When Amazon.com announced it was going to start publishing books as well as selling them, my reaction, like many in the publishing world, was mixed. On the one hand, I loved the idea of a new market to which to license the rights to my clients' works. On the other hand, I couldn't imagine any other bookstore--chain or independent--ever selling a book published by Amazon, which would mean that books published by Amazon would be sold only by Amazon. Would that be enough?
I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I'm not alone in this, of course. Publishers dislike Amazon for certain practices, such as mucking around with pricing and devaluing books by charging too little. But publishers also love Amazon because it nearly single-handedly began the business of selling books online, creating a sales channel that has provided great rewards for publishers.
As predicted, bookstores--chain and independent--have mostly chosen not to carry the books published by Amazon Publishing. But has the time come to end the refusal to stock Amazon Publishing's books? Has the position simply become more one of spite and petulance than principle?
Let's be honest. The boycott by traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores of Amazon Publishing's titles hasn't hurt Amazon at all, but it may be hurting the authors it publishes. Some publishers may say "Good! They should never have done a deal with Amazon." But as an agent I have represented books published by Amazon and I welcomed the offers from Amazon's editors. In fact, I was excited to see what it would look like to see a book published by Amazon.
I thought a book coming from an Amazon imprint would be like publishing "on steroids." But when I urged the publisher to send one of my client's books to NPR, I was shot down faster than a drone over the White House. When I inquired about review copies being sent, I was told they were not (long lead times were blamed), but the book was listed on NetGalley, a website where book reviewers can download the book in advance of publication. When I tried to get review copies sent anyway, in hopes of at least a mention in Publishers Weekly, I was reminded that Amazon's model is to focus on using email and other "onsite" tools to promote sales. So Amazon's authors cannot expect to be reviewed by traditional reviewers and they cannot expect to be pitched to media, such as talk-radio shows or Stephen Colbert's show. These authors cannot find their books in bookstores and cannot arrange signings at their local independent or chain bookstore. I guess there's one way Amazon is like traditional publishers: it doesn't do much to promote many of its books, "offsite" at least.
The irony is that by not ordering books published by Amazon, bookstores are helping to increase the profitability of those titles for Amazon. Let's not forget how the publishing industry works. It's one where bookstores order books and return books that don't sell. Yet Amazon pretty much doesn't have to worry about returns, because few bookstores are ordering its titles. If Amazon had to suffer the ignominy brought on by the utter failure of titles it publishes, to be bloodied in the marketplace on a level playing ground, perhaps it might develop a new appreciation for the difficulties regular publishers face. Perhaps it might even take a different tack in its dealings with them. Or perhaps it would just shutter its imprints, deciding it was a foolish endeavor to start publishing its own titles. Some might see that as a "win" for traditional publishing. Many would certainly find it ironic.
But, for now, traditional bookstore owners and chain buyers should give the titles published by Amazon's imprints the same consideration they give those published by traditional publishers, not because failing to do so hurts Amazon, but because failing to do so hurts the authors of those books. And perhaps the bookstores themselves. If one of the Amazon Publishing imprints has a bona fide break-out or best-selling title, aren't traditional bookstores simply losing profits by refusing to sell a title for which there is demand?
And, of course, there's another reason to start ordering books from Amazon: to see if Amazon would take and fill those orders. There's a part of me that doesn't think Amazon would be happy to suddenly get thousands of orders--returnable--from booksellers. The chances of taking actual returns would be great and that could significantly disrupt the profit stream from its publishing arms, making its efforts to get into publishing look a bit like its efforts to get into the cell-phone business.
Publishers have done business with Amazon despite great enmity. But "their checks cash just like anyone else's," as I like to say, when asked about doing business with them. It's time for traditional bookstores to also change tack and start stocking titles from Amazon Publishing.