NPR Story
3:48 am
Wed October 30, 2013

Brick-And-Mortar Bookstores Play The Print Card Against Amazon

Originally published on Thu October 31, 2013 3:24 am

When it comes to book publishing, all we ever seem to hear about is online sales, the growth of e-books and the latest version of a digital book reader. But the fact is, only 20 percent of the book market is e-books; it's still dominated by print. And a recent standoff in the book business shows how good old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar bookstores are still trying to wield their influence in the industry. You might even call it brick-and-mortar booksellers' revenge.

At the center of this story is Amazon, and it's no secret that there's little love lost between the traditional book world and the giant online retailer: Publishers and booksellers think Amazon wants to put them out of business. When the Justice Department brought suit against Apple and five major publishing companies for price fixing, a lot of people in the book business were apoplectic: They firmly believe that if an antitrust lawsuit should be brought against anyone, it's Amazon.

So many within the industry are happy to look for any weakness they can find when it comes to Amazon. Recently, they found it in Amazon's decision to not just sell books, but also publish them.

About two years ago, Amazon hired a well-known literary agent, Larry Kirshbaum, to launch the New York branch of their fledgling publishing business, which until then had been based in Seattle. This was seen as a big move because New York is the capital of the publishing business, and Kirshbaum was a major player there. Everyone figured he could use his clout to attract big-time authors to Amazon's trade publishing brand, and everyone was watching very closely to see what happened.

And that's where the revenge part of this story comes in. A lot of booksellers said enough is enough: Not only is Amazon trying to take over the retail side of the book business, it's also going to take over publishing? Some independent bookstores decided they wouldn't carry Amazon Publishing's books and, even more importantly, Barnes & Noble — the country's biggest bookstore chain — and some big-box stores followed suit. Neither Amazon nor its authors expected that kind of backlash, and a couple of pretty big Amazon releases never really took off.

That's where things stood last week when the news broke that Kirshbaum was leaving Amazon to become a literary agent again. His departure was widely viewed as a sign that Amazon Publishing could be in trouble, done in by the likes of Barnes & Noble. Amazon quickly stepped in to say that reports of the demise — or near demise — of its publishing business were greatly exaggerated. In fact, Amazon says it plans to expand its New York business.

Jeff Belle, vice president of Amazon Publishing, says the publishing house's business model isn't dependent on big-box stores like Costco and Target, or on selling books outside its own platform. (It's certainly true that Amazon has cornered the online bookselling business and dominates the e-book market.)

But powerful as it may be, some writers really do want to see their books on the shelves of certain stores. And those authors might be inclined to stick with traditional publishers. So, even in this digital day and age, the bookstore still has some clout.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK, sometimes it seems as if digital technology is taking over the world. Take for instance, book publishing. All we seem to ever hear about these days is online sales, the growth of e-books, and the latest version a digital book reader. The fact is, only 20 percent of the book market is e-books. Publishing is still dominated by print. And a recent standoff in the book business proved, good old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar stores are still trying to wield the influence in the industry.

NPR's Lynn Neary joined us with the story. Good morning.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is this all about?

NEARY: Well, you know, you might call this a brick and mortar booksellers' revenge. But before I get into that, let me give you some background. As I think you might know, there is no love lost between traditional publishers or book sellers and the behemoth online retailer Amazon. Basically, the traditional book world thinks Amazon wants to put them out of business.

For example, when the Justice Department brought suit against the big five publishing companies and Apple for price fixing, a lot of people in publishing were really apoplectic, because they firmly believe that if any anti-trust lawsuit should be brought against anyone, its Amazon. So basically a lot of people within the industry and observing it, look for any weakness they can find when it comes to Amazon. And recently people have been seeing an Achilles heel in Amazon's decision to not just sell books but publish them, as well.

MONTAGNE: And I take it that's where the revenge part comes in.

NEARY: That is where the revenge part comes in. A lot of booksellers said enough is enough. Not only is Amazon trying to take over the retail side of the book business, now it's going to take over publishing. So a lot of independent stores said they would not carry Amazon's books. Maybe they'd special order them, but they wouldn't carry them. But even more important, Barnes and Noble - the country's biggest bookstore chain - said it would not carry Amazon books, and so did some of the big box stores, like Target and Costco.

Neither Amazon nor the authors that they signed on had expected that kind of backlash. And there were a couple of pretty prominent books that never really took off.

MONTAGNE: Which does not sound that great for Amazon's publishing business?

NEARY: And that 's the question that everyone was asking last week, when it was first reported that a guy that Amazon brought in to launch its New York-based publishing business was leaving. He's Lawrence Kirshbaum and he is a well-known literary agent. He was a literary agent before he went to Amazon, a big player in the New York-based publishing world. And Amazon hired him in 2011 and a lot of people figured, you know, that he would be able to use his clout to attract some big time authors to Amazon's trade publishing brand. So everybody has been watching really closely to see what happened.

And, you know, the first sign of trouble was those books I mentioned that failed to launch. But Kirshbaum's decided to leave Amazon that was widely viewed as a sign that this publishing business, that Amazon was into, was in trouble; done-in by the likes and Barnes and Noble and other brick and mortar stores.

MONTAGNE: What is Amazon saying about all of this?

NEARY: Well, they say reports of the demise of their publishing business are highly exaggerated. They say there are plans to expand the New York office with new imprints. I spoke with the Vice President of Amazon Publishing, who says that Amazon is not reliant on selling outside its own platform. And that is business model is not dependent on big box stores like Costco and Target.

But, you know, Renee, the bottom-line may be that writers who want to see their books on the bookshelves of certain kind of stores, for those kinds of writers - if it's not enough to be online or sell e-books - they might want to be thinking about publisher other than Amazon right now.

MONTAGNE: All of which means there're probably more chapters to come. Thanks a lot, Lynn.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Good to talk to you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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