“It’s always the end of the world,” said Russell Grandinetti, one of Amazon’s top executives. “You could set your watch on it arriving.” He pointed out, though, that the landscape was in some ways changing for the first time since Gutenberg invented the modern book nearly 600 years ago. “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”
If you have any doubt that the NY Times is still the paper of record, watch how far and wide their latest update on Amazon’s move into “traditional” publishing spreads. While it’s a subject that’s been debated to death in publishing circles, it’s always interesting to see the response when it spills out into more public forums.
There’s an insightful comment buried in the beginning of the article, attributed broadly to unnamed Amazon executives, that perfectly sums up the true state of the publishing industry and Amazon’s position in it: “…they played down Amazon’s power and said publishers were in love with their own demise.”
Ain’t that the truth?
The dominant meme over the past several years has been the death of publishing, usually at the hands of the ebook, and the looming threat of technology partners/competitors that, as Grandinetti alluded to, presents “both risk and opportunity.” As with most memes, there’s a bit of truth mixed in there, usually buried amidst heavy doses of exaggeration, ignorance and inane snark.
While publishers in general are cautiously navigating the choppy waters of the digital shift, most are riding the strong wave of ebook sales that’s putting as much profit in their coffers as Amazon’s, while balancing a constricting (but by no means expiring) market for print books, along with a rats nest of pre-digital contracts, rights, and royalty scenarios.
Amazon moving into “traditional” publishing is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not the end of the world for the publishing industry as we know it. By default, they immediately become a major player in the markets they enter, and because publishing is likely to be a minor revenue stream feeding the Amazon Ocean for the foreseeable future, they’re undoubtedly going to be more aggressive in making deals than a traditional publisher can be.
One could argue (and so I will), that by moving into “traditional” publishing, Amazon is simply acknowledging that content is and always will be King, and while the self-publishing angle has worked out quite well for them, only a few handfuls of authors are truly making any notable profit on $2.99 ebooks. Some of those authors have subsequently been scooped up by “traditional” publishers who are effectively doing the same thing Amazon is doing, and have been for years. (see: Celebrity novels; blogs-to-books; Amanda Hocking; etc.)
Conversely, as Amazon ramps up their “traditional” acquisitions, they’re going to learn what most publishers already know, distribution is only one piece of the puzzle, and relatively speaking, the easiest one to solve. Also, while a robust customer database and algorithms that can match those customers to books they’re interested in is a true differentiator in the digital age, it doesn’t address the one killer app for which no publisher, traditional nor newcomer, has yet nailed: consistently acquiring great books.
Instead of the typical (and oh so tired) “The sky is falling!” coverage of Amazon Publishing, the real story is that publishing is far from dead, and there are myriad opportunities for old and new players alike to reach readers through a variety of channels.
Of course, while optimism and rational thinking are good from a business perspective, they rarely translate into massive clickthroughs, so prepare yourself for more stories this week filtered through Dr. Jonathan Crane‘s skewed perspective.