Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Amazon Out To Kill Legacy Publishing?!

Pandodaily is an interesting site devoted to digital business news. What are Apple, Amazon, Samsung up to, etc. Very interesting and I recommend you take a look. I heard about an article they posted about an "alleged" leaked e-mail from the traditional publishing world.

Now, grains of salt here, this is completely anonomous and from an (originally) unknown source so who knows?

What I will say is that it's damn interesting to read and seems a pretty spot on, brutally honest overview of where the publishing business currently stands. BTW, for the duration of this post ENS. Ricky (above in red) is a traditional publisher in the new digital world.

Originally released here with a brief and funny overview of the "prestigious" industry as it stands now.

And here's the damning e-mail:
So Amazon, pretty much since they started selling books, has been selling them for razor thin or zero margin. We sell them books at 50% of the retail price. You’ll notice that popular books are usually selling for more than 50% off. So they’re actually losing money on them. For years Borders and Barnes and Noble maintained that this was unsustainable, but the tactic succeeded in putting Borders out of business, putting BN on the ropes, and destroying hundreds of indie stores. It also lowered customers’ perception of what a book *should* cost.
When ebooks started, we were pricing ebooks at the same price as the print book, and Amazon was selling them all for $9.99. So they were losing like $3-$4 per book. And they weren’t doing it simply to move Kindles, since they don’t actually make any money on the Kindle unit sales. Now with the “agency model” we get to set the ebook price and Amazon simply takes 30% of that.
We all kinda assumed that Amazon was either using books as a loss leader for other things (like getting people to sign up for Prime or simply gathering customer data), or was maybe planning on raising the prices they sell books for once BN and Borders were eliminated as competition. But I think they actually intend to keep print books at their current prices, and they want ebooks to be even cheaper. What they’re actually targeting is the publishers’ margin.
Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it.
Amazon is thinking about it, though, and they’re targeting the publishers directly.
Publishers like to pretend that we make our money from discovering unknown talents for small advances  and selling millions of their books. That’s a very small part of our business. The bestselling books are all written by celebs, by people with huge platforms, by fiction writers with a long history of bestselling books, or by people who do a proposal that’s on its surface brilliant. In short, there’s a bidding war among the publishers over the big books. We all know what the good books are–it all comes down to how much of an advance we’re willing to pay for them. The hotly fought-for books are the ones that sell. And while we might not make huge profit % on these, we make big profit $ on these. They keep the lights on by covering overhead. Better to cover our fixed costs by going all in on a few big books than trying to buy dozens of mid-list books. 
But in recent years, as book sales have declined, the advances for the biggest books have gone down proportionally, too. What used to be a $1 million book is now a $400,000 book. Publishers are thinking, “OK, we’ll move less copies but we’ll pay less for them, so we’ll survive.” Enter Amazon’s print publishing arm. They hired this guy Larry Kirshbaum to run it–he’s a savvy vet with 30+ years of publishing experience–and they have some editors, too. And they’ve been paying a ton of money for books.
I saw this [redacted] proposal a few weeks back. It was okay–[same redacted author] is an asshole but [redacted] has a certain following and it would probably be a bestseller. Bestseller now means selling 20,000 copies, so I was thinking of offering like [hundreds of thousand] for it. But Amazon had already bid $1 million for it. A similar thing happened with a [redacted] memoir a few months back. Traditional publishers are snickering, “Look at stupid Amazon–overpaying for books!”
But Amazon isn’t stupid. They’re overpaying intentionally to keep advances high (and high advances will bankrupt publishers). And they’re also taking away all the authors who actually move units. They gave Seth Godin really favorable terms on a deal. Only a matter of time before they snag a James Patterson or some other big genre fiction name.
We can’t pay $1 million for books anymore. Amazon could probably afford to lose $20 million/year in their publishing arm just to put the other publishers out of business. I think that’s what they’re trying to do–throw money around in an industry that doesn’t have any, until Amazon becomes not only the only place where you buy books, but the only place that publishes books, too.
So rather than getting a 30% of an ebook (with the other 70% being split between the publisher and author), they’ll be getting a 70% cut (with the other 30% going right to the author). Funny thing is that it’s actually better for authors.
To be honest, publishing is a quaint little industry based on romance and low profit margins. But now we’re in Amazon’s sights, and they’re going to kill us.
Regardless of where this came from and/or if it's a genuine "insider" statement can of course be debated but the substance of the message is very, very relevant to the future of traditionals. Could amazon be this predatory towards the Publishing industry, who they've partnered with since their very begining as an online book seller? Why not?

Their business model is proven to be profitable, especially in the e-book realm. They take loss leaders and the aformentioned "razor thin margins" but their volume is more than making up for it as they contune to expand with the advent of thier own genre imprints, clearly in direct competition with traditional publishers.

They're the clear winners of the E-reader war, for now albeit, with the rampant success of the Kindle family over other platforms and with KDP in place...why not take over publishing? whether that's a good or bad thing is clearly another issue but Mr. Bezos has put himself in that position.  

I always liked going to Borders and still enjoy B&N when I can get there (and if you can find a decent book among the nick-nacks) but I don't feel sorry for them. They had no regrets over the dozens and hundreds of smaller fish (smaller chains and Mom & Pop book stores) they buried during their ascents.

Despite having life long "paper dreams" I share the same indifference for the future of traditional publishers.


  1. Certainly look that way. Which is good. The power is now coming back to writers and readers. No longer do publishers have all the say as to who gets published. No longer do readers have to miss out on great books just because a publisher didn't pick a manuscript out of the slushpile.

  2. Power to authors and readers is, I think, the best thing about the e-pub revolution.

    The Amazon imprints will be a big deciding factor this year. It's one thing for the legions of hopefulls to have a platform to independently publish. Lot's of slush? Yes. Breakout success stories? Bound to happen. More importantly the million $ questions is what will the 20-50 top name, bestselling millionaire authors eventually do?

    The arguments of "what will happen when big writer X goes indie?" are going to be redundant I think.

    They'll never go Indie...they'll sign with an Amazon imprint who can afford their 1Mil$ advance twice a year for their books and has the marketing power to make up for the loss of convenience store and airport paperback sales...which is about the only thing they'll be missing out on when they ditch NYC.

  3. I agree that this new power given to authors is refreshing. Ten years ago, publishing a book on your own was so difficult and authors would have to sometimes wait years just to have an agent request a partial.

    This Amazon imprint concept is very interesting indeed.

    As for paper dreams, there will always be a decent sized market for print books. For my soon to be published book, almost everyone I know wants to buy my book in print, which makes me smile.

    Some bookstores will agree to sell an indie author's books once they have a proven sales record.

  4. Sara

    Great to hear about your print demand, do you have a createspace title?

    I think bookstores will always be here, which is good, but I agree with predicitons that they'll be niche stores and the majority of print will be POD or direct from e-tailers.

    The demise of Borders (with no one stepping up to replace them) and the evident, continued decline of B&N proves that the market is no longer there to support the monumental overhead of shipping milliosn of tons of books back and forth.

    Funny thing..between Netflix, Redbox you know what I'm slowly starting to see more video stores! You can never get older stuff and classics from the boxes or the online sites.

    We'll see how this affects books.