Mike Shatzkin discusses the motives of Amazon

Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin’s latest column is a look at the motives behind Amazon’s competitive behavior, and how it might end legacy publishing. Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that Shatzkin spends the first half of the post giving the devil his due, explaining why Amazon has been looking so good to so many people with manuscripts they want to get out there.

If you’ve got the manuscript in hand and you have a choice between [spending months to go from manuscript to published book and earning lower royalties] and having books to show your friends within days at just about no cost, why wouldn’t you seriously consider it? Why wouldn’t you do it? It seems like a no-brainer. That explains the conviction with which writers who have succeeded through this means, even those who didn’t quite do it themselves but instead just agreed to be published by Amazon, are so unsympathetic to the concern that Amazon’s business practices could cripple the legacy publishing business.

Though, of course, Shatzkin notes that it really isn’t as simple as that, and then hits some of the weak points of that argument. The lack of in-store print presence, for example, and the way that self-publishing offsets the risk from the publisher onto the author himself.

Shatzkin also has some interesting observations on the print-on-demand story I covered a couple of days ago, casting it in light of Amazon only caring about sales through Amazon rather than across the whole industry, whereas the industry uses sales across multiple outlets as an important indicator in bestseller calculations. Hence, if Amazon makes it harder for other stores and outlets to compete, it also messes up the publishing industry’s metrics for determining how well a book is selling.

The divergence in point-of-view is illustrated in the conflict over print-on-demand that is discussed in the WSJ piece. From where Amazon sits, it is simply more efficient to print what they need of slow-movers when they need them. They can probably make an offer to publishers that looks “margin-neutral” or even more favorable. But publishers know they have to print for everybody else, and taking the Amazon demand out of the print equation — particularly for slow-movers — would really disrupt the overall economics for any title that weren’t already printing on demand. These overall marketplace economics aren’t Amazon’s concern.

Shatzkin is surprised that we haven’t seen more big-name authors move to Amazon yet—there’ve been a few, but few enough to make each of them a fairly newsworthy event. But as bookstores dwindle, that could change, and might represent the real end of the legacy model.

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