Category Archives: amazon

On Amazon’s Christian Imprint

Marcia Z. Nelson -- January 30th, 2014


21172-2Whoa, I thought, on hearing the news that Amazon’s publishing operation was beginning a Christian imprint. Let me check in with my Christian publishing pals and see what they have to say about this.

I’ve already heard some choice words in various publishing and bookselling circles about the Seattle behemoth/innovator/dreamer-of-drones. (Here’s a nicely typical roundup of diverging opinion from a panel at London Book Fair 2013, and this year’s worries expressed at DBW 2014.)  So I was a little surprised when opinionated, intelligent, and articulate publishing executives responded with very loud silence.

On reflection, I shouldn’t have been. I remembered a time when I’d been at a gathering of publishing executives that also included a lawyer who was there to make sure any statements made about Amazon couldn’t be construed as, heaven and DoJ forfend, collusion or antitrustworthy. I had to think about questions I was going to ask. I also had to laugh.

There’s prudence in public and candor in private, always a challenge for a reporter but always negotiable. I’m a big fan of measured public speech; I prefer precision over fightin’ soundbitin’. But after a certain point, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, you have to wonder (and if you’re a journalist you get paid to wonder): Is somebody going to say something? Or is the gorilla perhaps chilling the conversation? After all, a lot of people do business with the gorilla, even if they don’t like his behavior or how much they must feed him to get help selling their books. Maybe it’s not a good idea to annoy or, worse, argue with the gorilla, since he’s a lot bigger than you.

I’ll stop with the gorilla analogy; those who argue for the adaptability, innovation, and fresh air that has been forced on a trade too enamored of hidebound ways and hardbound editions will find the comparison pejorative or prejudicial. But I won’t back away from my point that this is worth discussing in public.

It’s worth saying, as did Mark Kuyper of ECPA, the Christian publishing trade group: “Amazon’s decision to launch a Christian imprint is not surprising given the expansion of their publishing program over the last few years. Of course, this continues the bifurcation of our publishers’ relationship with them as a key retailer and a publishing competitor.” Kuyper rightly and politely points to tensions this imprint launch exacerbates, and perhaps there are special problems that bear revelation. Aside from competition, exactly what are the publishers afraid of? What dark Amazon plans are afoot?

There are, of course, more benign things to be said about Amazon’s new venture:

  • There’s money to be made in this healthy market segment;
  • The more the merrier; greater competition can benefit some players (authors, for one);
  • Heads up! A major player is gearing up for more activity in a market segment; and
  • It’s complicated.

So no, I’m not complaining about an article I didn’t write because no-comment does not a scintillating story make. I got this blog entry, which allows me to be more candid, and that’s the point to be made here and about countless other matters that rightly ought to prompt lively discussion among stakeholders. Speak up! Is that a gorilla I see, or does he just need a haircut? And please, hold the drones.

Amazon’s Airforce

Craig Morgan Teicher -- December 2nd, 2013

Will these things deliver pizza too?

Welcome to the future…forget next day delivery: Amazon has built its own drone delivery service–dubbed Amazon Prime Air–to deliver packages in about 30 minutes.  According to their info page, all that stands in their way is fixing a few FAA regulations, then lookout for Amazon-bots dropping books and anything else into your backyard, as in Amazon’s video below.  I wonder, will these things deliver takeout?  Oy.  What do you think?  Scared?  Excited?  Outraged?  All of the above?

Preserving Less of the World’s Literature

Peter Brantley -- July 30th, 2013

Miners in a tunnelThe rapid development of online publishing has been a boon for advancing access to literature and science. At the same time, it portends a dramatic lessening of the currently-legislated ability for national libraries with preservation and access mandates to record and store national and world literatures. There are at least two principal axes to this concern: independently published literature, and the growing wealth of alternative direct-to-web publishing channels. Continue reading

Moving Up to a Bigger Musket

Peter Brantley -- November 12th, 2012

Artillery at Fort Sumter
I just got back from the Charleston Conference – a lively mix of publishers and librarians discussing digital transitions in information access. It was the first time I attended, and I was struck by how many other friends in trade publishing were also there for the first time, ranging from Smashwords and Safari Books Online to the Frankfurt Book Fair. O’Reilly also organized a premier Tools of Change Charleston with Mitchell Davis, the local entrepreneur behind BookSurge and BiblioLabs.

One thing that immediately struck me was how much the conversation about trade publishing seems increasingly to leak into discussions about other sectors of publishing, including Charleston’s focus on academic and A&I resources. Part of that was intentional by the organizers, and part because it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading about the titanic shift towards Big 6 trade consolidation. The combination of Random House and Penguin seems inevitable to everyone, and most pundits and prognosticators agree that more combinations are on the way. Additionally, there seems to be strong concurrence that the merger’s primary achievement is to buttress a strong arm against the market power of Amazon, giving ever larger publishers more heft in negotiations, and heading off ultimatums from Amazon’s perceived monopsony power.

One critique of this trend is that there may be little benefit to making publishing businesses ever larger through M&A because internal coordination costs for larger firms grow faster than the benefits of output efficiencies. At Charleston, there was speculation that inevitably one would see a dissolution of the great houses, and a re-emergence of their imprints as stand alone publishers. In an age of networked production and ebook distribution, the strong countervailing argument against consolidation is that there is no better time for Alfred A. Knopf and Panthenon to take themselves out of megalithic houses and re-assert editorial and business independence. I must admit, as a literature geek I find this scenario romantically appealing, and I would love to see these noble brands born anew and ascendant.

However, I think that the opportunity for those organizations to resurface is gone. That’s not due to change in the brilliance of their staffs or their aspirations – it’s a result of wholesale changes in publishing. Once we start producing literature without traditional firms, even born-again, smaller and nimbler houses based on traditional publishing structures are not going to be successful. It will take an entirely different model of publishing to succeed – one that recognizes that the costs of literary production are plummeting; distribution occurs on the network; and that entry points into story-telling are growing increasingly diverse. New publishers are as likely to be independent videographers or game companies as trade houses, and a growing industry meme focuses on how likely it will be for film producers to commission books, rather than see traditional publishers managing 360 deals. With tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn, transmedia production is reaching the hands of technically unsophisticated creators.

Making strategic choices about optimal organizational form based on a desire to achieve effective market position against the dominant retailers of the existing industry will not be successful. Newly emergent publishing models are going to develop on the periphery of the existing publishing industry, often wholly independent of it, with both large and micro actors emerging to produce a wide range of new forms of content. The consultant Mike Shatzkin has persuasively argued that everything but traditional text narratives in trade is merely an experiment, and that’s a logical analysis. However, it’s not in trade that those experiments are going to be successful.

During the Charleston Conference, I grabbed a quiet morning and toured Fort Sumter, site of the start of the U.S. Civil War. One of the things I learned was that the war bridged a great transition in artillery technology, with field bombardments shifting to vastly more deadly and accurate rifled cannons. It seems a similar transition is amongst us within publishing. As armies in this war, Random House and Penguin have reached for a bigger musket to arm themselves in order to retain financial independence. Unfortunately, more innovative firms have started to adopt Kalashnikov AK-47s.

The Confederate Army abandoned Fort Sumter in February 1865, as Sherman swept his way through South Carolina.

Lending literacy

Peter Brantley -- August 14th, 2012

In early August, a heated reaction to an online ebook lending website, Lendink, unleashed a storm of complaints to Amazon and an avalanche of DMCA take down notices. The campaign was launched and accelerated via Twitter; it sadly represented a misunderstanding of how the allegedly infringing site operated; the policies of major ebook retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble; the intent of both publishers and many authors; and how lending works.

As recently reported by Violet Blue in C|Net, Lendink was a site built by a disabled army vet “who created a person-to-person e-mail request system where e-book fans could find out about lend-enabled books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and contact each other to arrange loans on titles they wanted to read.” This type of lending is an opt-in permitted by publishers for many mainstream titles; books published at the 70 percent royalty rate through the KDP program are automatically lendable. The Lendink site simply connected existing purchasers of books willing to lend their books, with people seeking to borrow them. Essentially, Lendink facilitated the creation of a supra-network of avid readers beyond immediate friends and family. Continue reading

Gnashing of Teeth: Publishers vs Readers

Peter Brantley -- March 11th, 2012

Seldom has news of litigation against publishers demonstrated such differences in opinions. But as the Department of Justice signals that it may file suit in a case alleging that the largest U.S. publishers and Apple combined to set high prices for books, the shrill cries from publishers suggesting that “the end of retail competition for books is nigh” remain largely deaf to the myriad benefits for customers. If agency pricing is struck down, readers may once again see reasonable book prices from online retailers that years ago acknowledged that digital music and videos have a very different value than their traditional analogues. Continue reading

Rich Books, Poor Society: Random House’s Price Spike

Peter Brantley -- March 5th, 2012

To examine why Random House decided to jack up its prices to libraries for its ebooks, we should take them at their word. In the statement they provided to Library Journal, their reasoning is quite clear:

We believe that pricing to libraries must account for the higher value of this institutional model, which permits e-books to be repeatedly circulated without limitation. The library e-book and the lending privileges it allows enables many more readers to enjoy that copy than a typical consumer copy. Therefore, Random House believes it has greater value, and should be priced accordingly.

This messaging is all about the revenue Random feels they lose by allowing readers to borrow books for free, instead of purchasing books at high agency prices. Presumably, trade books priced at very high levels compensate for lost income. But higher prices means that many libraries will have to cut back their book acquisition, further restricting access to digital books, which is an obvious publisher goal of this strategy. Increasingly, the most popular titles are not going to be available at any library, and those that are, will be far more available in rich communities than poor ones.

Continue reading

I Almost Bought a Book Today: Why I’m Friends With Amazon

Peter Brantley -- February 28th, 2012

The majority of my fiction recommendations come from my father, a retired literature professor. He recently suggested that The Time in Between by the Spanish author Maria Dueñas was a worthwhile read, and so I scurried online to check it out. It’s available as an ebook at $12.99. That’s an agency price; the book is published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster. I didn’t purchase it; digital books beyond $10.00 are generally unacceptable to me. (My partner bought a copy of the title in Spanish, El Tiempo entre costuras, for $9.99 for the Kindle; this edition is not distributed by Simon & Schuster).

There’s a backdrop to this story, as I did wind up getting the book another way. Both my father and I (as his digital tech support) are moving from Sony Reader to another platform for various reasons; my father was happy with his Sony device but it is breaking down. That’s a hard decision for me, because I am supportive of open standards; have labored for an open competitive marketplace in ebooks; and have served as a board member of the IDPF, which is responsible for EPUB and EPUB3, the dominant open standard for ebooks.

But as a consumer, I have to think about where my books are coming from and under what terms. No corporation works for me – they work for investors and shareholders – but sometimes interests more or less align. Amazon wants to sell things; the more things the better. Part of their strategy includes providing great customer service; putting downward pressure on prices; and generally providing an increasing number of services through the Amazon Prime subscription offering. That works for me; Amazon has my back as a consumer, at least for now. I would dearly love them to have a meaningful competitor, but that’s largely a longer term worry.

But Amazon can’t set pricing for titles from agency publishers, and I didn’t buy a copy of Time in Between for the Kindle – the book was muy caro. And, although my father is going to be moving with me to Kindle, he had already bought a copy on Sony. Since I am backing up all of his purchases on his behalf, I decided to read his Sony copy before retiring his device for good. What does that mean for Simon & Schuster? Lost sale. What it means for Maria Dueñas is less revenue.

When I heard that Amazon had decided to pull buy access away from Independent Publishers Group (IPG) Kindle titles in an attempt to get better terms, I assume that those better terms, if achieved, would ultimately be reflected in lower prices. Indeed, IPG has publicly lamented that they find it difficult to sell digital titles for less than $10.00 given their current cost structures. Yet as Jane Litte has observed, IPG is not offering anything in exchange to Kindle customers to convince us that the IPG strategy is better for me, as a consumer. In this case, my response is, “Go, Amazon!,” because as a consumer, I want a market that doesn’t treat digital books as the most holy manifestation of creative art ever conceived.

Some commentators have suggested that agency publishers seeking to keep ebook prices high are acting in their self-interest because the “price per read” is inevitably going downward. Higher ebook prices may retard the growth of ebook acceptance, preserving a larger relative share of print revenue, and thus granting larger publishers time to maneuver themselves into a stronger digital position.

But interests are not aligning well right now, and it is not just between publishers and libraries. Because we are living through a moment of a deep technologically-driven social transition, there’s much more conflict between all the sectors in the book economy. Previously stable organizational dynamics have been disrupted and outcomes are hard to predict. As Frédéric Filloux states in his Monday Note on ebooks, “The Giant Disruption“: “In less than a year, the ground has shifted in ways the players didn’t foresee. This caused the unraveling of the book publishing industry, disrupting key components of the food chain such as deal structures and distribution arrangements.”

For readers, high price points for ebooks might drive them to a library, except that publishers have withheld titles from libraries. Therefore, some readers might turn to pirated digital editions; others might turn to other forms of entertainment; others find cheaper books on Amazon. It has a dark beauty: through the combination of usurious pricing strategies and their undeclared war on libraries, the largest publishers have unerringly drawn their customers – readers with whom they’ve never cared to have a direct relationship – closer into the arms of the retailer whose market power and influence they most fear – Amazon. So much for a strategy of self-interest.

Many publishers and distributors must see themselves in a light quite different than the one Jeff Bezos casts on Amazon. Amazon is not merely seeking lucre for its balance sheet; it boosts its profits by delivering a positive consumer experience, because that is its uniquely competitive edge. As a consumer, that makes me a friend of Amazon. And, because publishers are not working in alignment with my interests, their marketplace goals have moved into conflict with mine. Maybe publishers have decided that pitting digital readers against their revenue goals is an acceptable trade-off. It doesn’t work for me; I didn’t buy a book today.

Renting out the library

Peter Brantley -- December 9th, 2011

For librarians to endorse a sometimes awkward debate around business models, we must recognize that our organizations are in a difficult space in persuading publishers to continue providing ebooks for lending. The entire sales environment has been transformed, and the lack of physical barriers to digital access has a wide set of consequences for retailing as well as libraries. The “network imperative” permits innovative organizations to rethink models of supply and revenue; Amazon’s creation and promotion of the Kindle lending library is an excellent example of seizing this opportunity.

My recent note on alternative library models for ebook borrowing, At Close of Day, brought out two main currents: that an library agency aggregating contemporary ebooks could design more effective service models than the current system of distributed acquisition; and that one possible model for financial sustainability would be a partnership with publishers to utilize the reach of libraries to present an alternative retail outlet for ebooks. Continue reading

Living in the Jungle: Amazon and Penguin

Peter Brantley -- December 2nd, 2011

I’ve been thinking about Amazon’s entry into the ebook lending market, initially via Overdrive and now through the Prime subscription program, and considering its ramifications. I am hardly alone; publishers are obviously evaluating this move as well. Penguin’s abdication from the library market has been widely perceived to be a response to Amazon’s entry into ebook lending. As Eric Hellman notes on his blog, “The Penguin move should be seen not as corporate verdict on libraries, but as a reaction to Amazon’s entry into the library market. … The recently announced Kindle Owner’s Lending Library demonstrates that Amazon, blessed with its trove of marketing data, understands the power of libraries to promote sales. But it also demonstrates that Amazon is not content to leave libraries to libraries.”

The unique characteristic of Amazon’s lending programs is that the books are sourced directly from Amazon regardless of whether the reader finds the work through Overdrive or directly on Amazon, for Prime subscribers. This makes absolute sense for Amazon, and it is an opportunity enabled by their use of a proprietary ebook format. Amazon gains user intentionality data, and visits to their site are likely to drive up sales of books and other media, as well as shavers, GPS units, cell phones, and kids’ toys (and Kindle readers). From the perspective of a cloud-based platform player, a library-style lending program is an attractive offering, and will be the nexus of investment in additional content and services; among its other affordances, it is a “Look Inside” on steroids. Continue reading