If any company could propel an ebook-first publishing model, it is probably Amazon. With the popularity of the Kindle and the extensive information the company holds on its clients, Amazon is better positioned than most to push targeted ebooks to customers. The company even released a statement earlier this year showing that ebooks are outselling print books on Amazon.com. Despite this, Amazon is foraying further into the print publishing world.
Actually, publishing isn't new for Amazon. It has published printed books through imprints such as AmazonEncore and AmazonCrossing for a few years. AmazonEncore identifies books that get great reviews from customers on the Amazon site. The books seem to have authors with money-making potential, but the books are self-published and don't have much marketing support.
Amazon's newest push into the old-fashioned content creation business is the result of bringing Laurence Kirshbaum, a New York editor and agent, on as head of Amazon Publishing. It seems like curious timing, as the ebook market is certainly growing rapidly. According to BookStats, net unit sales have increased 1,039.6% in the 3-year period between 2008 and 2010, with 114 million sold in 2010. Growth is particularly noticeable in certain categories, such as Adult Fiction, where ebooks now account for 13.6% of net revenue. And this data doesn't take into account results from the first half of 2011. As BookStats notes, "The consistent, growing popularity of ebooks and apps [is] a major success story in content formats, even in advance of data for 2011, which is currently tracking high e-format sales."
Both authors and analysts agree that the move simply marks Amazon expanding its business model in a way that makes sense. Ultimately, the goal is to connect the customer with exactly what he or she is looking for-no matter what medium that product is sold in.
"The name of the game in media is to be where the customer wants content, when the customer wants content," says James McQuivey, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. "Amazon has known this for some time and has sold physical books, CDs, and DVDs for years knowing that that was the most convenient solution at the time. However, as digital books, music, and movies become more possible Amazon has also recognized this and moved into digital. At no time, however, have they repudiated the notion of physical media because for many people-in many contexts-physical media remain a convenient way to get the right content to the right device at the right time."
If the stronger push into print seems like an unusual, if not bullying, move for Amazon, one group that doesn't seem to be complaining is the author community. Timothy Ferriss, the wildly successful author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, recently announced a partnership with Amazon under which it will publish his next work, The 4-Hour Chef, next spring. The 4-Hour Chef will be available as a hardcover, an ebook, and an audiobook.
Ferriss declined to comment for this article but has commented on the subject at length on his blog, saying "I truly believe that Amazon can change all of publishing for the better, and it's important not to make ‘technological change' synonymous with ‘Amazon.' Much as the Harry Potter series helped spread literacy around the world-all while not ‘stealing' market share from other fiction-I think the innovation of Amazon can drive more total book sales across all formats, and it need not be zero-sum."
McQuivey agrees, adding that "Amazon's foray into print publishing, then, is less about physical vs. digital than it is about ensuring that it can deliver the content consumers really want. Yes, Amazon will continue to sell books from top publishers. But if it can look at its mountains of data and determine that there's an opportunity to serve a certain segment of its best customers with a certain type of book then it makes all the sense in the world for Amazon to become the publisher of the book, whether physical or digital. This is exactly what other publishers are trying to do-learn from actual readers what they want so the publisher can make more informed acquisition and publication decisions. Amazon just happens to be closer to the customer than any publisher, so it is in a better position to lead out in a customer-focused publishing world."
Amazon also brings a set of unique tools to the table, which many authors-both established and relatively new-find appealing. Ferriss explains, "It was, in my mind, like moving from The New York Yankees to The LA Lakers: from best-of-class in one sport to best-of-class in an entirely different sport. No one in publishing has the assets, resources, and capabilities that Amazon has; it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance at an industry first."
Laurel Saville, whose Unraveling Anne will be released in November from AmazonEncore, also agrees. After a long road through the traditional publishing pipeline, where she received positive feedback but no one picked up her book, Saville decided to go the self-publishing route. An acquiring editor with Amazon contacted her about her book, offering marketing support and help polishing the final product. Saville says that she has been impressed with Amazon on a number of levels.
"All of my dealings with them have been not just professional, but they are very nice people. They have put a lot behind my book. They hired a great editor, a great publicist, and brought me to Book Expo," she says of the support she has received. "I feel a bit like I'm at a boutique publisher with a sugar daddy."
"One of the things that's nice is that they have a lot of information about who's reading what and who likes what and they can bring that information to bear on selling your books and connecting readers with what they want to read," Saville continues. "I always feel like you have to play to your strengths. Amazon is what Amazon is, but so are small book stores," says Saville. For a bookstore to say, "‘I'm not going to play with Amazon,' well that's your choice, but the point is to connect your customers with the books that they want to read."
This is a sentiment echoed by everyone we spoke with. Ultimately, publishing is not going to be about one format beating another-at least not in the near term. It will be about knowing your customers: knowing what they want and knowing how they want that material delivered.