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Amazon Reports That Operation "Retreat to Seattle" Was a Roaring Success

Amazon chaos signwas embarrassed in publishing news circles a couple days ago when the news broke that Larry Kirshbaum, the high profile head of Amazon Publishing, was going to leave the company next Spring.

Shelf Awareness broke the news, adding:

In connection with his departure, the most ambitious part of Amazon’s publishing operations will be scaled back. Already several editorial people have left or been let go, and Amazon has not been a factor in bidding on major books the way it had been just two years ago.

This lead to a flurry of news stories about how Amazon’s publishing performance in New York has failed to meet the initial expectations as well as headlines proclaiming Barnes & Noble Is Now Amazon’s Biggest Publishing Problem and Amazon Publishing reportedly retreating in NYC, with the addendum that the new head of AmPub is now located in Seattle.

I disagree with most of what has been written about Friday’s story.

First, I am frankly surprised that so many journalists have forgotten that we live in the Internet age. The idea that the head of a publishing house has to be in NYC is a false assumption; it was inherited from the legacy publishing industry and reflects a different era. Physical location has almost nothing to do with how a company operates; all that is necessary is a fast internet connection (and a decent airport).

But more importantly, since when is a staffing issue an example of retreating?

To use a military term, replacing the general in command of an army isn’t a retreat; it’s a personnel issue. And in this case we might have the publishing equivalent of Grant replacing Halleck.

Tell me, have you looked at Kirshbaum’s replacement?

Her name is Daphne Durham, and based on the coverage of this story I think I was the only one who checked out her work history. Update: No, DBW covered the basic facts in their follow up post.

A brief glance at Durham’s LinkedIn profile tells us that she has worked for Amazon for 14 years, starting first as an assistant book buyer and then working her way up to Editor of AmPub and now Publisher of Adult Trade and Children’s Books.

Durham is replacing a fellow who had previously headed a Big 6 publisher. Until 2006 Kirshbaum ran Time Warner Books (or Hachette, as they are called since being sold to Lagardere in 2007).

What Durham might lack in industry connections and prestige she more than makes up for in having survived a Darwinist working environment for the past 14 years. Furthermore, she lacks Kirshbaum’s industry blindspots but instead has a decade of retail experience. She knows what sells and will be able to use that knowledge to run AmPub.

Replacing Kirshbaum may have doomed Amazon’s plans to have a quote unquote Major East Coast Publishing House, but that’s okay. Instead Amazon is going to have a publishing startup with all the same staff and funding, and run by a publishing industry outsider. Now things can get interesting.

In fact, I would say that the news of Kirshbaum leaving could not have been leaked better if Amazon had tried. His departure was going to look bad no matter what happened (unless he left for medical reasons), but at least this way Amazon gained the maximum benefit from the public shame of AmPub being a failure.

Yes, Amazon benefited from all the bad news. The word of the day, folks, is disinformation.

While I don’t know for sure that this was a deliberate operation on the part of Amazon, I do think that the resulting fallout from this story has created a meme. Many people in publishing will now be thinking, on a subconscious level, that "Amazon Publishing is a failure".

This could lead to underestimating Amazon’s publishing efforts – not just the one publishing imprint that Durham is running but all of Amazon’s other publishing imprints as well.

P.S. And if nothing else, let me remind you that Amazon’s publishing efforts are intended to disrupt the publishing industry simply by existing. Exhibit A: Amazon’s decision to pay royalties monthly.

image by St_A_Sh

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flyingtoastr October 27, 2013 um 8:45 pm

Except none of this changes the fact that Amazon’s draconian exclusivity policies will still cripple their efforts. Lipstick on a pig.

Nate Hoffelder October 27, 2013 um 8:48 pm

Except Amazon doesn’t have an ebook exclusive on the titles they publish. I found some in the Nook Store. Seriously, I checked earlier today.

fjtorres October 27, 2013 um 9:54 pm

AmPub ebooks are available through Ingram to anybody willing to carry them.

Also, Digitalbookworld is reporting that Amazon is prepping to launch *more* imprints to be run out of NYC.

Personally, I think the inbred Manhattan publishing environment is not all that important to finding good books but it may help them pick up production staff as the Big 5 merge and downsize into the (not so) big 3.

Nate Hoffelder October 27, 2013 um 9:58 pm

That pretty much demolishes the whole "B&N slayed AmPub" idea, doesn’t it?

Ben October 28, 2013 um 2:11 pm

For once, I have to agree with you on this Nate. Quick turnovers in publishing these days is old news. Nothing changes if there is good (or bad) infrastructure. It means nothing more than just another guy moving on to something else. The way Bezos runs Amazon, they haven’t back out of any business sectors they got in.

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