Jenny Milchman sent me a typically well-reasoned response to my last post and it spurred a few additional thoughts. Here’s Jenny first:
‘Love your last graf! Well said, Ted, well said. I agree that anything that supports the primacy of books and stories is a good thing. Bringing more players into the bricks and mortar side of things is certainly a personal preference (nay, passion) of mine!
However, I read some wise words a few weeks ago, which said essentially that Amazon may not realize what they’re in for. There’s a reason the big 6 and bookstores operate as they do. These are some of the smartest book folks I’ve ever met–and the problems they’re trying to solve are HARD. Tricky edits. Weary authors. Plot twists that don’t quite work. Distribution, overages, and the almighty “Nobody knows [what sells].” Once Amazon is wading in those waters, they might see that bookselling–and publishing–is different than selling Aloe Vera lotion at the best price. I hope they’re up for it, because I welcome new players. But I wouldn’t underestimate those who have been in the game for longer.’
I think there’s a lot of sense in this, obviously, but I’m not sure Amazon has any intentions of ‘playing the game’ – at least not the game as presently constituted.
Whether Amazon works with experienced authors with followings (Barry Eisler, David Morrell) for their fiction titles or decides to publish (that is, create a paper version of ) any of their ebook authors, surely they’ll take those that are already selling, already fending for themselves and probably won’t need a whole lot of editing to keep pleasing their built-in readership. I’m not convinced Amazon will be doing multi-book deals and, even if they do, their relationship is not the same as the traditional agent/editor. I don’t know how much handholding writers will expect from them.
As to the job of physical bookselling, Amazon has huge advantages that could tip the balance and force major changes in the nature of bookstores.
We’re used to even modest bookstores stocking thousands of books on all subjects from all publishers. It’s that tremendous overhead that makes the business such a shaky investment and was a major factor, years ago, in establishing the practice of book returns.
Book returns are the bane of authors and book publishers but traditional booksellers won’t give them up. A book is published, thousands of copies printed and sent to bookstores to fill their orders. Then publisher and author wait ninety days to see how many of those books actually sell. If a title doesn’t sell well, toward the end of the ninety-day period, the bookseller returns the unsold copies to the publisher for full credit (at least, it was full credit when I worked in the book business some years ago – if anything’s changed, someone please correct me).
So a bookstore has three months to establish whether a new book has ‘legs’ or not. Actually, with the huge number of books being published these days, it’s likely to be more like three weeks! So, in addition to the real estate bookstores represent (Lots of shelf space! Big parking lots!), all this printing, storing in warehouses and shipping back and forth costs a lot of time and money .
Amazon’s decision to build bookstores doesn’t mean it will necessarily recreate those same weaknesses. Amazon could build modestly-sized bookstores showcasing just the few big Amazon-only titles – this month’s new books and whatever titles just keep on selling.
In addition, each store might only carry one copy each of Amazon’s other books – leaf through in the store, decide if you’re interested and we’ll ship it to you free! Five bucks shipping if you have to have it overnight!
Lots of customers would have no problem with that. And suddenly – No returns! You print minimal numbers, track sales on a real-time basis and print more when you need to, in small batches that cost a little more per copy but cost a whole lot less than pulping 3,000 unsold copies over and over again. Thereby eliminating a financial headache that’s tormented the book business for fifty years.
In addition, if I was Amazon (if I was Amazon, I wouldn’t be writing this silly blog but let’s ignore that for now), I’d also have an Expresso machine in each store.
If you really want a book and can’t wait, Expresso reads the files off a server, prints the book and cover, binds it all together and spits out the completed product in the store while you wait.
Amazon could offer this service to writers like me who have four paperbacks available through Createspace – it would be a huge advantage for us to be available in bookstores and would offer Amazon thousands of books available exclusively in their stores overnight, with almost no overhead.
I should mention here that I love the old-fashioned, cluttered idea-friendly bookstore and I have no idea if any of this describes Amazon’s plans. But it’s all well within Amazon’s capabilities and existing technology. More importantly, starting from scratch with a new approach to bookselling would make use of Amazon’s considerable advantages and minimize or eliminate several big weak spots in the existing approach.
So I’m excited about the prospect of Amazon adding stores and their energy to the bookselling game. But (and I’m less excited about this) that doesn’t mean they’ll play the same game as everyone else.