Saturday, November 08, 2014

Only At The End Do You Realize The Power Of The Dark Side

The business model? Eliminate the middle man and keep the profits.

The means to reach that end? Become a publisher and control the product, and the pricing, from start to finish.

The current level of success? For Amazon lately, not much to brag about at corporate headquarters.

For some time, Amazon has been trying to get itself established as a real publisher, to create its own product and then sell it through its own channel online but also in brick and mortar stores. Just like the big boys, like Hachette Book Group that has not been very cooperative of late.

A few years back, Amazon launched a publishing company that could be viewed as the first step towards world publishing domination. They brought in Larry Kirshbaum, a highly regarded player in the publishing industry, and it was clear that Amazon meant to succeed. To get its titles into the bookstores where people do most of their book selecting, the online retailer inked a deal with Houghton Mifflin (still coming off its earlier debacle in the Barry O'Callaghan era) to utilize HMH's existing sales force.

The bookshop owners were not easily fooled. They had said they would not carry Amazon books on their shelves because Amazon was a leech sucking out their life's blood, and so they did not. Amazon tried to disguise the fact, but the book vendors hadn't just fallen off the turnip wagon.

Larry Kirshbaum left Amazon, about a year after he came. Some might have seen it as a bad sign, that the master plan had some major flaws and the publishing start-up was not going all that well.

Has realized the power of the Dark Side
You never know what people like to read, and publishers have to meet a lot of different interests. Amazon created a series of imprints to cover all those various interest categories. Romance is always popular, right? So Amazon invented an imprint to publish romance titles. And there is another for mysteries, another for reprinted work, one for science fiction, and so on through all the genres. They wanted to flood the market, and force book shops to carry their titles through the back-door strategy of having customers ask for the books. In time, the vendors would bend to meet customer demand and then Amazon would get its big foot in the door and never leave.

Still the public was not clamoring for an Amazon title. What was needed was a unit that would make the literati sit up and take notice. Little a was added to the roster, and novelist Ed Park was put in charge. The man who edited The Village Voice literary supplement had the reputation and the connections that Amazon needed.

Now Ed Park is leaving Amazon.

He has hinted at the ongoing feud between Amazon and Hachette Book Group as part of the reason. He sits on the wrong side of the cultural divide, trying to bring literary fiction to the world through Amazon's portal, while his friends in the industry despise Amazon for turning books into commodities like batteries or light bulbs.

At first, he might have been tempted by the power of the position. With so little good literary fiction getting to the public, who would not want to be in a position to expand the list? The big publishing houses are all looking for the blockbuster title, the fluff that entertains but is forgotten the moment it is finished. Ed Park was granted the ability to publish what he felt was needed to make the world of reading a better place.

But at what cost?

Can you imagine going to a drinks party and telling people you work for Amazon after they've finished lambasting the Internet demon for what it is doing to the independent book seller? Would you want to go to work every day, knowing that your boss is the Dark Side of retailing, hell bent on bringing the publishers under its control, treating books like things for sale instead of works of art created by someone deserving of a decent royalty? Was he being used by Amazon because he had the right credentials and connections in the literary scene?

Ed Park realized the power of the Dark Side and decided to end his association with Amazon.

So Amazon will find someone else to step up, just like they replaced Larry Kirshbaum. It's a minor setback for Jeff Bezos. He may be a little stunned, but he's far from defeated.

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