What Would Happen if Amazon Ruled Publishing?

Publishing houses: Hide your children. Amazon is coming to get you.


It's been a long time coming, but Amazon's conquest of every step of a book's journey into existence is nearing its final stages. First, it pushed out the brick-and-mortar bookstores, shuttering even the giant Borders. Next, with its Kindle it began to step on the toes of book publishers. But now, it is going right for publishers' hearts: their authors. As The New York Times reports, Amazon is publishing 122 books this fall, both as paper and e-books: 

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide. 

Several large publishers declined to speak on the record about Amazon's efforts. "Publishers are terrified and don't know what to do," said Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, who is known for speaking his mind.

Publishing houses are just a few years behind their brothers and sisters at record labels and newspapers in a sometimes slow and often painful process of reinventing 20th-century companies for 21st-century industries. The Internet -- whether through iTunes, Google, Wikipedia, etc. -- has rendered obsolete many of the services that record labels, newspapers, and publishers provide. Is one of your business's central purposes the printing of something on paper? Well, not that many people want that paper anymore. Is it promoting a band's new album to radio stations? Well, bands might have more success pushing their work out over MySpace or Facebook themselves. The problem for these companies is how to fund the aspects of their business that are still relevant -- producing an album, say -- without the revenues from the aspects that aren't: record sales.

For publishers, the question is much the same. But the problem is not only for publishers -- it's also for us. What are the services that publishers provide that we really value? Is it well-designed book jackets? Maybe not. Is it thoughtful editing and careful editing? Maybe, but many people accustomed to reading lightly-edited posts on the web may think that this sort of production is overvalued.

But one thing the book industry does a pretty good job at providing is an enormous number of titles from a diverse set of authors. Can Amazon do the same? Technically, this should be no problem for Amazon. In general, web publishing and self-publishing have increased the ease with which a writer can get his or her work out there (though not necessarily the ease with which that writer can get paid for the work). But there are countervailing dynamics at play: When one company holds the keys to the kingdom for what content consumers can see on its device, it has a lot of power as to what kind of information reaches people. For example, Apple can kill off an app that criticizes Apple. If Amazon consolidates its power in the publishing industry, what would become of a book criticizing Amazon? The value of the publishing industry is at least in part in the competition among ouses, which means that if one place passes over a manuscript, someone else might see value in it. As Amazon's power grows, we better hope that it doesn't become the only show in town.