Amazon is winning the book publishing wars, primarily because they are succeeding on nearly every front — with authors, with customers, with delivery infrastructure, with pricing, and with innovation.
In a recent post, J.A. Konrath, a novelist who toyed with self-publishing before taking the plunge (and thriving), takes on Amazon doubters and haters, in a post unflinchingly titled, “Amazon Will Destroy You.” In a less blunt but perhaps even more convincing post, Mike Shatzkin outlines his rationale for why he believes we are about at the halfway point in the online books (r)evolution.
The lesson fundamental to both posts is put succinctly by Konrath:
Blaming Amazon for your eventual downfall is like blaming a lion for being king of the jungle. If you don’t like apex predators, get the hell out of the food chain. . . . You had your shot. And you blew it.
Konrath’s adventures with Amazon have been turbulent. Initially dismissive of self-published authors while also dabbling in the new possibilities self-publishing afforded, Konrath swung over completely a couple of years ago, and has been going gung-ho ever since. His most recent post was inspired by a visit to Seattle, where he spent time with Amazon’s book people and other successful self-published authors. What was most noteworthy to him was that the Amazon people listened, took notes, and were genuinely interested in what he had to say:
I’ve spent hours talking to Amazon. And Amazon listened. They took notes. And I’ve seen them adopt my suggestions. Many times. And I’m not the only one they’re listening to. An open mind beats a closed mind, every single time. Once you start blaming, you’ve lost. Winners don’t blame. Winners don’t whine. Winners keep at it until they win.
Shatzkin’s post is about online book sales, which includes for him both e-books and online purchasing of print. By his rough estimates (which he’s working to refine), he believes that we’re approaching the point this year at which 50% of the Big 6 publishers’ books will be delivered via screen purchasing — either via e-book or online store. This is compared to five years ago, when the percentage of book sales going through stores was estimated at 80-90%.
The implications of this shift are huge, of course. In his excellent post here, “What We Should Learn from the Collapse of Borders,” Joe Esposito noted that fewer print books going through bookstores means smaller print runs for publishers, perhaps up to 30% smaller, which results in higher production costs for each book and trims margins even more. The phrase “circling the drain” comes to mind.
Other implications come with changes in authors’ behaviors. Shatzkin details four stories — J.A. Konrath (coincidentally), Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and Barry Eisler. Konrath is eschewing all contact with traditional publishers, choosing to take lower prices and higher margins for the sake of building a direct customer base for the future. Hocking already has a huge customer base, but having found the marketing and production work tedious, is now happy to work for a publisher, but with very favorable terms. Locke and Eisler are using publishers in different ways, both revealing the flexibility and power that have returned to authors thanks to the competitive threats of the Internet and Amazon.
Amazon’s impact on publishing is already significant and is only gaining momentum, and for legitimate reasons, which makes it all the more of a certainty. As Konrath puts it:
Why didn’t the Big 6 invent online bookstores and ereaders? Why didn’t the ABA? Amazon INNOVATES. . . . They’re not dominating because they undercut you on price. . . . Anyone can sell for cheap. Not anyone can single-handedly jump-start the digital revolution. Not everyone can create an online store that is not only a pleasure to shop at, but where it is fun to spend time. Amazon is going to eat you all for lunch because they aren’t thinking about how to make money tomorrow. They’re thinking about how to make money in 2018.
Much of the success of new digital businesses comes from the usual drivers of success in any business — great strategy, great execution, and great service. Right now, the big players in book publishing seem to be getting at most one of these right, while Amazon is bringing it all.
Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight.