Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
These days, Amazon is pretty much the poster child for what happens when you insist on having your fancy cake and eating it, too. Back in January, Amazon Publishing entered into a licensing agreement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is now publishing and distributing print versions of Amazon’s titles under a new, dedicated imprint, New Harvest. At the time, this PaidContent article surmised that this alliance might be designed to sneak Amazon titles into Barnes & Noble stores.
It kind of made sense, in theory. Except for the fact that Barnes & Noble wasn’t even remotely down with the program.
At the end of January, the largest remaining bookstore chain announced that it wouldn’t carry any Amazon Publishing titles, including the ones published by the New Harvest imprint. As long as Amazon maintained exclusivity over the digital versions of its books—thereby not allowing customers to purchase Amazon books through Barnes & Noble’s Nook—Barnes & Noble would scrupulously boycott the print versions.
Although Barnes & Noble lays claim to 703 stores across the country, it only owns 17 percent of the market share in print book sales, as compared to Amazon’s 29 percent. However, it might behoove Amazon to rethink its p-books approach. Books-A-Million, which owns 251 stores in 30 states, has also joined ranks with Barnes & Noble in opposing Amazon by refusing to carry its titles. And even some indie bookstores, like Changing Hands of Tempe, Arizona, are jumping on the bandwagon.
In general, I understand booksellers’ impulse to undermine an ever-growing monopoly threatening the already delicate balance of the publishing ecosystem. The problem is that, as in every conflict, innocent bystanders tend to get caught in the crossfire—like author Debby Dahl Edwardson, whose highly acclaimed young adult novel, My Name Is Not Easy, was named a finalist for last year’s National Book Award.
When Edwardson’s publisher, Alaska’s Marshall Cavendish, sold the rights to its titles to Amazon, Barnes & Noble promptly pulled Edwardson’s novel from the shelves, according to this Alaska Dispatch article. In Edwardson’s words, as quoted in the same article, “For them to say we will no longer carry that book, it’s a disservice to me as a writer, but it’s a disservice to the readers too. It goes beyond business. It’s now something that’s affecting the public and the readers.”
This ongoing power struggle also affects another sector of the publishing sphere—namely, the literary agents who are now faced with the question of whether brokering deals between their writers and Amazon Publishing is in their clients’ best interest. The fact is that Amazon already boasts a number of illustrious authors, including Timothy Ferris and Deepak Chopra, and in a competitive auction setting, Amazon may easily be able to outbid traditional publishing houses. But in the case of an Amazon acquisition, to what extent will the resulting book’s absence from bricks-and-mortar stores hurt the author in the long run? Might it be wiser to go with a traditional publisher who can offer a less substantial advance, while guaranteeing presence in book stores? Especially since Amazon will sell the books online either way? After all, the combined 46 percent market share of distributing through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble might trump a larger advance.
I’m also aware that Amazon is considering opening its own retail locations, but it’s my understanding that these will be exclusively dedicated to purveying Amazon Publishing titles. I may not be a marketing prodigy par excellence, but that doesn’t sound particularly viable to me. As a customer, why go to all the trouble of making your physical way to a venue that sells only one publisher’s titles, when you could get a much larger selection online, at Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million, and even in independent bookstores? I’m pretty sure agents and writers alike aren’t holding their breath on that one.
In any case, there are no formulas to turn to, and no easy answers. The reality is that authors and their agents will be struggling with this until Amazon and Barnes & Noble resolve their stalemate, one way or the other. Until then, it’ll be a matter of teasing out the pros and cons peculiar to every situation, perhaps requiring an even more open discourse between authors and their agents than is usually the case.
As always, if you think there are in fact easy answers I’ve overlooked, I would love to hear your comments.