Will Amazon kill off book publishers?

As reported here and elsewhere, Amazon is actually dipping its toes into the world of publishing.

Which of course is an interesting challenge and threat for traditional trade publishers. And who knows, maybe academic publishers too, if Amazon decides it wants to disrupt that market as well.

In any case, The New York Times has a nice set of four essays debating the topic, Will Amazon Kill Off Publishers?.

Amazon is getting a lot of heat these days over its attempts to push its way into the hearts and minds of readers, writers and the larger book culture -- even comic books. Indeed, the news last week that Amazon would aggressively expand its publishing efforts by signing up authors has ruffled the feathers of many agents and publishers.

Will Amazon's plan shake up the book publishing industry as more writers have the option of a one-stop shop: agent, publisher and bookseller? Are publishers still needed?

Here are some highlights from each of the essays:

There's No Going Back by Michael Wolf, vice president of research, GigaOM

Ultimately, what matters is who owns the relationship with the reader. Amazon has a trusted relationship with the reader because it has become the trusted bookseller in the digital market for books. Same with Apple, or Barnes and Noble. The writer holds the other key relationship with the reader. They are the rock stars -- the brands with which the reader wants to connect.

Traditional publishers, unfortunately, don't have a relationship with the reader -- or if they do, it's extremely tenuous.

Where Writers Can Grow
by Thomas Glave, author, "The Torturer's Wife"

And now, as things become more dire for writers who want to develop into actual artists, Amazon, the behemoth that fears no one, enters the fray. Can Amazon's profit-centered forays provide a healthy space for writers?

In recent years, some corporate publishers have dealt with writers in notably problematic and even damaging ways. But other writers have actually received real editing and invaluable counsel in those environments. I fear much more what Amazon's entry into publishing might do to independent publishing houses where writers' potential and the great possibilities of literature are often valued far above sales and the seductions of profitability.

Embracing New Opportunities by Laurel Saville, author, "Unraveling Anne"

What is Amazon up to? I imagine what any successful business is: looking for opportunities to grow by offering new, different, more relevant or better services than the competitors. It's what the new car dealership, restaurant or ad agency down the street does. It's what my husband does in his high-tech business. It's what I do in all my writing projects.

As a businessperson, I need readers. As a writer, I want them. Readers who are moved, changed, engaged and broadened by what I write. To get these readers in the world of book publishing, I need a lot of help. Some I've bought, like my M.F.A. education; some I've begged for, like family and friends as readers; some has been generously given, like my agent's uncompensated investment.

Monopoly vs. Diversity by Dennis Johnson, publisher of Melville House

Can Amazon sell a lot of books? You bet. They really do know how to develop algorithms that can move just about anything. Good books, bad books. Beautifully edited, completely unedited, edited by chimpanzees - it doesn't matter. The numbers, they brag, speak for themselves.

And they do, which tells us something else: it's all widgets to them. Amazon will soon be a pretty solid publishing company; even small presses like Melville House are already losing out to them on esoteric projects, such as obscure translation projects. But Amazon's publishing house will be in service to a different idol, because publishing isn't, right now, and hasn't been, for 500 years, about developing algorithms. It's been about art-making and culture-making and speaking truth to power.

I have to admit, I'm still unsure what I think of this particular development. Amazon's impulse to monopoly and apparent desire to remove every one else from the value chain are certainly worrying. Crowding out smaller players, concentrating buying power, narrowing publishing towards a certain device, these are all trends that are worrying.

On the other hand, perhaps this is the new shape of the publishing industry. Where all the players will be completely integrated across all the levels of that value chain. And the problem isn't with Amazon, but with all the other players for not getting the shape of the future sooner.

And what does this portend for scholarly publishing? Are the Elseviers of the world jockeying for position, looking to become the Amazon of academia? Or will the forces of Open Access find a way to prevent that kind of monopoly from coming into effect.

It would be very odd indeed if the disruptive forces of the online world blew up and freed scholarly communications from dangerous commercial monopolies while at the same time delivering the trade publishing world further into the arms of equally dangerous commercial monopolies.

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"Are the Elseviers of the world jockeying for position, looking to become the Amazon of academia?"

More or less, yes. Especially with regards to the library market.

One thing that seems unclear to me is how much of the traditional publisher function--editing, promotion, etc.--Amazon is going to offer. Amazon has been hiring editorial staff but my guess is that they will want to emphasize speed over quality control (as traditional publishing is moving towards more and more also). Like traditional publishers, they will probably spend the most effort on the books they have the most cash invested in (i.e., the bestsellers) and everyone else will get very little. If all Amazon is really offering is access to their sales channel, an enterprising midlist author could be better off going their own way.

@Thomas Glave: If you want a friend in the publishing business, get a dog. It's about the money, among other things. If you want the services of a traditional publisher, and you think it's worth it, pay his cut. Otherwise, don't. There are all sorts of alternatives now.

Why would anyone need a book publisher when there are no more books? It may seem like a stupid question now but give it 10 years and I doubt they will even make paper let alone print books!

Dzzz, absolutely correct. Amazon is only after one thing and thats money. Or profits for greedy shareholders. I see now Amazon are intent on dominating the Chinese and Spanish speaking markets now.

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