Ether for Authors: Is Amazon Really in Retreat?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

29 October 2013 iStock_000027510241XSmall photog MaltaGuy1 texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. The Fog of War
  2. Explor­ing the Ama­zon­ian Basis
  3. Remem­brance of Ethers Past
  4. What To Do Dur­ing a Shutdown
  5. Confer­ences
  6. Last Gas: “I Am An Ego­tis­ti­cal Jerk”

The Fog of War


On Friday it was announced that Larry Kirschbaum was leaving Amazon Publishing to return to agenting. At first, it seemed like Amazon was retrenching entirely but later reports indicated that Daphne Durham would be taking his place but that she would be headquartered in Seattle.

Amazon PublishingIn Amazon retreats to its Seattle compound after traditional retail arms shun itJane Litte goes on to explain that the idea of a towel being thrown in came to us with the first glimmer of the news of Kirshbaum’s departure. Shelf Awareness’ report, sourced to unidentified parties, was headlined Amazon Publishing: Kirshbaum Leaving, Ambitions Scaled Back.

Litte continued:

Shelf Awareness broke the Kirschbaum story and blamed Amazon’s retreat on the fact that Barnes & Noble and indies refused to stock Amazon published works. You can order a print copy of the Amazon books via but no physical store would carry these books including the non traditional but big accounts like Walmart or Target.

Laura Hazard Owen - Owen on 2nd reference

Laura Hazard Owen

Ever sensitive to the background, GigaOm’s Laura Hazard Owen took the baton with Amazon Publishing reportedly retreating in NYC. Thank (or blame) Barnes & Noble, recalling the narrative when Kirshbaum was installed in May 2011:

Kirshbaum said at the time that Amazon was “going to back [the imprint] significantly” and that he would run it “in the vein of a major publishing house.” But agents, authors and booksellers didn’t play along.

Owen made good use, however, of Amazon’s line of response, in a first statement made on Friday morning:

“We can confirm that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon on January 17. Larry joined us two and a half years ago and has been instrumental in launching our New York office, including our New Harvest partnership, and establishing our children’s book business. We’re sorry to see him go, and wish him the best of luck as he returns to life as a literary agent.”

Kirshbaum, Larry

Larry Kirshbaum

And later, in a follow-up:

“[Our] New York office will continue to expand, as our overall publishing business grows. In fact, we will be announcing new imprints to launch in New York soon. Daphne Durham has already stepped into the role of Publisher for our Adult Trade & Children’s businesses.”

Of course, it’s always popular to see setbacks where they’re denied. That’s especially true when the industry! the industry! has a chance to envision the move as a hasty “run away!” from New York, US publishing’s family seat, to Seattle, where Durham is based and from which she’ll run things as publisher.

Durham, Daphne

Daphne Durham

Many seem to have missed the fact that Durham has functioned as Amazon Publishing’s Editor in Chief—could the idea of her handling more responsibility from Seattle really be so jarring?

In an excellent one-paragraph summation, Owen laid out the trouble that Amazon Publishing has had getting traction for its print editions in brick-and-mortar settings:

Things didn’t go as planned (for Kirshbaum and Amazon Publishing), in part because Barnes & Noble refuses to carry Amazon Publishing titles in its stores. As I wrote in 2011 in my story “The truth about Amazon Publishing,” bricks-and-mortar bookstores are still one of the major ways that readers discover new books, and online sources haven’t picked up the slack. Barnes & Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon titles mattered less for Amazon’s niche-y science fiction, romance and mystery books, which it could target to very specific audiences on its website. But the big, general titles that Kirshbaum wanted to publish needed more of a push from bookstores, and they didn’t get it.

Of course, you don’t have to be Amazon Publishing to experience the cold-shelf treatment from B&N. How soon some might forget that Simon & Schuster also found it hard to get its print editions into B&N—for months, remember?—while it was cross-wise on its contract with the bookstore chain.

Wylie, Andrew

Andrew Wylie

Still, there was joy in Mudville on the weekend.

Not for nothing had London agent Andrew Wylie referred to Bonaparte when asked how he feels about Amazon by Laura Bennett at The New Republic in The Andrew Wylie Rules:

I think that Napoleon was a terrific guy before he started crossing national borders. Over the course of time, his temperament changed, and his behavior was insensitive to the nations he occupied.

Not hard to see why the term “retreat” comes to many whose thinking is something like Wylie’s.

AAR Association of Authors' RepresentativesFor example, there’s a piece at the Association of Authors’ Representatives’ site (AAR, the literary agents’ organization), Larry Kirshbaum to Leave Amazon Publishing in Early 2014. Its unnamed writer might have been writing before the second statement from Amazon spoke of expansion:

Amazon’s downsized publishing plans will surely be welcome news for both publishers anxious about the etailer’s increasing dominance over the book business and bricks-and-mortar booksellers who have balked at the thought of selling titles from a competitor they consider ruthless. While some retailers have refused to carry Amazon books altogether, others have stocked but not promoted the titles. Many agents have been equally unenthusiastic about Amazon’s attempt to establish a big publishing presence.

The AAR did do an efficient job of noting Amazon’s overall earnings report:

…its [Amazon’s] sales and stock price continue to soar. Its third quarter financial results, released yesterday, showed sales increased 24% to $17.09 billion, as operating loss fell to $25 million compared with $28 million during the same period last year. The news has sent Amazon’s share price up nearly 9% this morning, to more than $361.

It fell to Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch to begin tempering the “retreat” celebrations in Kirshbaum To Leave Amazon Publishing in January. Here, for example, is an interesting bit of perspective. Publishers LunchThis is a big paragraph dense with numbers, but I think it’s important to give it to you fully to help balance perceptions. Cader writes:

As Amazon Publishing VP Jeff Belle noted in a letter to authors early this year (announcing their shift to monthly royalty payments), in February the company’s house imprints made them the fifth largest publisher in unit sales through the Kindle platform in the US. That measure did not include self-published KDP titles. But there are currently approximately 440,000 titles available in the Kindle Owners Lending Library, the overwhelming percentage of which are self-published titles exclusive to Amazon. With a total catalog of 1.9 million ebooks according to yesterday’s earnings report, Amazon is the exclusive publisher of a significant portion of their catalog. Add to that hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales from (plus Brilliance Audio), and unquantified revenue from CreateSpace — which is the largest print self-publisher by far, issuing well over 100,000 ISBNs in 2012 alone — and you have a sprawling “publisher” of significant scale and depth. Just one that does not have to — and clearly is not good at — chasing high-risk general trade titles one by one.

This is not, in other words, an outfit that needs to turn tail and run after a couple of years’ slow starts.

But on the other hand, Cader doesn’t sugar-coat the reality:

Amazon has most certainly fallen very short on their ambitions for their general trade lines started under Kirshbaum’s direction, though that’s not particularly new. After the imprint’s lack of success with Tim Ferriss’s THE FOUR-HOUR CHEF a year ago the NYT already declared “its editors…seem to have backed off, at least for the time being, from buying prominent books.” Amazon’s print partner imprint New Harvest has 22 titles on their forthcoming spring 2014 list, and we’re told the fall 2014 list will be much smaller. But readers shouldn’t confuse the lackluster performance of the New York adult trade line with the performance of the company’s other publishing imprints and initiatives.


Robert Gottlieb

  In an interesting comment on Cader’s story, as a matter of fact, Trident’s Robert Gottlieb writes, in part:

Larry took on a difficult job at Amazon hoping he could heal the rift between Amazon and book shops. I and my colleagues hoped for the best but the damage was so substantial that it ultimately proved insurmountable in the near term. The books Trident has sold to Amazon books have all done very well in ebooks where Amazon excels. Some selling in the hundred’s of thousands. My feeling is that if the publishing division is to survive and grow there will have to be a workable peace between the brick and mortar business and Amazon. This is crucial in attracting authors to Amazon and a valuable revenue stream for authors.

Purcell, Eoin  -  say Owen

Eoin Purcell

And sensible tones come to us from Dublin where our colleague Eoin Purcell writes in On Amazon Publishing:

It’s big news that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon Publishing, it’s just not so big as it appears, especially as the retailing giant is going nowhere, and its Kindle project is as strong as ever.

Purcell describes three ways he expects Amazon Publishing to handle its situation:

(1) Push its niche imprints more aggressively than ever. (2) Work to convert more readers to digital or online book purchases. (3) Find a new way to market for its printed books.

And on that third point, Purcell speculates possible avenues such as:

Somehow convincing a chain or a group of indies to take them, selling the retail print rights to the best market offer (I’m sure bidders would emerge), doing a deal with retailers of other products with good footfall and a desirable audience (this might work), or simply hiring out empty retail space on short leases for book big launches (expensive but interesting potential, especially around peak season releases).


Purcell concludes that while “it’s very clear that Amazon has taken a defeat of some kind…I don’t expect that will end the company’s drive into publishing…but it will clearly require a rethink and a retool before the company can move forward against the big fish in New York.” And he sees the moment as one for caution, not for a kicking up of heels in Manhattan and Brooklyn:

If I was an executive in those same houses though, it would make me even more nervous. This reversal does nothing to counteract Amazon Publishing’s attractiveness to niche authors and the KDP Platforms dominance of digital self-publishing. Publishers will need to think and act smart of they are to take advantage of this Amazon misstep.

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Explor­ing the Ama­zon­ian Basis

DBW Conference 2014Michael Cader in some of his writings on the Amazon Publishing story reminds us that the coming Digital Book World Conference in January is making a conscious and extensive effort not to fall into the “pay no attention to Seattle” mistake that some other conferences have made in the past.

The morning of January 15, Day Two of #DBW14 (more info in our Conferences section below), is all about Amazon, perhaps the first time we’ve seen one of our major conferences select such an intense, extended focus on the issue.

The morning that day will open with an address from Brad Stone, journalist and author of the new, much-discussed book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

Evans, Benedict

Benedict Evans

We’ll then hear a presentation on “Deconstructing Amazon” with Enders’ Benedict Evans. (Enders Analysis, not the gamy Ender.)

Joseph Esposito is expected to present his paper, “Amazon’s Growing Share of the Institutional Market.”

And Stone and Evans then will be joined by Mike Shatzkin in a session, “The Future of Amazon and the Publishing Business.”

And as we put this Ether to bed, word has come from producer F+W Media that it’s kicking off a Digital Book World 2014 Conference Sweepstakes, to culminate in an “all-access” pass to DBW grand prize, with a ticket to the Digital Book Awards evening gala, and $500 toward trip expenses.

You can enter daily from now through December 8. Each week, there’s an interim prize (DBW membership, an online DBW University course, a copy of the DBW Author Survey, etc.). Each entry gives you another chance at the DBW pass grand prize, said to be a $2,395 value.

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Remem­brance of Ethers Past

Goodreads.comTwo quick references here for you relative to some things we’ve covered on recent gassings of the Ether.

Goodreads (Ether: When Bad Things (Seem To) Happen on Good Sites).

Killalea, Tom

Tom Killalea

Tom Killalea joined us over the weekend at Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive for the Books in Browsers Conference in San Francisco. Kellalea is the articulate Amazon Vice President for Technology. I mean, can you imagine? Somehow, he’s able to stand upright and hold a coherent conversation. I’d be in perpetual meltdown with such a portfolio.

I’ll have more on Books in Browsers IV later this week, here at Publishing Perspectives.

Meanwhile, one of the 62 million or so things in Killalea’s purview is the integration of Goodreads with Amazon. And it’s Salon’s Laura Miller (everybody on the Ether is articulate, see?) who has given us the most recent talking-to about that acquisition, How Amazon and Goodreads could lose their best readers.

Miller’s essay points to the friction between Goodreads’ need and effort to market to authors and publishers and its social function and intention of helping readers find books they’ll love. This, of course, is the fundamental newness of this whole kind of business, the sort of business and social-media feat so few seem to realize is going to require trial and occasional error to get right.

The caution sounded by Miller echos what many see as the reason Otis Chandler and his company have made such a committed, determined effort to handle its problems with a small, aggressively negative segment of its huge community: “Goodreads itself, if it does not resolve the tension between its moneymaking activities and the interests, desires and faith of its reader-members, risks spoiling the only real resource it has.”


Frankfurt (Ether: Is It Time for Publishing To Call a Truce?)

Mitchinson, John @JohnMitchinson

John Mitchinson

John Mitchinson, the co-founder and publisher of the crowdfunding Unbound in London, contributed a blog post to The Bookseller, Frankfurt return, in which he analyzes his reactions to Frankfurt Book Fair three years after his last visit. He writes with thoughtful insight about the position of innovation and its people as “outsiders.”

This year’s Frankfurt was different. Not cheerful exactly, but businesslike and distinctly unapocalyptic. The sky hadn’t fallen in. People were still reading. The Americans had come. And we had actual books to sell. Surely all this is good news. Up to a point. The tectonic shifts that had caused such gloom three years ago are still happening. The times still are a-changin’. It is just the book industry is learning to live with them. If that sounds like an endorsement of complacency, it is not. It is an acknowledgement that human beings are experts in changing just enough to keep things looking the same.

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What To Do Dur­ing a Shutdown

Julie Trelstad

Julie Trelstad

Another of the folks who was just with us in San Francisco at the Books in Browsers Conference is Julie Trelstad, Director of Digital Rights at the literary agency Writers House in New York.

Trelstad filled me in on how author Laurell K. Hamilton, a client of Merrilee Heifetz at Writers House, put together a short story titled “Shutdown” for the maddeningly nonfiction event in Washington of the same name. Hamilton produced it with the help of Trelstad,, and her husband Jonathan Green’s cover design.

Hamilton, Laurell K. cq on Laurell @LKHamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton

So it was made available free to Hamilton’s readers as something to read while waiting out the shutdown. The result? More than 30,000 copies of the story were downloaded on the first day it was out. Hamilton writes the long series of Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books, which are said to feature a regular character Richard Zeeman, a “bad-boy werewolf beloved of fans.” You know how much I love bad-boy werewolves.

Shutdown by Laurell K. Hamilton cq on LaurellNevertheless, the event is well worth a mention for yet another demonstration of how digital fast-turn capabilities can produce a response, even to what Hamilton describes in the agency’s release as a “political snafu.” Some might feel that’s a fairly lightweight description for a largely unforgivable failure of congressional governance.

But. Our point here is that this author and her agency associates did their job, and cleverly, while US leaders avoided doing theirs. A good, free story in itself.

And if Hamilton’s bad-boy werewolf runs out of victims, I’ll be happy to recommend a few inside the Beltway.

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If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

The Writing PlatformNovember 4, London: The Writing Platform Mini-Fair and Conference: The Writing Platform returns to London’s Rich Mix for a daylong second annual event featuring discussion, practical workshops, a short story competition and a chance to win a Kobo Aura thanks to the involvement of sponsor Kobo Writing Life. Led by author and Bath Spa University professor Kate Pullinger, the day’s full program of panels and seminars is here (PDF) and features speakers including Polly Courtney, Philip Hensher, Anna Lewis, Suw Charman-Anderson, and many more. For tickets, use the Rich Mix box office site.

Get Read conferenceNovember 13-14, Online: Get Read – Marketing Strategies for Writers: Dan Blank’s We Grow Media presents this two-day Internet conference for authors, “focused on helping you ensure your books get read.” Speakers are to include Jason Ashlock, Claire Cook, Elizabeth S. Craig, Jane Friedman, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Ami Greko, Rachel Fershleiser, Richard Nash, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, Chuck Wendig, and more. (Hashtag: #GetRead) For a discount on registration, use code “porter.”

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Nine session, seven “big ideas” pitched, and 40+ speakers including Charlie Redmayne, . Matthew Cashmore, George Walkley, Michael Tamblyn, Patrick Brown, Stephen Page and more. (Hashtag: #fbook13)  Now open for bookings.
DBW Conference 2014January 13-15, 2014, New York City: Digital Book World Conference & Expo: “Digital Book World’s sessions strive to offer you the most practical, relevant and actionable programming on everything from eBook publishing and internet marketing to digital solutions for selling and marketing your books. While we’re still building the final program, registration is officially open.” Speakers include Brad Stone, Tim O’Reilly, Simon Lipskar, Peter McCarthy, Dominique Raccah, Mike Shatzkin, and more. (Hashtag: #DBW14) Best prices end November 8. Note the newly introduced Digital Book World 2014 Conference Sweepstakes.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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Last Gas: “I Am An Ego­tis­ti­cal Jerk”

Not me.

Couts, Andrew @andrewcouts

Andrew Couts

Andrew Couts. He’s the one calling himself an egotistical jerk, in Is There Any Reason To Own Paper Books Beside Showing Off? Not Really at Digital Trends.

Why, after all these years of having access to a superior product, haven’t I jumped on the digital book bandwagon? The answer: I am an egotistical jerk. My book collection, I realized this weekend, is one of the few things in my home that makes me seem smart. Visitors step into my living room to see shelves and shelves of tomes – Hemingway, McCarthy, Kafka, Tolstoy, Franzen, Sedaris, Bukowski, Fitzgerald – each creased spine revealing more about my interests and intellect. At least, that’s what my subconscious likes to believe. Just as vacation photographs show off where we’ve been, books show where our minds have traveled. They have, in other words, become little more than an elaborate way to brag.

This is not what many folks who are clinging to their print books these days want to hear, of course. More frequently, they’re talking of cherishing the historic form of a “book” established by the advent of the printing press centuries ago; of something you can hold in the hand (other than plastic); of something with turning pages and the smell of paper.

Not Couts, who opens his piece with a reminder that when you move (“Like some sadomasochistic twit, I’ve moved houses three times in the past three years”), you and his brother Aaron are reminded books are heavy and take up room, as well. As Aaron asks Couts:

“So, have you thought about buying an ebook reader?” He did, and thinks it’s amazing – his physical library quickly evaporating into a digital one that he takes with him wherever he goes. “Plus,” he said, “I’m sick of carrying your heavy crap.”

Couts does take time to ponder one of the less tangible questions in this whole business:

Do we lose something important – some part of ourselves – by letting the products that define our lives become ethereal? Or is it our reluctance to jump on the technology train that says the most about who we are?


But then, he takes a surprise tack at the end of his piece. In many articles and essays of this kind, the conclusion is a sort of re-chanting of the Apostle’s Creed, a rededication to the Way of the Paper, and a vow to hurl oneself in front of the Digital Onrush.

Not Couts.

This bookworm is fed up with trying to answer these questions. Superior technology has officially rendered all my reasons for sticking with paper and glue irrelevant…Meanwhile, my needy ego will just have to find another way to get its fix.

New stations of the cross await:

Kindle, Nook, or fancy new iPad Mini?

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Porter Anderson (not a pen name) is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to His London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at Find him at Google+

Main image – iStockphoto: MaltaGuy1 — the shot is from an historical reenactment of part of Napoleon’s invasion of Malta, staged at Vittoriosa.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.