Are Amazon Publishing Authors Cursed?

October 18, 2012 by Thad McIlroy

The big book publishing news this week is that Barnes & Noble’s boycott of Amazon publishing titles is proving effective and hitting authors and publishers where it hurts the most: hardcover sales of big new titles.

If you don’t subscribe to WSJ you can find the article via a search engine.

Jeffrey Trachtenberg broke the news yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. (N.B.: The article is protected behind the WSJ firewall. If you don’t subscribe you can access it by searching for “Amazon Struggles to Crack Publishing” in Google or Bing and clicking on the link. Sigh.) Trachtenberg’s article focuses on Penny Marshall’s memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, released in mid-September by Amazon Publishing in a $9.99 Kindle edition, and to the trade in a $26 cloth edition by Amazon & Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s New Harvest imprint.

Bottom line: Independent booksellers, and, more importantly, Barnes & Noble, are boycotting the retail display of titles published by any of Amazon’s printed book imprints, and almost certainly striking a serious blow to the success of those titles.

Are you surprised?

Depending on how you slice and dice the numbers, Barnes & Noble controls about a quarter of the U.S. retail market (including online). If you look at bookstore sales only, chains (including Books-a-Million) control roughly 4/5ths of a $2.7 billion pie. As Trachtenberg notes, the book isn’t stocked in the 689 stores of Barnes & Noble Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, or Target. I called a couple of Books-a-Million stores and it’s not on their shelves either.

Marketshare in the days of Borders

The book was well received by Amazon customers where 235 customers gave it an average of 3.9 stars. Likewise on Goodreads where 274 ratings lead to 3.57 stars. (Barnes & Noble offers the book online only. The solo review, with four stars, notes only that “From the time I started reading it I couldnt stop and im an adult with very serious adhd.”)

So the book ain’t bad, but it has sold only 7,000 hardcover copies. And that ain’t good.

I got two takeaways from this story:

1. The all-powerful Wizard of Seattle sometimes hides behind a curtain while his 3D hologram spits fire and venom, signifying nothing.

2. Book retail still matters. A bunch.

 

October 23, 2012: Mike Shatzkin devotes his column to this topic, Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off.

October 30, Washington Post: Amazon finds its books aren’t welcome at many bookstores.

November 20, 2012, New York Times: Tim Ferriss and Amazon Try to Reinvent Publishing. “Mr. Ferriss wants The 4-Hour Chef to be the first nonfiction book to sell a million copies on Kindle. My guess is that he and Amazon are willing to keep lowering the price until they get there.”

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  • William Ockham

    Sigh. Everyone in publishing makes the same fallacious argument. Hardback sales volume as reported by BookScan is NOT the appropriate measure of success for this book, or any book published by Amazon. You are committing what is usually called an ecological fallacy. You are assuming that an individual title must reflect the characteristics of the whole market. That is always a mistake, but in the case of Amazon’s titles, it is idiotic. Amazon has an obvious strategy sell ebooks instead of hardbacks. That means that hardback sales volume tells you nothing about the success of the title.

    If you want to live in the past, that is fine by me. If you want to write about the future of publishing, you should think more clearly about how the mix of sales for Amazon titles differs from that of a traditional publishers.

    • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com/ Thad McIlroy

      Try telling an author of a new memoir that their hardback sales don’t matter. They matter in many ways beyond the royalty check: books sell best by word of mouth. Books on display in prominent retailers sell based on cover design, cover copy and a scan of the content. You need to seed the market for every new book in every way possible. My argument is just that many titles can still be published with a view to maximizing their sales by taking advantage of the still valuable option of promoting it through the retail channel.

  • http://twitter.com/thDigitalReader Nate the great

    Cursed? That is a weird interpretation for a situation which I would describe as booksellers cutting off their nose to spite their face.

    Cursed implies bad luck when in reality booksellers are being spiteful.

    • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com/ Thad McIlroy

      I hear you, and think that there’s a valid argument to be made on both sides. I understand the booksellers’ position. I’d have to have my own shop to know if I’d be principled enough to ignore Amazon’s predatory practices and still sell its wares. If the argument is only about the bottom line, the few titles Amazon publishes aren’t going to make or break the average bookstore.

      • http://twitter.com/thDigitalReader Nate the great

        I’m reminded of Atlas Shrugged, in particular how the hero is only out to make money and everyone else runs their businesses into the ground while pursuing their high mined principles. Guess which one I root for?