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Musical chairs

30 May 2011

Never has there been a time when so much is changing so fast in the world of books. Seminars and discussion from Book Expo America last week underlined the way things are going, and it's a scary prospect for people who have spent their lives in publishing or bookselling.

So, what's changing and why is it making everyone so uneasy? A lot of it has to do with the boundaries moving, and all moving at the same time. Suddenly publishers are acting as booksellers, agents are acting as publishers, booksellers are acting as publishers, and authors of course are acting as publishers too.

Amazon has a lot to do with all of this, with their omnivorous approach to the business of online retail. Of course it started with books, which are still a key product for them, but now they're trying to sell everything - or that's how it feels - and they're doing it faster and at lower cost than almost anyone else can manage. This makes them a formidable competitor to anyone else who is trying to run a retail operation and that includes all online competitors, and bricks and mortar booksellers.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Amazon has now set itself up as a publisher. It's been dabbling in this for some time, but last week it got serious with the announcement that Larry Kirshbaum, formerly a very successful commercial publisher, but more recently an agent, has been hired by Amazon to set up a publishing house.

Publishers have also been deeply unhappy about agents' incursions into publishing. The UK Agents' Association used to prohibit this, but now they are talking about removing this clause. Sonia Land of the Sheil Land agency started this by announcing that the agency would be bringing out 100 of Catherine Cookson's backlist titles as ebooks, thus cutting out her publisher, the Transworld part of Random House UKPenguin Random House have more than 50 creative and autonomous imprints, publishing the very best books for all audiences, covering fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books, autobiographies and much more. Click for Random House UK Publishers References listing. It didn't take Random House long to try this the other way round, cutting out the agent in a direct deal for ebooks with Tom Sharpe. Agent Ed Victor has set up an ebook list focusing on backlist and Carole Blake has said that she will follow suit. It must look awfully easy to cut out both the publisher and the bookseller, but these books still have to be sold by someone, unless, that is, the theory is that Amazon alone will do.

Many publishers would like to cut out booksellers and go straight to their customers online. Maybe they're going to get better at this, but at the moment there's nothing to suggest that book buyers are interested in this approach and it would have to be based on big author names or niche lists.

Authors are certainly trying to use self-publishing to sell directly to their audience, spurred on by extremely successful authors such as Amanda Hocking - but even she has succumbed to a deal with a publisher now (News Review 4 April 2011). Those who have tried this know that it's quite a slog and you need to be very determined to be successful, although the success stories fuel writers' ambitions and the alternative for writers all too often seems to be not getting into print at all.

Pity the poor booksellers though, they really are at the bottom of the food chain. It will be interesting to see whether Waterstone's new ownership and management, and whatever emerges with Barnes & Noble in the States, will weather the storm and find a new way of operating.