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Summary:

Amazon has launched a new feature that allows readers to ask questions of authors from their Kindle e-book readers — which looks like yet another step in the online bookseller’s ongoing quest to cut publishers out of the equation and build relationships directly with authors.

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What if you could ask the author of a book a question while you were reading the book? That’s the kind of world Amazon wants to offer with its new @author feature, which the online bookstore launched on Wednesday with a group of writers including Susan Orlean and self-help guru Tim Ferriss. Readers can ask questions directly from their Kindles while they are reading a book, and the question gets sent to the author’s Twitter account as well as to their home page at Amazon. In addition to creating what the company hopes will be a kind of reader community around Kindle titles — something it has been pushing in other ways as well — this new feature looks like another step in Amazon’s quest to cut publishers out of the equation and build relationships directly with authors.

In addition to Orlean and Ferriss — author of “The Four-Hour Body” and other similar books — the Amazon pilot includes writers such as Steven Berlin Johnson, J.A. Konrath and John Locke. All have agreed to respond to reader questions, and many are already active in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Amazon says on the FAQ page for the feature that authors won’t be able to answer every question, and the idea is clearly to get other readers to respond to questions as well, much like movie-watchers do at sites like the Internet Movie Database.

The FAQ page also asks readers to “behave as if you were a guest at a friend’s dinner party,” and not post anything defamatory or offensive, and allows readers to flag questions or answers as abusive. Anyone who asks a question will be notified by email if their question has been answered, Amazon says.

Building social features around books

The @author feature comes just a few months after the online bookseller launched a social-networking style program based on the Kindle, which allows readers to “follow” other readers the same way they would on a network like Twitter — and thereby see what books they are reading, as well as any highlights or notes they have created in the books they have read (if the user chooses to show these items). The program got some attention recently when it added a feature that auto-followed a reader’s Twitter or Facebook friends, in what appeared to be an attempt to promote the program.

As Megan Garber notes at the Nieman Journalism Lab, one of the most obvious aspects of the new @author feature is that it disintermediates the publishers who normally act as middlemen between writers and readers (and who rarely pass on questions to authors, as anyone who has tried to contact one knows). While not every writer is going to want to respond directly to their audience, many have begun to get more interested in interacting with readers, including some who have adopted Twitter as a method of direct communication with fans — such as Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who took part in Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe’s recent experiment with a Twitter-powered global book club called “1book140.”

But connecting authors directly with readers isn’t the only way Amazon wants to disintermediate publishers. The online retailer has also taken a more direct step recently by signing a deal to publish Ferriss, whose books have become phenomenally popular over the past year. Although Amazon has published other authors, the Ferriss deal got the attention of many in the publishing world as a kind of shot across the bow of traditional publishers — many of whom are still smarting from their recent battles with Amazon over book pricing.

As we’ve pointed out a number of times at GigaOM, the whole concept of what a book is has been evolving rapidly over the past few years, and Amazon has been a big part of that from the beginning, thanks to its launch of the Kindle e-reader platform. In addition to spurring the sales of e-books in general, the Kindle has also played a central role in the publishing industry’s disruption because it allows anyone to sell their own e-books and keep up to 70 percent of the proceeds (provided the book sells for $4.99 or over).

The rise of the self-publishing superstar

Among those who have taken advantage of this phenomenon are Amanda Hocking, who started writing Kindle books for young adults a little over a year ago and managed to bring in more than $2 million in revenue without the help of a traditional publisher or agent. That performance convinced the publishing world to take another look, and Hocking signed a $2-million multibook deal with St. Martin’s Press earlier this year. Other self-publishers such as Konrath have continued to promote the benefits of self-publishing (my colleague Cyndy Aleo has a series of posts based on interviews with young adult authors about self-publishing).

Given that, it’s no surprise that Konrath is part of the Amazon @author launch — and so is another author who has played a role in popularizing self-publishing: John Locke, a former businessman who took up writing Kindle novels several years ago and recently became the first e-book author to sell more than a million copies. Not long afterward, Locke signed an unusual deal with mainstream publisher Simon & Schuster, which will see the publisher handle marketing and sales of print versions of his books, while still allowing him to continue self-publishing his own e-books and keeping all the proceeds.

That deal was a tangible sign of how the balance of power in the publishing business continues to shift, with authors (or at least, the ones who can demonstrate they have a connection with their readers and an ability to sell) gaining more strength and traditional publishers having to adapt. And Amazon continues to be at the center of that ongoing transformation of the industry.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Mike Licht and timetrax

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  1. Jason Thibeault Wednesday, August 31, 2011

    Just my opinion, but I think you are looking at this with too fine-grain a microscope. The world of publishing is changing, absolutely. And there are lots of reasons for this: growth of the web, ease of publishing digitally, explosion of tablets/e-book readers and e-books. Things are naturally going to change and one of those changes is how the reader interacts with the writer. The method that Amazon has coined here didn’t exist in the print space. Wasn’t even possible. In fact, there was really only one way to interact with an author: that was through book signings. But with social media, the Web, and the integration possibilities between device, content, and those sources means there’s a greenfield of possibilities. I don’t think the traditional publisher looses out here. In fact, if anything, it drives more book sales. If there was an electronic-only publisher would this dis-intermediate them as well or would it simply be a value proposition of them as a publisher? I do see some companies trying to bring the old into the new (i.e., re-create traditional methods of author/reader interaction that does not work) but I applaud what Amazon has done by being innovative within the context of how everything is changing.

    http://blog.jasonthibeault.com/index.php/2011/07/22/hanging-on-to-the-past-in-the-face-of-the-future/

    @jnthibeault

    1. Thanks, Jason — you are right that the changes are broad, and that it’s possible for traditional publishers to play a role in all of this as well. But as I argued in the post, I think most publishers are going to have to adapt if they want to benefit from these changes.

      1. Well, I will agree with you there. Everyone needs to adapt to change or die. But I think that there’s too much of an “us vs. them” attitude going on. Electronic publishing is not diametrically opposed to print publishing. The “adaption” you are talking about applies to both. For example, my publishing company, Dime Novel Publishing, will be producing limited print runs of all series going forward (maybe 50-100 copies). These will be signed and auctioned for charity. Eventually we hope to include print as an on-demand option. So as you can see the electronic and the print are inextricably intertwined, not opposed. Adaption will happen industry wide with respect to reader expectations.

  2. Key words here are “authors who have a connection with their readers and an ability to sell.” Those who are good self-promoters (or lucky enough to hit a self-sustaining critical mass some other way) are the ones who will make out in the Brave New Self-Published world. Unfortunately, I’m not aware that there’s any connection between being an excellent self-promotor and writing excellent content.

    If the only people who will make money are the excellent self-promoters, then gradually, people who have deep, rich content but no marketing skills will be left with fewer options. Those who have both skill sets are valuable, but rare.

    (I was always struck by Tim Ferriss’s story in 4-hour work week. It started, “there I was, making $80K a month, and miserable because it took all my time.” If he had the sales and marketing savvy to build a $80K/month business, then it’s not surprising he can get serious traction in anything that relies on content providers to do their own marketing. Fortunately, he also has great content. But there are plenty of others out there who have great marketing skill, but lousy content.)

    1. That’s a good point, Steve — I think there is definitely a chance that authors who aren’t as good at promoting themselves could get overlooked. But then, hasn’t that always been the case to some extent?

    2. I wouldn’t count out the social aspect here; the ability of readers to get the word out about works from relatively unknown authors. That’s the way it should be.

      If we had good commentaries from actual readers, I don’t believe self-serving promotion from authors or publishers will count for much. If publishers can find an add-on that readers are will to pay for, good for them. However, I can’t see anything beyond the ability to tie authors to exclusive contracts.

  3. August McLaughlin Wednesday, August 31, 2011

    Kudos to Amazon for embracing the broadening connectedness of readers between authors and the ever-changing publishing world. I agree with Jason, however. I don’t see how this function will make publishers obsolete. In fact, I believe that all parties can benefit. The more able authors are to build connections with fans, the more profitable books are for everyone.

  4. The ironic thing about how publishers screen authors from their audiences is that every author is dying to interact with his or her audience. That’s why we write! Writing is the active method of literary intimacy. Publishers are not writers. They are money makers.

    1. Agreed, Doug — I think many authors enjoy the interaction once they get around their “gatekeepers.” Thanks for the comment.

  5. Just a small correction, I think it is 2.99 not 4.99 that is the threshold for 70% royalties on Amazon.

  6. Yep, the publishing industry IS changing with eReaders, just like the iPod did to the recording industry. The issue, just like iTunes, is who is going to collect from the new toll roads that lead readers with authors? With technology progressing by leaps and bounds, the authors will be in the driver seat, if they so choose, and the middle men will be out looking for a new business.

  7. As an avid reader, I see this as a needless distraction. I keep the WiFi on my Nook (yes, I know this article refers to the Amazon Kindle, but I would do the same thing there) turned off unless I am actively downloading content, which in itself is rare because my local library system has a pretty good ebook selection that gets synced over USB.

    And I don’t understand why authors, particularly fiction writers, would encourage anything that would disrupt the flow of their written information. If they intend a book, essay, whatever to convey a certain mood, then why agree to break the spell? For non-fiction books, I guess I could see the usefulness, but even then Twitter and Amazon don’t seem to be the best means of communicating with an author. Facebook, Google+, or the author’s website all seem to be more appropriate.

  8. Jackie (Cornwell) Kmetz Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Amazon has steadily been becoming the Walmart of the paper-based literature world. It’s not a shocker. But this new feature isn’t really a stretch considering the digital movement replacing our old school paper world. Publishers need to move into the digital space quickly and sell rights to the ditigal versions directly or via digital warehouses like Amazon. The self-publishing options for paper books are numerous now and in the paper world, distribution is the biggest hurdle to selling them. Amazon removing that hurdle in a digital world is very appealing. I think there is plenty of room for someone to hurry in and grab significant market share here.

    Back to the feature, adding a social element to digital books is a natural extension and fits the community forums that Amazon has already been growing for a long time. They are a huge resource and widely used. I think Amazon is being very innovative and working to effectively drive the community aspect of the Amazon experience. However, I doubt the author-specific part of the feature will become huge as only a small percentage of authors are likely to be willing to engage. But a built in community to a proprietary device… it will be fascinating to see where it goes.

    ~Jackie Kmetz
    Visible Technologies

  9. Fascinating and mind boggling at the same time. This feature could really build audiences for very micro niche subject matter. This will help in particular science oriented subjects get a wider audience.But it takes the ability to be able to obtain knowledge on any subject to UN-imaginable levels.

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