Amazon.com is showing every sign that its ambition no longer just to distribute books but also to publish them is very real and growing.
The company announced in the past two weeks a publishing list for the spring and early summer that includes 16 books in its AmazonEncore imprint and eight books in its AmazonCrossing imprint, which focuses on book publishing and translations.
Mining data to guide acquisitions
Both imprints use Amazon’s extensive sales data and customer reviews to help inform publishing decisions. For example, Amazon culled data from its French site to help guide its first foreign acquisition, which became available in November (Tierno Monenembo’s The King of Kahel, which won France’s Prix Renaudot in 2008).
“Our team of editors uses this data as a starting point to identify strong candidates, then applies their judgment to narrow the list and reach out to the authors,” Jeff Belle, VP, Amazon.com Books, told LJ. “We’re fortunate to have access to both a lot of sales information, as well as an editorial team made up of book lovers….” he said.
Emily Williams, a digital content producer at Book Publishers Marketplace and cochair of the Book Industry Study Group rights committee, told LJ that Amazon’s efforts were a new means of finding writers who were not “part of the traditional publishing food chain” and also filling in “some of New York publishing’s traditional blind spots.”
“Amazon has a lot of information from its millions of users that book publishers have never had access to in making acquisitions decisions. It was inevitable that someone would try to leverage this kind of platform to try to pick undiscovered best sellers,” she said.
“It will be interesting to see how their books do, but…I don’t believe that the track record so far has shown that the data-driven approach offers any more sure bets than the old model of experienced editors making informed decisions,” she said.
Amazon discovers writers through several channels, Belle said, including Kindle Direct Christian Book Publishing (where writers can upload unpublished manuscripts), the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, and CreateSpace.
“We then work with the authors to introduce or reintroduce their books to readers through marketing and book distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Book Store, Amazon Kindle Store, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers,” Belle said.
.AmazonEncore began publishing in May 2009, and as of January 31 it was offering 54 titles on its site. AmazonCrossing was announced a year later, and the site now features 12 titles in all. For AmazonCrossing, Amazon acquires the rights and pays for their translation. Belle would not disclose financial details.
“We’re just looking for books our customers love,” he said.
Waiting for a breakout best seller
Michael Norris, a senior analyst at Simba Information, which tracks the book publishing companies and media industries, told LJ that the Amazon move mimics what traditional trade publishers have long been doing by mining data and giving book contracts to self-published authors. Amazon is simply trying to develop its own publishing ecosystem in order to bring more people to shop at its site, he said.
“[It's] a mechanism…to keep people within their own universe. It’s definitely a savvy thing for them to try to do,” he said.
Norris said AmazonEncore’s intention to sell books in non-Amazon venues was still a question mark.
“I am curious whether that is working in practice,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if I saw bookstores feature AmazonEncore books. It just strikes me as a little bit unusual,” he said, noting the long-term “incompatibility” of brick-and-mortar bookstores with Amazon.
Williams, too, was waiting to see how successful the overall strategy would prove.
“I’m still waiting to see a breakout best seller come out of one of these programs; until that happens it feels sort of like a new indie on the block, one that happens to be feeding off of the digital savvy, huge customer base, and deep pockets of Amazon,” she said.
In general, Belle said that print and digital versions of Amazon titles are made available simultaneously, although Joe Konrath’s Shaken is a notable exception. It was published last year exclusively for the Kindle at $2.99 and will only be available in paperback on February 22, initially priced at $14.95.
Konrath’s Jack Daniels detective series, of which Shaken is the latest installment, was dropped by Hyperion, its original book publisher. The possibility that a major author being pursued by other book publishers could sign directly with Amazon is a possible challenge to the publishing food chain, said Williams.
“Amazon’s efforts to poach big authors that publishers have heavily invested in is a much bigger threat, especially if Amazon can profit with little to no up-front risk from the name recognition and audiences that publishers have helped to build,” she said.
Traditional trade publishers are not standing still, though, and are using some of the same techniques as Amazon. For example, HarperCollins announced January 28 that it had made its first acquisition from inkpop, its interactive website for teen writing. The debut author, Leigh Fallon, uploaded her manuscript to the site, where it was voted into the “Top Five,” which led to its being considered by an editor at HarperCollins.
Room for growth in translation field
The translation market may present the greatest untapped market, and Amazon, with the breadth of its operations, is well aware of this.
Belle said that Amazon was using its sites around the world “to identify exceptional books deserving of a wider, global audience, whether it be a first-time author or a proven best seller that’s never been translated.”
And within the field of translation, the effort has so far been well received, as it promises to make more works of international literature available in English-at present there are precious few-as well as demonstrate that there is a market for such works in the United States.
The ‘Translation Database,’ which tracks translations by year, counted only 317 translated works of fiction and poetry published in the United States in 2010 (not including retranslations of previously translated works). Only three publishers published more than ten volumes in translation in 2010: Dalkey Archive, 22; New Directions, 16; and Europa Editions, 12.
The database is maintained by Chad W. Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literary publishing house.
“I like Amazon’s approach to marketing these books,” Post told LJ. “They’re very serious about promoting these works in translation-and, as seen with the success of their first couple of titles, are pretty good at it as well-which could help expand the audience of readers interested in translations.”
(In October, Amazon awarded Three Percent, Post’s blog, a $25,000 grant in support of its 2011 Best Translated Book Awards as part of Amazon’s Author & Publisher Giving Program. The award list for 2011 was announced January 27.)
Michael Orthofer, the managing editor of the Complete Review and its Literary Salon, found AmazonCrossing a promising effort and said the titles already available were “an extraordinary number.” Although a bit wary of the selection process and the as-yet-undetermined quality of the translations, he saw good signs.
“If it leads to the publication of books such as Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein…and Oksana Zabuzhko’s Field Work in Ukrainian Sex…then they must be doing something right,” he said.
Amazon’s approach may help lesser-known foreign writers break into the U.S. market, where agents typically favor more established writers. But it also is offering proven writers some newfound leverage.
Ira Silverberg, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, told LJ he had placed Tirza by Arnon Grunberg (which won the Belgian Golden Owl Prize for Literature and the Dutch Libris Prize) with Open Letter and was in negotiations with AmazonCrossing on three other titles, one original and two reprints.
“I think each publisher offers a different set of strengths, and by working with both, we’ll be setting up an advantageous situation for Grunberg,” he said. “Open Letter has greater reach in the community of reviews and independent bookstores; AmazonCrossing has greater reach in terms of its marketing capabilities and loyal customer base. The two attributes combined, I hope, will lead to new opportunities and an awesome launch.”
And so far, there is little fear that Amazon will disrupt, in a bad way, the world of translated literary works.
“AmazonCrossing does not yet seem to be poaching authors/titles from small, independent U.S. publishers, so right now it would just seem to be expanding a field where there is still an extraordinary potential for growth,” Orthofer said.