I Wouldn’t Read Too Much Into That Story About Kirshbaum Leaving Amazon Publishing

There'skirschbaum102513[1] an attention-getting story going around today that Larry Kirshbaum, current head of Amazon Publishing (since it was announced in Summer 2011) and former head of Time Warner Books (aka Hachette), will be leaving AP in the Spring and going back to agenting.Shelf Awareness broke the story (and PW confirmed it), but I am not sure just how much we should we should read into it:

Big news concerning Amazon's attempt to become a major force in U.S. book publishing: Shelf Awareness has learned that Larry Kirshbaum, editorial head of the company's New York and Seattle adult imprints and children's publishing, is leaving the company early next year and returning to agenting. In connection with his departure, the most ambitious part of Amazon's publishing operations will be scaled back.

This story has been confirmed by Publisher's Weekly, which reported that:

Amazon has confirmed to PW a story in Friday’s Shelf Awareness that Larry Kirshbaum will step down as head of Amazon Publishing’s general publishing program early next year. Amazon said Kirshbaum's last day will be January 17 and that he plans to return to agenting.

Shelf Awareness and others are attributing the departure to Amazon Publishing's less than stellar success in bringing books to market and getting titles on to best-seller lists. Geekwire has a good writeup, if you are interested. I'm not.

I think we are giving the story more credit than it deserves. While it is true that Amazon Publishing has faced a lot of opposition from booksellers who are behaving less like business people and more like spiteful children (they don't care about hurting authors so long as Amazon also gets hurt by their boycott), I am not sure that is enough to convince Amazon to scale back efforts - not all of them anyway.

Jack Perry of 38Enso left a comment over on PaidContent that raises a good point to explain why the more visible aspects of Amazon Publishing's lack of success might not represent their actual state:

Celebrity-driven books are always hard to put into a “model” that can be applied to all of them. Plus, physical distribution into stores (B&N, Indies, Wal-Mart, Target etc) has and still is a very important factor in celebrity bios.

Genre fiction (Mystery, Romance etc) lends itself to Amazon and digital. Amazon is still probably doing great business with those books. But those books don’t depend on exposure in retail like celebrity titles.

For all we know Amazon's less showy publishing efforts could be more successful. Don't forget, in the past year Amazon Publishing has launched Jet City Comics and Kindle Worlds. That does not strike me as being a sign of winding down operations.

Furthermore, Shelf Awareness cites "several editorial people have left or been let go" as evidence, but they neglect to name them. Given the relatively small size of NY publishing that should not have been hard, but never mind that; this kind of departure is normal for Amazon.

The average tenure at Amazon is just over a year, and if the publishing operations are run in the same style as Amazon corporate then I could see why people would leave. (Speaking of which, what's the average turnover rate in publishing? Is Amazon Publishing's turnover higher or lower?)

Speaking of jobs, if Amazon is planning to scale back operations then why are they hiring? Seriously, I found job listings for editorial staff and production managers. Would a shrinking operation really need more people?

I take the position that even though Larry Kirshbaum is leaving in a couple months, that shouldn't be taken as a sign that Amazon Publishing fizzled. It could be that he has decided to retire again and become an agent. The fellow is 69, so he might simply want to step back and take a less strenuous job.

I don't know, and until more information surfaces I don't plan to read too much into this story.

About Nate Hoffelder (11585 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

9 Comments on I Wouldn’t Read Too Much Into That Story About Kirshbaum Leaving Amazon Publishing

  1. Hi Nate,

    Publishers Lunch Deluxe did a good summary of the story that agrees with many of your points. The article, which does name the editors who’ve left, is at http://lunch.publishersmarketplace.com/2013/10/kirshbaum-leave-amazon-publishing-january/, but it’s behind a paywall, so here’s a summary:

    Publishers Lunch Deluxe reports that Larry Kirshbaum, who joined Amazon approx. 2 1/2 years ago to run Amazon Publishing in New York, will leave the company on January 17th and will return to his previous role as a literary agent. Several editors have left the New York operation, but Amazon Publishing’s website lists at least 27 editors still with the company. Amazon has had little success with “high profile” titles–both Penny Marshall’s autobiography and Tim Ferriss’s “The Four-Hour Chef” bombed, and HMH’s New Harvest imprint, which sells some of Amazon Publishing’s titles in print form, has been unable to get most bookstores to carry its titles.

    Nevertheless, many of Amazon’s genre imprints seem to be doing very well–as a group, Amazon Publishing’s imprints made them the fifth-largest publisher by unit sales through the Kindle platform in the U.S. in February (this doesn’t count self-published Kindle Digital Publishing titles.) When Amazon Publishing, KDP, CreateSpace and Audible.com/Brilliance Audio are added together, Amazon is clearly one of the biggest publishers in the country.

    Given that most of Amazon’s imprints are already based in Seattle, I suspect that control of Amazon Publishing will shift to Seattle, and that the New York office will either be scaled back or closed.

    • Nate, I forgot to add that Kirshbaum is involved in a very nasty civil case, in which a former employee at Time Warner Book Group with whom Kirshbaum allegedly had an affair when he was running that company charged that he sexually harassed and assaulted her in 2010. At that point, he was running Amazon Publishing. That case may have something to do with his resignation. Here’s the link: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/29/larry-kirshbaum-accused-sexual-assault .

      • Amazon Publishing wasn’t announced until the summer of 2011 so I doubt that lawsuit is relevant here. I also lack any evidence to show the allegation has any evidence to back it up. That’s why I am ignoring it.

        • Nate, there is the lawsuit itself to provide evidence. It’s of course up to a judge or jury to determine what actually happened, but I guarantee you that Amazon didn’t ignore it, and almost certainly mounted its own investigation. The case was relevant to Amazon because it called into question the behavior of one of its senior executives, and the reputation of the company itself. It certainly appears that Amazon had a succession plan well underway, given that the company named a new head of Amazon Publishing today.

  2. I wonder if Amazon Publishing is even profitable. Their titles are frequently on sale for $1.00 (as in now over 100 titles) plus Prime Lending Library giveaways. I am led to believe Amazon still pays full royalties regardless. Perhaps, they are just streamlining operations and removing higher salaries just like the big publishers.

  3. Kirshbaum’s been replaced and the NYC operation is expanding.

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/people/article/59710-durham-named-amazon-publishing-publisher.html

    Apparently his contract is expiring and since he didn’t live up to his promises it won’t be renewed.

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