Updated at 2:12 p.m. ET on August 9, 2019.
Have you read Victoria Helen Stone’s False Step? No? Surprising, given that it’s a best seller, and that you clicked on an article about books and publishing—I thought you were more widely read. Surely you’ve at least gotten through Loreth Anne White’s The Dark Bones? Julianne MacLean’s A Fire Sparkling? Claire McGowan’s What You Did?
No? Each of these books beat out Where the Crawdads Sing, then the No. 1 New York Times best-selling novel, on Amazon Charts—which lists the most-read and most-sold books of the week—in recent months.* Each one is a bright star in the self-contained, lucrative universe of ebooks. And each one was published by Amazon Publishing, a subsidiary of the store we already buy everything else from.
Founded in 2009, Amazon Publishing is far from the tech giant’s best-known enterprise, but it is a quietly consequential piece of the company’s larger strategy to become a one-stop shop for all your consumer decisions. As Amazon Studios does with movies, Amazon Publishing feeds the content pipelines created by the tech giant’s online storefront and Amazon Prime membership program. At its most extreme, Amazon Publishing is a triumph of vertical engineering: If a reader buys one of its titles on a Kindle, Amazon receives a cut both as publisher and as bookseller—not to mention whatever markup it made on the device in the first place, as well as the amortized value of having created more content to draw people into its various book-subscription offerings. (One literary agent summed it up succinctly to The Wall Street Journal in January: “They aren’t gaming the system. They own the system.”)
And Amazon Publishing is a culture-making juggernaut, even if the literati don’t much think about it. According to Peter Hildick-Smith, the CEO of the book-industry analysis firm the Codex Group, roughly 25.5 million U.S. households bought books in the past month, and fully a quarter of those households use Prime Reading, a feature of Amazon Prime that allows subscribers to borrow 10 items at a time from a catalog of 1,000 ebooks, magazines, and other media, including the tech giant’s originals.
Prime Reading is far from Amazon’s only reading subscription service. Kindle Unlimited, a similar program, costs an extra $9.99 and offers a wider selection of millions of titles.** The Prime Book Box for children includes a selection of age-appropriate books delivered regularly for $19.99. Amazon First Reads allows members to download a book a month earlier than the unsubscribed public for no extra cost. Often, First Reads are—you guessed it—Amazon Publishing titles, and they rocket up the Amazon best-seller charts as soon as they’re made available; A Fire Sparkling and What You Did both topped the charts in early July despite being due out August 1.
And then there’s Amazon’s 19 brick-and-mortar stores around the country, which sell print copies of Amazon Publishing titles, produced via a sophisticated print-on-demand operation.*** All told, these services overlap to create an ecosystem with the same aim and model as Prime: to lock customers into a regular subscription that shifts the center of their purchasing gravity to Amazon. The company’s distribution mechanisms then allow it to push its own titles to subscribers to keep them happy with their membership—not unlike how Netflix’s recommendation algorithm tells you to watch Netflix-produced films.
Amazon Publishing is still a relatively small fry: According to Hildick-Smith, it puts out 1,100 titles a year, compared with the 1,500 to 2,000 a large publishing house such as Simon & Schuster might publish. Estimating sales for those 1,100 titles is difficult, according to experts, because the tech giant doesn’t disclose ebook sales numbers for its original books, and its proprietary methods of distribution obscure those figures from the third-party researchers who determine best-seller lists.
Grace Doyle, the editor who oversees the Amazon Publishing mystery/thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer, and the science fiction/fantasy label, 47North, says the subsidiary looks at three things when measuring the success of a title: the book’s sales, the number of people who actually read it (Amazon maintains a “most read” chart, measured by ebook pages turned), and whether the company can expect more books to come from its relationship with the author. She said again and again in our interview that her goal was to maintain partnerships with authors for as long as possible, which often results in publishing series, especially for the thrillers and mysteries that do so well with ebook readers.
Indeed, Amazon Publishing knows its readers and has pursued their appetites since its inception. Jeff Belle, the vice president of Amazon Publishing, acknowledged their tastes in a 2011 interview: “Our customers are voracious readers of genre fiction.” (Amazon declined to make Belle or other Amazon executives available for an interview.) Those readers don’t luxuriate in individual books or pay much attention to the tastes of New York literary gatekeepers. Fans of romances and thrillers, Hildick-Smith says, tend to race through books quickly, which makes Amazon’s easily accessible ebooks and borrowing programs especially appealing to them. A duo writing under the pen name Alexa Riley told The Atlantic last year that they published three books a month to keep pace with demand.
Many authors seem to love Amazon Publishing. Robert Dugoni, who has written 10 mystery and thriller novels for Amazon, inked a deal with the company in 2013, after becoming dissatisfied with the amount of advertising his previous publisher, Simon & Schuster, put behind his books. Amazon Publishing, he says, still promotes the opener of his ongoing mystery/thriller series, My Sister’s Grave, a six-year-old book, in Kindle Store promotions; Dugoni says he’s sold 1.5 million copies of that title and 5 million copies of all his books with Amazon Publishing since 2013. The “hunger” of Amazon Publishing’s employees, along with its reams of customer data and speedy editing process, impressed him, he says, to the point that he recently appeared in one of its marketing videos.
“They’re constantly reinventing marketing and promotion to keep my name and my books in front of readers,” Dugoni told me. “From an author’s perspective, that’s all I ever wanted: people to read my books.” Doyle called Amazon’s success with Dugoni—a reinvigoration of an established author who wasn’t selling well elsewhere—“emblematic of our goals.” In January, Mark Sullivan, an author who writes historical fiction and mysteries, relayed a similar story of a career revived by Amazon Publishing.
But experts who spoke with me said that the publishing house serves not authors but another master—Amazon Prime.
“Selling Prime memberships and keeping people within the universe of Amazon is one of the strongest business drivers they have,” says Kristen McLean, who tracks the publishing industry as an executive director with the books unit of the retail-data company the NPD Group. “Their strategy not just with books but with everything they own is constantly reinforcing that Prime membership.”
To put it another way, Amazon uses its book-publishing arm the same way it does the streaming service Prime Video. The company doesn’t sell its original video programming on a per-unit basis; it’s available, along with a laundry list of other perks, to anyone who subscribes for $119 a year to Amazon Prime. For example, the historical fiction show The Man in the High Castle attracted 8 million viewers and 1.15 million new Prime subscribers, according to a 2018 Reuters report.
Prime subscribers are so valuable to Amazon because they spend more in the long run: Jeff Bezos has said that people who stream videos on Amazon convert from free trials and renew their Prime subscriptions at higher rates than those who don’t. He put it bluntly in 2016: “When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.”
Book readers are the same. Content is the hook; commerce is the goal. If users join Prime for early access to a new title by their favorite author, rather than buying a one-off copy of the book, they become much more likely to purchase other things on Amazon—couches, clothes, cutlery, etc.—to take advantage of the membership. Bezos said in 2015, “It’s how our whole model works. When someone joins Prime, the more they buy of everything we sell.” That is to say, when the Amazon Publishing original You Are (Not) Small won the 2015 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, one of the most prestigious for children’s books, diaper sales presumably skyrocketed. (Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on sales spikes correlated with awards. Amazon Publishing titles are not exclusive to Prime.)
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Amazon is taking an interest in courting household names. The chart-topping thriller writer Dean Koontz unveiled a five-book deal with Thomas & Mercer in late July. At the end of May, the actor and writer Mindy Kaling announced that her third book would be an Amazon exclusive, free to Kindle Unlimited and Prime subscribers. Amazon also acquired the rights to the recent film Late Night, which Kaling wrote, produced, and starred in. Her moves hint at an entwined multimedia partnership not unlike the star-studio partnerships of the golden age of Hollywood. (A representative for Kaling did not respond to a request for comment.)
The larger aims of Amazon at times appear to dictate Amazon Publishing’s moves. As Amazon’s e-commerce business attempts to establish a foothold in the gargantuan Indian market, the writer Chetan Bhagat, dubbed the “biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history” by The New York Times, has signed a six-book deal with the company. He broke off a 14-year association with his previous publisher to ally himself with Amazon.
* This article originally misstated the name of Amazon Charts.
** This article originally misstated the number of titles available on Kindle Unlimited.
*** This article originally misstated the number of Amazon bookstores in the United States.
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