of the Failure Memoir” Harvey writes “a growing batch of memoirs by literary screw ups and also rans suggests that mistakes, the bigger and more luridly described the better, might be a portal to success, or at the very least solvency, that eluded their authors the first time around. The formula is simple: when all else fails, write about your failure.”

His piece surveys a number of books, but his immediate target is Benjamin Anastas’s TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, which chronicles the painful decline of a once-promising novelist’s literary career. Anastas published his debut novel when he was 28, and three years later published a follow up work. Both books were well received and he (cue warning music) quits his day job to write full time. Things go south from there: Anastas cannot sell his third novel in the US, he cheats on his fiancée, confesses, she marries him anyway, only to leave him shortly thereafter for another man while pregnant with Anastas’ child.  And yes, Anastas is bitter.

Much as he disapproves of the “mawkish exhibitionism” displayed by Anastas and his ilk,  Giles reserves some of his contempt for the publishing industry. “Anastas is a casualty of the a new publishing model, whereby editors, instead of allowing novelists to evolve and build an audience in the course of several books, bet big on debut writers and hope for overnight success. Those who don’t turn a profit are often shut out… the memoir provides a back door into print.”

I think Giles makes some good points in his piece. He’s quite right that houses are keen on the tabula rasa that new writers represent, reluctant to publish books by authors whose numbers have the “wrong kind of momentum” (i.e. a declining sales record) but I am not sure that I see memoir as a back door into print. In my experience, literary memoir can be as tough a sell as literary fiction, sometimes tougher, since the conventions of nonfiction publishing often require authors to have platforms. Literary novelists are still, for the most part, granted a pass.   It’s also hard to lay the blame at the feet of editors, who tend to advocate for their authors regardless of the sales. Indeed, I know several who advocated themselves right out their jobs.  So who do we blame? The profit-minded publishers whom the editors report? The marketing and publicity teams who are accused of having undue influence on publishers? The media conglomerates who own (and often sell) their book divisions? The reading public who fails to reward talented writers by buying their work? The antiquated return system that allows booksellers to ship back any unsold quantities? Amazon, who is underselling the competition and challenging the pricing structure? I could go on, but I’d only run out of fingers to point.

It is, however, worth noting that Anastas’ new publisher, New Harvest, is the Harcourt Houghton imprint fed by Amazon’s publishing arm. There’s an extra little frisson (or knife twist) in that Anastas’ critique of establishment publishing is the work of the very company that is, for good or ill, threatening to remake it.

What do you think? I’ve not yet read Anastas’ book and once I do, my opinion may change. But it seems to me that plenty of good memoirs have been generated out of other sorts of failure stories—romantic, familial, financial—so I’m not sure I see anything especially ignoble about this particular variety.

Not only do the French not get fat, understand the subtle arts of seduction, scarf-tying, gastronomy and most recently (per Bringing up Bebe) parenting,  it seems that even the Gallic booksellers are in a better spot than their American colleagues http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/books/french-bookstores-are-still-prospering.html?_r=1.  Although I am skeptical of the many hyperbolic  claims associated with French culture—Americans have a peculiar love hate relationship with the French (remember “freedom fries?”) that often renders the land of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in a less than accurate light, it does seem that French booksellers, thanks to  legal price-fixing (no collusion charges here!)  and government subsidies, do enjoy a considerable advantage over our anemic and Amazon-eviscerated ecosystem. Depending on your politics, the French respect for/protection of booksellers epitomizes everything that’s right or wrong with government, but it does mean that the market for books has remained both stable and lively.  From my French clients—who send me photos of reading tours and well attended signings filled with well-dressed people— I get a glimpse of what seems a pre-lapsarian booksellers’ paradise.  Do I romanticize? Mais bien sur.

I’m not sure that given the present climate in the United States that there is really much likelihood that our model will borrow something from the French, but it is, however, interesting to look abroad at a very different literary landscape and indulge in some armchair travel.

1

Did your city make the cut?

The Huffington Post came out with a great article today about Amazon’s second annual list of the most well-read cities in the US. This list is, of course, based on Amazon’s sales, and as the Huffington Post points out, doesn’t properly represent places where a lot of people are still visiting traditional bookstores. Indeed, our own city doesn’t make the top ten, but I’d like to think that’s because you’re never far from an independent bookstore or a Barnes & Noble.

To that end, the lovely folks at Huffington also provide people in the #1 town of Alexandria, VA with a list of alternatives to Amazon. Still, it’s always interesting to see who’s buying what online.

Which leads me to my questions for the day: What are the top genres you tend to buy online? And which ones do you tend to buy in person?

I’m going to investigate my own book buying habits tonight, and I encourage you to do the same!

8

Censor censure

I’ve been on a bit of a Words With Friends kick lately (okay, more a debilitating obsession than a kick but no one’s kicked me off a plane yet) and one of the frustrating things I’ve found about the game is how it censors what it considers unacceptable words. Not sure what geniuses (or algorithms) decide what works and what doesn’t but when you’re behind by 15 points and you’ve got the letters to wipe your opponent out with a word you know is a word but that WWF won’t allow…well, it makes you a little short tempered.

Thing is, censorship is all around us and, by and large, we tend to overlook minor instances of it as long as the big freedoms aren’t compromised.   I can shake my head and keep playing WWF, say, because who cares about a silly app game.  But, is that the right attitude?  When you hear about Seth Godin’s experience with Apple refusing to carry one of his “manifestos” because there are links in it to the Amazon store, the whole Big Brother thing becomes a bit sinister.  This is censorship seasoned with monopolistic bullying, in my opinion.

How much freedom of speech can be guaranteed when behemoths like Apple and Amazon censor what is available to consumers for any reason other than that the work(s) in question poses a real physical threat to individuals?  Sure, a privately owned retailer may choose what goods and services it wants to offer, but when you have two or three entities responsible for the dissemination of vast amounts of information, it seems to me that it should not be morally, ethically, or legally okay for those entities to decide what consumers may or may not be able to buy.

Those of us in the publishing business have a rather bedeviled relationship with Apple, Amazon and B&N (especially the first two).  On the one hand, we need them in order to place our authors’ wares.  On the other, we are increasingly concerned with the practices of these soulless corporations whose only interest is the financial bottom line and for whom books and the entire publishing world are but a blip in their massive spreadsheets.  Is it time for the government to step in and regulate how content is served up?  What can we do as consumers (and book lovers) to safeguard our ability to buy any book (or story or manifesto) we want?  Should we be outraged or should we shrug our shoulders and lump this with the Word With Friends shenanigans?

What’s your take on all of this?  Am I over- or under-reacting?

0

Humor helps

This has been a week of major Amazon consternation here in publishing land. First, they bought the 450-title trade list of Marshall Cavendish, a small, independent publisher of high-quality books for children. The reaction from booksellers was quick, including one tweeting that she was looking forward to shipping back all the Marshall Cavendish titles. Agents were (and still are) very curious to hear from the publisher about just what this means for our authors. Then they announced a fun promotion in which they’re asking customers to go to brick-and-mortar retailers, find items they want, scan their barcode with Amazon’s app, then get $5 from Amazon for doing price research for them! While this program does not include books (because as Josie Leavitt points out, they already know how much their competitors charge for books–no research needed!), booksellers and some authors have been up in arms about Amazon’s audacity. It’s certainly a ballsy move to proactively promote such behavior, though the app (and others like it) have been around for some time.

But one bookseller, Roxanne J Coady, has a modest proposal for Amazon that could help even the playing field. I won’t spoil the fun by giving anything more away, but please do take a look. A little levity never hurts.

9

Picture book blues

Sorry to be a bit of a downer, folks, but two news stories today gave me a touch of the picture book blues. First, there was word that the Mr. Men and Little Misses books are heading off to new corporate masters. Not that I have anything against these books (don’t want to be called out as Mr. Grumpy here!), but considering how the hardcover picture book market has been eviscerated by mass market over the years, it’s a little depressing to see so much value placed on these characters when hardcovers are dying on the vine. Feels like it’s been a while since a hardcover character got a similar courtship from the major media conglomerates—even Fancy Nancy ain’t that fancy.

And then there’s the whole Amazon kerfuffle on the Room for Debate page of the Times. Certainly, the level of anger and vitriol against our industry is enough to discourage anyone associated with books, but it’s extremely depressing for a picture book enthusiast to read the comments bashing traditional publishers. Because picture books are one of the few formats where a traditional publisher provides an indisputably vital function–can you imagine Amazon attempting to shape, edit, design, and package a picture book, not to mention pairing a writer with an artist in the first place? If the Big Six really go the way of the dodo, it’s going to be a very bleak day for the art of the picture book.

Now, I know these blues will pass, because the death of Big Six publishing has (per usual) been overstated of late. Plus, the picture book market, while not what it used to be, is still out there. In fact, one of the first projects I sold here at DGLM was a picture book, so I’m still very actively looking for author/illustrators. And the Society of Illustrators is gearing up for its annual picture book art show, which is always a great reminder of the incredible talent working in picture books today—well worth a visit if you’re in NYC this fall.

Still, if anyone’s got any uplifting picture book thoughts or news, I’d love to hear them. And full disclosure, I’m also getting pretty sick of reading the same books over and over to my toddlers–so new picture book recommendations would be very much welcomed. I’m sure they’d buoy my spirits!

Moneyball, Amazon and the end of publishing as we know it

In this week’s death watch, the publishing business is going the way of the Edsel.  E-books have won.  Traditional publishers don’t know what to do with themselves or their lists.  Agents are unnecessary.  Anarchy reigns among authors.   And, oh, yeah, Amazon is getting closer to world domination (tricky bastards).  There is no leadership.  The darkness is encroaching.  The center cannot hold!

Let’s see, that about covers it, I think.  Except, does it?

The afore-linked-to New York Times article contains a quote from Russ Grandinetti (whom we’ve met a few times at Amazon seminars we’ve attended and whom the Times refers to as “one of Amazon’s top executives,” leading me to believe they don’t know exactly what he does) which I actually loved: “It’s always the end of the world. You could set your watch on it arriving.”  It also mentions some other shady (unnamed) Amazon characters twirling their mustaches while claiming that “publishers [are] in love with their own demise.”  As wary as  my colleagues and I are about Amazon and their plans to expand into publishing, I tend to agree with their assessment that traditional publishers can come across as a self-indulgent, hand wringing bunch who’d rather blame the big bad corporate entity for poaching their authors and re-drawing the battle lines than take effective steps to compete and prosper.

Enough, already.  If the model is broken or the times have changed and there’s a new model out there, then learn it, adapt your systems, and make it work for you.  Publishers are sitting on gold mines of backlists.  They seem to be unable or unwilling to competitively price and promote the e-books  they are putting out.  They’re still paying too much for that “sure thing” Jane was talking about earlier this week.  Most of all, they are loath to innovate at the speed the new paradigm requires.

Gerry Howard writes movingly in this week’s PW about how you really can’t apply the principles of Moneyball to publishing because you’d be ripping out its heart and doing away with all that wonderful serendipity that made The Bridges of Madison County, Tuesdays with Morrie, The DaVinci Code and countless other “small” buys into huge bestsellers.  I agree.  But, the thing I take away from Moneyball (the book and the film) is that you’ve got to look at your game differently if you are up against a rich behemoth who outpitches, outhits, and outfields you because they can buy all the talent out there.  Whether you’re talking about the Yankees or Amazon, I think the lesson is the same:  you can win playing smart small ball too.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Angry rebuttals?