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Summary:

Amazon Publishing’s head honcho in New York, Larry Kirshbaum, plans to leave the company next year. The company is also reportedly scaling back its publishing presence here, something it denies. But it’s undeniable that Amazon’s original plan to publish traditional fiction and nonfiction like a major East Coast publisher has not gone as planned.

Larry Kirshbaum

When Amazon Publishing launched its general trade imprint in New York in 2011, the goal was to go head-to-head with the big traditional publishers here. The company announced in May of that year that it had hired industry vet Larry Kirshbaum to run the new general publishing division. Kirshbaum said at the time that Amazon was “going to back [the imprint] significantly” and that he would run it “in the vein of a major publishing house.”

But agents, authors and booksellers didn’t play along. Industry newsletter Shelf Awareness reported Friday, citing unidentified sources, that Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon Publishing early next year.

Shelf Awareness also said that “In connection with [Kirshbaum's] departure, the most ambitious part of Amazon’s publishing operations will be scaled back. Already several editorial people have left or been let go, and Amazon has not been a factor in bidding on major books the way it had been just two years ago.”

Amazon confirmed Kirshbaum’s departure but denies that it is scaling back its New York operation. Here’s its first statement, released Friday morning:

“We can confirm that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon on January 17. Larry joined us two and a half years ago and has been instrumental in launching our New York office, including our New Harvest partnership, and establishing our children’s book business. We’re sorry to see him go, and wish him the best of luck as he returns to life as a literary agent.”

And its second, released a couple of hours later:

“[Our] New York office will continue to expand, as our overall publishing business grows. In fact, we will be announcing new imprints to launch in New York soon. Daphne Durham has already stepped into the role of Publisher for our Adult Trade & Children’s businesses.”

Durham will be based in Seattle, not in New York.

In 2012, Kirshbaum’s role had expanded to include leadership of both the New York-based imprint and Amazon’s Seattle-based publishing division, which publishes genres like science fiction and romance. All of those imprints are continuing operation under Durham. If any New York-based imprints — the children’s publishing division is based here, for instance — are shutting down, Amazon is mum on that.

A big problem: Splashy books that Barnes & Noble won’t carry

In New York, Amazon Publishing aimed to snap up splashy titles and reportedly paid a lot of money to do so. Yet none of the books ever really took off. In the imprint’s first months under Kirshbaum, editors signed up titles by aging Laverne and Shirley star Penny Marshall (reportedly paying over $100,000 more than the next bidder for the rights), James Franco and Deepak Chopra.

Kirshbaum also planned to publish a lot of literary fiction. “All of you novelists out there, we’re open for business and I think…literary novels are going to be our real mainstay,” he told a group of students at Stony Brook Southhampton in 2012. In that same presentation, he repeatedly mentioned the importance of traditional bookstores, and said of his vision for Amazon New York: “I like to model it on the companies I worked for for many years, Warner and Little, Brown.”

Tim Ferriss app 2

The Amazon New York title that got the most attention was bestselling author Timothy Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Chef. It was the first book that Kirshbaum signed up. Ferriss had published his previous two books — The Four-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body — with Crown. Regarding his decision to go with Amazon Publishing instead, he said:

“My decision to collaborate with Amazon Publishing wasn’t just a question of which publisher to work with. It was a question of what future of publishing I want to embrace. My readers are migrating irreversibly into digital, and it made perfect sense to work with Amazon to try and redefine what is possible.”

But things didn’t go as planned, in part because Barnes & Noble refuses to carry Amazon Publishing titles in its stores. As I wrote in 2011 in my story “The truth about Amazon Publishing,” bricks-and-mortar bookstores are still one of the major ways that readers discover new books, and online sources haven’t picked up the slack. Barnes & Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon titles mattered less for Amazon’s niche-y science fiction, romance and mystery books, which it could target to very specific audiences on its website. But the big, general titles that Kirshbaum wanted to publish needed more of a push from bookstores, and they didn’t get it.

This was very frustrating for Ferriss. When The Four-Hour Chef was published in 2012, he tried to promote it as “the most banned book in U.S. history” based on the fact that Barnes & Noble wouldn’t carry it. But it never hit the general New York Times nonfiction bestseller list the way Ferriss’s previous books had.

“I think that no matter how well I do — even if I sell a million Kindle copies, for instance — there will be people in the book trade who call it a failure because they’re using different metrics,” Ferriss told me in 2012.

Ultimately, that problem wasn’t limited to Ferriss. Once literary agents and authors saw that Amazon wouldn’t be able to get their books into Barnes & Noble, publishing with the company became a much less appealing prospect. It’s likely one of the main reasons that we haven’t seen Amazon New York sign up a big, general-interest author in over a year.

An industry ripe for disruption — and sturdier than it seemed

This isn’t what the industry — or the media — expected in 2011. Amazon’s hiring of Kirshbaum right before BEA was the talk of the trade show that year, and a lot of people — including me — genuinely thought that Amazon’s entry into the New York book publishing market might be enough to take out one of the Big 6 publishers (there are now 5, but that’s just because Random House and Penguin merged). It didn’t work out that way. If you want somebody to thank — or blame — I’d recommend Barnes & Noble. The bookstore chain is in big trouble on the digital side, but its ban on Amazon titles was undeniably effective in crippling Amazon New York’s performance in general fiction and nonfiction books.

The apparent failure of Amazon’s New York publishing division doesn’t mean that all Amazon’s publishing efforts are a failure by any means. It dominates the self-publishing market and its piles of consumer data help it decide which genres to publish in. That just didn’t work so well when it came to the big books that Kirshbaum planned to publish. Beyond publishing, the company still has plenty of other things going for it, to put it mildly: The company’s stock hit a record $365 per share this morning, following its Q3 earnings report yesterday.

Nonetheless, at least seventy percent of the books sold in the U.S. are still print, so Amazon’s inability to get its titles into bookstores was a huge strike against the vision that it would be able to compete directly against general trade publishers on big fiction and nonfiction titles. And just because many have argued that the traditional book publishing industry’s business model is outdated didn’t mean that Amazon would be able to completely upend the way the industry does business in New York in two years.

This story was updated several times on Friday as more information became available.

  1. Looks like reports of the death of printed books and the stores that carry them are greatly exaggerated — at least as far as aspirational bestsellers is concerned.

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  2. Celebrity-driven books are always hard to put into a “model” that can be applied to all of them. Plus, physical distribution into stores (B&N, Indies, Wal-Mart, Target etc) has and still is a very important factor in celebrity bios.

    Genre fiction (Mystery, Romance etc) lends itself to Amazon and digital. Amazon is still probably doing great business with those books. But those books don’t depend on exposure in retail like celebrity titles.

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    1. As a hardcore sci-fi and fantasy reader, I can’t tell you the last time I discovered a book through Amazon. All my book discoveries have come from friends, the bookstore and the local library.

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    2. Not sure how genre fiction “lends” itself to Amazon and digital. I’m a sci-fi and fantasy reader myself and all my discoveries have come through friends, bookstores and local libraries.

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      1. Mr. Atoz: I understand your real point, but the fact is you’ve demonstrated that you’re a discriminating reader. Mr. Perry’s characterization of a ‘Genre’ fiction is an industry legacy holdover term: I think what he is really trying to say is that Amazon lends itself to the indiscriminate reader, who will buy a particular genre title without a lot of process — often no more than ‘this looks good’.

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  3. I’m not sure how looking at a book’s cover, reading the description, browsing a few pages, and taking into account friends’ opinions and/or past experience with an author creates an inherently more “discriminating” readership experience when done in a bookstore vs on Amazon. Indeed, especially in a genre like SF, the selection on Amazon will vastly exceed the limited and shrinking section in a bookstore.

    I fail to see how much more “process” is available to a reader in a bookstore vs. an Amazon buyer. Again, it would seem the only arguable difference is the larger selection of genre/specific titles available online. I would say that some people simply prefer one mode over the other for personal reasons ( e.g. he is used to going to the bookstore or he prefers being able to shop from his couch). The constant effort to directly or indirectly assign some level of ntellectual superiority to one’s choice is the worst sort of insecure foolishness.

    I can’t speak to finding new titles at a library, as it is something I rarely do, but that is a separate venue, leaving the reader to buy his book either at a bookstore or online.

    The entire analysis of this transition would be vastly more productive if it wasn’t just 90% each side declaring its own moral superiority.

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    1. Ms. Aisabelle:
      You have taken offense where none was given. Market analysis reveals that a majority of the indiscriminate readers are not aligned to any one form of purchase: they’ll go online, they’ll go to libraries, bookstores, warehouse stores, etc. The Kindle is, for example, a grand attempt to capture more or all of those less discerning, more impulsive purchases in one walled garden. The ‘process’ is not a comment inferred about the consumer, just the deliberative energy expended — and Amazon, as well as many online Siren Servers, work really hard at reducing the needed expenditure to go from selection to purchase. There is no ignoring that value, and there is certainly no moral superiority being suggested in pointing it out.

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    2. aisabelle, the answer to your question is not based on any logical reason. The use of the term “discriminating,” to me, is neither good nor bad as people make discriminating choices for different reasons. You, for example, “fail to see” the difference between someone show sees a book on Amazon and someone who goes into a bookstore and “looks at a book’s cover, reading the description, browsing a few pages, and taking into account friends’ opinions and/or past experience with an author.” That’s fine. But there are people who, intuitively or by conscious choice, are what I would call “book readers” rather than “content absorbers.” The book readers find actually holding a book and going through it to be a visceral experience that currently cannot be duplicated electronically. They are acting off of that experience. That does not make them better or worse than those who get their books electronically, just different. I am not taking sides. I read and buy books made from trees as well as reading books on my smartphone, my ebook reader, and on my computer.

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    3. Well stated.

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  4. David Sanford Friday, October 25, 2013

    Great piece! Then again, let’s not miss the real story. While Amazon’s book publishing efforts haven’t met expectations, Amazon’s CreateSpace publishing program has been a huge success. I should know. After more than 300 book deals, including deals for stacks of award-winners and best-sellers, I have turned in my ‘literary agent’ badge. Why? In part because my best authors now use CreateSpace and earn $7 to $12 per book sold (paid monthly) vs. earning $1 (paid many months later). To them, it’s a no-brainer. So it’s clear, I am not abandoning the publishing world. Instead, I am enjoying all of its best forms more than ever. To me, every great book is a ‘golden key’ that opens exciting new doors for speaking engagements, mass media appearances, social media buzz, etc. True, a lot of people don’t have a good or great book in them. Then again, a lot do. The more on-ramps and fewer roadblocks we can create for them, the more everyone wins. I’ve presented a ‘no fear’ 2-part workshop on today’s best book publishing options at a growing number of colleges, grad schools, universities, conferences, etc. I’ll be glad to send a copy of the handouts to any of your readers. Just drop a quick line to me at mailto:dsanford@corban.edu. You can check out my bio at http://www.linkedin.com/in/drsanford.

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  5. I find the Barnes & Noble experience rather depressing. They market books like grocery items: publishers pay for premium placement on shelves and the good, “healthy” stuff is often buried in back, or you have to order it because, gee, a book on the NY Times bestseller list is not in stock because it’s #15, and B&N only has 100 copies of the #1 book. Indie stores are the way to go, the staff actually reads the books they carry and will steer you in the right direction if you mention some past authors you’ve enjoyed reading. (B&N staff look at you like you’re daft when you mention a novelist, like say, Martin Amis). But indie stores just aren’t being supported by the public, who go there to glean book suggestions, then run to Amazon to save a couple books. So it goes….

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  6. The reason for the enmity between Barnes and Nobel and Amazon can be summed up in two words: Border’s Books.

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  7. Amazon Author Monday, October 28, 2013

    Worth remembering, amid the schadenfreude: It’s the lesser known authors signed to the trade imprints–many of them not by choice, when Amazon bought their publishers–who are really suffering here, with worthy books torpedoed by bookseller boycotts. Authors, as usual, getting the shortest end of the stick.

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    1. Absolutely. But the tonic for schadenfreude is the sweet taste of CreateSpace and a modest publishing package.

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  8. Lots of learned comments here. As a layman, I’d suggest you stick to broader issues. The ocean doesn’t devour the beach in one tide. It ebbs and flows, taking bits that the beach barely “notices”. But, in the end the beach’s inability to be anything other than the beach resigns it to be consumed…slowly. The sad thing is this analogy shouldn’t apply to a massive, sentient, organization like B&N. Yet, it does.
    B&N has lost every fight to Amazon so far. And the real reason is it’s unwillingness to redefine itself as a distributor of information in whatever formats it needs to in order to meet the demands of information consumers. The question here is whether Barnes & Noble will learn a lesson in this victory that it’s failed to learn in it’s defeats. And will they interpret that lesson as anything more than a confirmation of it’s own long-held beliefs that have, till this day, caused “situational blindness”. Think about it, Amazon is still building infrastructure to deliver its goods even as it continues to eat up B&N’s beaches. That’s because they are committed to constant change in pursuit of it’s mission. B&N has always had assets that it’s sought to protect even at the detriment of it’s buying audience. I can’t imagine they ever thought they’d be the worlds largest chain of eat-in libraries. Yet, that’s what they’ve become to the consumer. That’s because they were late to leverage their huge audience and canyons of unexplored data. They have perfected a talent for missing out on the obvious at almost every opportunity. What a way to make a perfect toothpick out of a mighty oak.

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  9. I go to Barnes and Noble bookstores because they’re basically the only physical “bookstores” I can still easily find. But … ick. So much floorspace is now devoted to the coffee shop … the Nook display and accessories … games, toys, puzzles, calendars, and impulse purchase junk … cards, bags, knick-knacks … and so on. Less and less to actual books. Sure, it LOOKS as if there are a lot of books … but when you actually drill down to try to find something, a specific title, in the children’s department or elsewhere, you quickly realize how limited the on-floor selection is. The fact that something can be ordered is immaterial … if I’m going to order online, I can do that at home, from Amazon.

    But there’s the rub. I don’t just want to order online. The “browsing” experience for a book is better for me in a bookstore than it is online. I find it easier to have my interest snagged by a book as I glance at titles on a shelf, and to pick that book up and glance through it, than to have to click and browse x number of titles on screen at a time. Finding new books online is not as enjoyable an experience for me as finding them in a physical store. Borders closing was a blow. B&N limiting its selection still further doesn’t make it more appealing. Maybe Amazon should consider maintaining a brick-and-mortar presence where customers can go to browse, and expect that most actual purchases will still be made online?

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