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Amazon to book publishers: Welcome to the jungle, baby

Amazon (s amzn) isn’t happy just disrupting the book-publishing world by promoting self-publishing via the Kindle platform or launching a rumored “Netflix for books,” (s nflx) it seems. The giant online retailer — which recently unveiled its iPad competitor, the Kindle Fire, and also dropped the price of its lowest-priced Kindle, bringing it even closer to being free — is also busy signing up popular authors for its own Amazon publishing imprint. And those it’s signing up are becoming evangelists for the company as an alternative to the “legacy publishing” industry, including the latest addition: thriller writer Barry Eisler. Publishers are now in direct competition not just with the Kindle, but with Amazon itself.

Eisler, a former CIA operative turned author, has been one of the most prominent examples of self-publishing, along with fellow writers J.A. Konrath and young-adult author Amanda Hocking — who made more than two million dollars by publishing her own books via the Kindle marketplace (often charging as little as 99 cents for them) before signing a $2-million deal with a traditional publisher earlier this year. Eisler also got the publishing industry’s attention in a big way when he turned down a $500,000 advance for two books with St. Martin’s Press in March, and said that he was going to self-publish his new novel instead.

Amazon deal offered “best of both worlds”

Instead of doing that, however, Eisler has signed a deal with Amazon’s in-house Thomas and Mercer imprint. In an interview with National Public Radio, the author said that after he announced his intention to turn down the St. Martin’s deal and self-publish – a decision he discussed at the time in a conversation with fellow writer J.A. Konrath — Amazon approached him with an offer of what he calls a “hybrid deal, the best of both worlds.” The online giant agreed to publish an e-book version of the novel as soon as it was completed, and then follow that up with a paperback edition.

In the NPR interview, Eisler — several of whose books have become New York Times (s nyt) bestsellers after being marketed and published by traditional agencies — says he has come to the conclusion that mainstream publishers simply aren’t as efficient or as useful to authors as they used to be, now that there are other options:

To say that publishers really care passionately about books as though they are concerned about what’s better for the world … I’m sure when they look in the mirror they feel that way. But in fact, what they care about is preserving their own position, perks and profit — that’s just what establishment players come to do over time.

In a long comment posted at the New York Observer website, in which he takes issue with some of the points raised in a post about his decision, Eisler says one of the reasons he decided to decline the St. Martin’s deal was that the publisher was simply too slow in meeting its obligations. In particular, he says St. Martin’s took more than four months to send a draft contract, and during that time, the landscape of the industry had changed to the point where many of the terms were no longer acceptable — in part because of the explosion of e-books and self-publishing.

Eisler also noted that the delays he experienced before he dropped the deal were typical of an industry where legacy publishers deliberately slow down the process of publishing a book, so that they can earn interest on the money they would otherwise have to pay to authors. By contrast, he said, Amazon was willing to sign a deal immediately and then guarantee to have the e-book version and the paperback version of his new books on the market long before a traditional publisher could. Said Eisler:

What I care about is readers, because without readers I can’t make a living [and] I want people to read a lot. To that end, if I can find a way to get readers books that cost less and are delivered better and faster, I want that.

Amazon offered “more money, more control”

The New York Observer post takes issue with the fact that Eisler’s book will only be available to Amazon customers, but the author notes in his comment that it’s available without DRM (digital rights management) and therefore it can be read on any e-book reader, including the Nook and the Kobo. In addition, Eisler says that if he had chosen a traditional publishing deal, readers would have had to choose either a hardcover for $24.99 or a $12.99 e-book. “Availability six months earlier and at half the price seems like a pretty good deal for readers to me,” he said. He added:

My objectives were to make more money from the title, to get the digital out first, and to retain more control over business decisions. If a better way comes along … of course I’m going to take it. Publishing for me is a business, not an ideology.

What’s interesting about Amazon’s deal with Eisler is that — like an earlier deal with popular author Tim Ferriss — the arrangement strikes right at the heart of the traditional publishing business, which Amazon has had a love-hate relationship with for some time now. It was one thing to allow writers such as Amanda Hocking to publish their own books outside the traditional system (which some publishers saw as a kind of “farm team” approach they could profit from), but deals with popular writers like Ferriss and Eisler are taking the cream off the top. And in the process, Amazon is making the rest of the traditional industry look bad to boot.

What publishers need to realize is that authors like Eisler and Ferriss — and even some without that kind of pre-existing fame — don’t have to put up with the glacier-like pace and other downsides of the mainstream publishing business any more. If a publishing deal is lucrative enough they might take it, but even if it is lucrative, they might decide to simply cut their own deal, and Amazon is more than happy to step in. In that sense, the Eisler deal is yet another wake-up call for the industry: Adapt or die.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Marya

17 Responses to “Amazon to book publishers: Welcome to the jungle, baby”

  1. Kare Anderson

    Re Lucian’s concern i think publishing will continue to morph and new alliances of writers, journalist, curators, illustrators, translators and social & mobile geeks will collaborate on ways to create ebooks, enhanced ebooks, interactive books — and additional distribution channels along with amazon… and increasingly what we create can be agnostic of technology, available on any devise, Mathew’s coverage has been in-depth, up-to-date and writing for a wide audience… as a former JSJ reporter who is interested in this area i am in awe of his writing, and thankful for it, like so many others here evidentally are… maybe you, Matthew, will author your own Amazon-supported book?

  2. Thanks to Barry and others for leading the way. I’ve had over 26,000 sales of my sweet historical Western romances in five and a half months. I’m SO glad I didn’t go the traditional way! It’s an interesting and exciting time to be an author.

  3. I definitely get what Eisler says about waiting and waiting for his contract. That was one reason I decided not to sign with the publisher who was interested in my three books. Publisher took forever to send the contract, and in the meantime, people started talking to me about going indie. I got lucky the publisher dawdled, eh ;-)

  4. Suspicious search results on Amazon? That’s the last thing any author would need. I can’t say I haven’t had and heard of self-publishing woes–like authors’ ebooks being purchased without ALL the sales showing up in the authors’ accounts–but I do enjoy the control that comes along with self-publishing. However, I don’t relish the thought of traditional publishers becoming obsolete because not every author wants to be a DIY publisher. Some writers want to write books and connect with readers without having to hire teams of editors, designers, etc with all of the expenses coming out of the writer’s pocket. I do hope traditional publishers will adapt and keep competition going.

  5. Michael W. Perry

    There’s a more serious issue lurking in the shadows. As an Amazon programmer and one of their lawyers admitted to me, the site’s search engine is heavily biased to give results that maximize Amazon’s profit. When the markup of one edition over another is high enough, the less profitable title disappears completely from the search results. All you see is the pricey version. At times it’s almost spooky. Search for the ISBN and there the book is. Search for the title, taking care to get it precisely right, and it disappears.

    Amazon could do something similar to push their own titles. A book from another publisher might go strangely missing, particularly if you don’t enter the title precisely right. At the same time, Amazon titles that share nothing with what you’re look for but the same broad genre may clutter the search results.

    Of course, in the long term, it’s precisely this sort of behavior, coupled with Amazon’s large market share, that’s likely to lead to federal anti-trust intervention.

  6. Mark Coker

    The power in publishing is shifting from publishers to authors, and for all the reasons Barry cites, this is good for authors and readers. Amazon realizes this and has the unique ability to offer the best authors deals that are difficult to turn down. The deals benefit Amazon and the author but harm publishers, and, more importantly to Amazon, harm Amazon’s ebook retailing competitors because many of these deals give Amazon a one year exclusive. The books can be read on a Kobo, iPad, or virtually any other device, but they can’t be purchased in those devicemakers’ own stores. Since the customer has more loyalty to the author than the store (and who doesn’t have an Amazon account?), the customer is served. How can Amazon’s competitors beat Amazon at such strategic cherry picking? By collectively offering authors a better opportunity. Like I said, authors are in control now. My congrats to Barry.

  7. I too am an amazonpublishing author under their encore imprint, and am here to sing their praises. They have given me way more control than any author I know who is signed with one of the big six, and they actually value my opinion of the product I created. Imagine. They’ve been able to get my books out quickly while reaching a mass market of ideal readers, and in the process make bestsellers out of both of my books. They are the most innovative, author-friendly publisher out there, hands down.

  8. Cecelia Holland

    hardcopy publishers aren’t just slow getting contracts out. they’re very slow also to pay. it can take years to get a royalty statement, and years to get any money from them. with amazon, sales are posted immediately, and the money’s there in 60 days.

  9. Phyllis Z. Miller

    Matthew —

    This is a terrific blog post! I’ve been tracking the book publishing industry and writing posts about how e-books are rapidly changing the landscape. But this Amazon book publishing deal is beyond revolutionary — although perhaps not so surprising given that Amazon hired Larry Kirshbaum.

    Anyway, the two most striking sentences in your blog post are:

    “The online giant agreed to publish an e-book version of the novel as soon as it was completed, and then follow that up with a paperback edition.”

    “In addition, Eisler says that if he had chosen a traditional publishing deal, readers would have had to choose either a hardcover for $24.99 or a $12.99 e-book.”

    In terms of e-book prices, it amazes me when I see on Amazon an e-book price higher than the paperback price of the same book. (Often in these cases Amazon notes that the e-book price was set by the publisher.)

    More than four months for St. Martin’s to send a draft contract! No wonder traditional publishers are going to be left in the dust.

    Phyllis Zimbler Miller

  10. I like how Amazon is unafraid to disrupt their own partners. But authors should be careful. Do they really want to go from 6 major publishers, to just one (Amazon) 10 years from now?

    What authors need is more self-publishing, not to replace 6 publishers with just one.

  11. I have really enjoyed your “series” of articles on the book publishing industry and how technology has really forced them into a corner. Will be interesting to see what their response will be to technology.