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A setback for Amazon?

4 November 2013

Last week's news of the departure of Larry Kirshbaum, the respected and successful publisher turned agent who Amazon hired to head up their trade publishing venture, was greeted with a certain amount of glee amongst all those who are fearful of the giant online retailer. But what does it really mean?

It's conceivable that Kirshbaum, a veteran publisher who had run Warner Publishing profitably before retiring and becoming an agent, simply felt that he'd had enough of publishing and would prefer the possibly quieter life of being an agent. Amazon immediately made another quite appropriate appointment, so Kirshbaum may just have been the victim of corporate politics and Amazon's preference to have one of its insiders head up their publishing arm.

Bookbrunch commented:

‘You cannot simply buy your way into the publishing top tier, let alone to market dominance. Amazon Publishing's first marquee signings, Penny Marshall and Timothy Ferris, indicated the challenge: were these books likely to shake the New York book world to its foundations? Then there was the difficulty of managing a business inside an organisation that has its primary focus elsewhere, and that has always operated according to an entirely different model from that prevailing in trade publishing. It is not easy to report to bosses on the other side of the continent who do not understand, and may even be hostile to, your culture.'

All this is very true and part of the explanation at least. However the other thing is that if you are regard Amazon's aggressive growth as unstoppable you might be surprised by their lack of success with trade publishing. The new publisher has no backlist and everything is focused on new buys. Even if the editors are spectacularly successful, why would an agent want to sell a big commercial author on to them? They might do the best job in the world online, but who's to say that they will do much at all with this author's books in the offline world, in bookshops and other retail outlets.

This anxiety has been exacerbated by the indifference, or perhaps it is a deliberate refusal, to stock their books on the part of the bookshops and bookshop chains, including Barnes & Noble, far and away the US's biggest bookstore chain. Why would you stock and sell books published by your biggest competitor, a competitor which is trying to put you out of business? It's been easy to do without Amazon's books because they are not essential to a bookshop's survival, which takes us back to the argument about the difficulties of building a strong commercial list from a standing start.

But the wider question is whether Amazon really cares. The giant internet retailer would like to control the book business completely, but this is not essential to pursuing its wider growth plan. Books were only ever a door-opener for Amazon, a convenient area in which to develop their business. Their target is the very much bigger one of retail in general, and in that area they are quietly making astounding progress, with an ever-expanding range of merchandise.