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The Truth About Amazon Publishing, Part II

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) says it will double the number of original titles it publishes next year, to 400, and add more imprints, including a couple in New York. Much more interesting is what the company doesn’t say in that interview–and those omissions reflect the difficulties I explored in “The Truth About Amazon Publishing” last month.

Seth Godin Is Forgotten; Print Sales Are Poor: Publishers Weekly lists Amazon Publishing’s five top sellers in 2011, “in both e-book and print” (i.e., I think, in those formats combined): The Hangman’s Daughter; A Scattered Life; Elizabeth Street; Easily Amused; and Alison Wonderland.

Now, wait a sec. I checked the print sales numbers for each Amazon Publishing title last month, using Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of hardcover and paperback sales (including print sales on Amazon). Here, according to BookScan, are Amazon’s top 5 print bestsellers in 2011 (I verified these titles’ BookScan numbers this morning):

1. The Hangman’s Daughter (imprint: AmazonEncore): 28,467 copies sold in print
2. Poke the Box (imprint: Seth Godin’s The Domino Project): 24,883 copies
3. Do the Work (imprint: The Domino Project): 8,933 copies
4. AWOL on the Appalachian Trail (Imprint: Amazon Encore): 6,000 copies
5. Anything You Want (imprint: The Domino Project): 5,920 copies

Three of these are Domino Project titles and that only The Hangman’s Daughter is listed as a top seller in the PW article. Here are the print sales for the titles PW lists as Amazon Publishing’s bestsellers:

1. The Hangman’s Daughter: 28,467 copies sold in print
2. Elizabeth Street: 1,073 copies
3. Easily Amused: 681 copies*
4. A Scattered Life: 629 copies*
5. Alison Wonderland: 205 copies

*These books are sold in Sam’s Club, which does not report sales to BookScan; their sales are likely higher than the BookScan numbers

Some thoughts here:
–Amazon appears to be pretending that The Domino Project never existed. Why? Seth Godin told me last week that the company will continue to sell the previously published Domino Project titles. It wouldn’t look good, though, if Amazon revealed that three of its top five bestsellers were produced by a guy who is no longer working with them.
–With the exception of The Hangman’s Daughter, those are poor print sales. Amazon’s number-five bestselling title has sold just 205 copies in print according to BookScan.
The Hangman’s Daughter, A Scattered Life, Elizabeth Street and Easily Amused were all published in print by traditional publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which Amazon has a deal with. Houghton Mifflin is responsible for selling those titles into bricks-and-mortar stores. In other words, those books’ success in print (and it is difficult to qualify as success since their print sales are low) is due to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not to Amazon.
–These books may have sold a lot of copies as e-books! But they would have had to have sold A LOT OF COPIES as e-books to come anywhere close to the sales that Seth Godin’s books achieved, or to make them what we think of as bestsellers.

No Fiction From Kirshbaum Soon? Amazon VP publishing Jeff Belle tells Publishers Weekly that the company will have published “about 200” titles by the end of 2011 (when I counted in early November, I got 141 titles with 2011 pub dates) and will likely double that to 400 in 2012.

Belle said Amazon will also add more imprints, possibly including a couple on the East Coast under Larry Kirshbaum. Amazon now has six imprints, since Seth Godin ended the Domino Project last week. (Here they are, with the inclusion of The Domino Project.) While Kirshbaum’s division launched with the promise that it would focus on “quality books in literary and commercial fiction, business and general nonfiction,” the PW article says it’s “putting its early focus on literary nonfiction and other nonfiction areas such as business.” That could suggest that it’s having trouble attracting big-name fiction authors.

Amazon’s Distribution To Bricks-and-Mortar Stores Is Still Lackluster
Belle reveals that “Brilliance Audio sales reps have been selling the publishing group’s titles into accounts, but that could change next year.” Brilliance is the Amazon-owned audiobook publisher. In my conversations with Amazon earlier this fall, the company did not reveal that it’s using audiobook reps–i.e., those whose primary expertise is not selling print books–to sell print books into bookstores. From the PW piece:

“We plan to expand our distribution in bricks-and mortar stores,” Belle says, but stresses that while Amazon wants retailers to carry its titles, it’s up to the stores to decide what they want to sell.

Belle appears well aware of independent booksellers’ reluctance to carry Amazon titles in their stores, though he does not reveal any ways that Amazon might entice them to do so. Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) is not mentioned here, but the chain has said it will refuse to carry any print books in its stores that it cannot also sell as e-books. Amazon sells its imprints’ e-books exclusively through the Kindle Store.

Publishers Weekly says Amazon’s “fast-growing [publishing] group had an outsized impact on the industry,” and it has indeed received a lot of attention, but digging deeper into the info from the PW piece suggests that Amazon Publishing is still not seeing outsized sales. Belle concludes in the piece that “our definition of success is how well we’re able to find new and better ways to connect authors with readers.” For now, that means excluding–or at least downplaying–the connections still made in bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

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