There's 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.
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.