Sunday, January 15, 2012

Amazon’s Plan for Us (and Other Matters)

Rare whaling pamphlet (see below)

I like to have lunch every week with my pal Anthony Weller. He’s a novelist whose latest effort, The Land of Later On, was purchased and published -- as an e-book -- by Amazon. This is part of Amazon’s entry into the publishing world which, knowing them as we now do, pretty much equates with taking over the publishing world. The question is how they plan to go about it. Based on Anthony’s weekly narration of the adventures and misadventures of his novel, a picture begins to emerge.

On the good side Amazon did a Kindle special sale promo of his book in the UK and it sold thousands of copies in a single day. This pushed the Kindle edition up in the Amazon ratings, which called it to the attention of more potential buyers, which resulted in more sales. This cascade effect lasted several weeks.

On the bad side they steadfastly refuse to send review copies to ANY of the trade publications or influential journals such as the New York Times Book Review. They insist that the Amazon peer review process, in which readers critique the book in short reviews (ranked in a 5 star system -- 0 stars, bad, 5 stars, good.) is sufficient.

Poor Anthony is driving himself crazy trying to figure the reason for this apparently self-defeating policy. Don’t they want his excellent novel reviewed? Wouldn’t that result in still more sales? Every time he asks Amazon he gets corporate robot double talk. But I’ve got an idea about what’s going on.

It is Amazon’s aim to completely subvert the traditional publishing process. Not sending out review copies signals their belief that literary journals and trade publications are becoming, and soon will be, obsolete and irrelevant.

Instead of paying Anthony a five figure advance, then spending more tens of thousands on production and marketing, and hoping against hope that his book can earn back its advance, Amazon pays Anthony a very low advance backed by a very generous royalty on electronic sales. Amazon has practically nothing invested in its Kindle edition, and it’s making a profit of three or four bucks a unit after paying Anthony his share. Supposing The Land of Later On ultimately sells 20,000 copies. That’s a hefty return on a minimal investment.

Multiply that by hundreds, or thousands -- once Amazon gets rolling with its program to sign mid-list writers -- and you can see what they’re up to. Almost all of those authors will at least break even. Most will return a good profit. Such a model kicks the stuffing out of the way business is done in traditional publishing. And, when you think of it, the whole concept proceeds from their experiment in letting self-published authors put their own “vanity” productions right up there on Amazon with the “real” books. Some genius of a bean counter took a look at the numbers this business generated, and saw the future.

Here’s the interesting part as far as we book dealers are concerned. As a sop to its hired authors, Amazon promises to publish a hard copy edition, at some time after the Kindle edition has been released. Inevitably, it will be a small edition. Why? Because no one in the traditional world even knows it exists -- remember, Amazon has refused to send review copies to Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Review, or any of the other standard trade organs. Furthermore, bookstore owners are so pissed at Amazon, they generally refuse to stock Amazon products.

Now, suppose The Land of Later On is recognized as a classic in fifty years. There will only be a few thousand, or even a few hundred copies of the first hard copy edition in existence.

Thus, the Modern First Edition dealer’s dream will have been fulfilled.

Prior to the Internet they made their livings plugging modern firsts as rare. The Internet exposed that as fallacious, and the Modern Firsts trade collapsed. Now, thanks in a roundabout way to the Internet, the Modern First Editions of the future truly will be rare, and the trade in them will skyrocket.

Too bad we won’t be around to see it.

On the “other matters” side of things, my excellent book Hubert’s Freaks is currently weighing in at #158,381 on the “Amazon Best Sellers Rank." The book is in large part about legendary American photographer Diane Arbus, and that pitiful ranking got me wondering if Arbus has become chopped liver among photo collectors.

The record sale price for a single Arbus photograph is about half a million dollars. Just recently Andreas Gursky (also mentioned in my book) took the world record for a photograph at $4.3 million. Here’s what the photo looked like. Nice, but I’ll take Arbus, thanks.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Anon. PECHE FRANÇAISE DE LA BALEINE, DANS LES MERS DU SUD EN 1829. Havre. 1829/ b/w lithograph frontispiece and folding litho plate. 55, (1) pp. A rare pamphlet on French whaling. According to a prefatory note the text was originally published in an equally rare periodical, "Le Navigateur, Journal des naufrages." This edition is more than an offprint, having its own title page, pagination, and table of contents. It features a frontispiece lithograph from "Le Navigateur", and a handsome folding lithograph plate, measuring 8 1/4 x 12 inches, done for this edition by Periaux in Rouen. Not in Jenkins or Polak. According to Worldcat only the Bibliotheque National and University of Glasgow Library hold copies. A fine uncut copy bound in original blue wrappers. $2500

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the trenchant comments on the practices of Amazon, especially their unwillingness to send publishing information to trade journals for review purposes.
    Cheers, Bjarne