A recent New Yorker article about book publishing in the era of Amazon Kindles and Apple iPads indicated that Amazon is thinking about cutting book publishers out of the loop completely and striking deals directly with authors. Such deals would allow Amazon to price e-books however they wanted and to provide more generous royalties to authors. Sounds great, right? Cheaper books and richer authors.
Sure, in the short run, for certain authors. But in the long run, this is a highly destructive strategy. Destructive for the book industry, and even for Amazon itself. What Amazon will do is poach the big name authors, the ones who don’t need publishers any more. John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and other authors of such stature can sell books no matter who publishes them. They can move to Amazon, bump their royalty rate from 15% to 50% and make a ton of money.
But the publishing business, like much of entertainment, uses the hits to subsidize the misses. Simon and Schuster, for example, reinvests the money it makes publishing Stephen King and uses it to find authors like Susanne Dunlap, who might be the next Stephen King. If the big authors leave their publishing houses to go to Amazon, then the publishers won’t have the money to find and support emerging authors. The publishers will likely go out of business.
This will be bad. Books entertain us, they teach us, they can be a way for a culture to bond over shared values. A society without new literature is not a society I want to live in. Moreover, this will be bad for Amazon in the long run. Eventually, Stephen King and the other big authors will die, and if the publishers are out of business, who will discover the new authors, the Stephen Kings of tomorrow? Nobody. Then Amazon’s book business will also die, since there will be no new books.
You might try to analogize this to the music business, with Napster disintermediating the record labels, but that analogy is flawed. New music can be absorbed quickly: listen to 2-minute samples of three songs and you’ll have a sense for a band. This is why new music is being effectively crowd sourced. But spend 6 minutes reading a passage from a new novel and you will have no idea if you will like the novel as a whole, or any other piece by that author. The current system of literary agents and publishing houses works to discover and nurture new authors. Moreover, the current system improves authors’ works by editing them. Most authors need editors, as the recently publicity about Raymond Carver’s editor has shown. In Amazon’s world, who will play that role?