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Amazon’s Multi-Million Dollar Publishing Experiment Fizzles as Indie Titles Claim Amazon’s Best-Seller List

We stillInferno-cover[1] have a couple weeks left in the year so this might be premature, but Amazon has just posted their list of the best-selling books of 2013.

This year’s list looks very different from last year’s, which was dominated by 50 Shades of Gray. This time around mystery and suspense ruled, with Dan Brown’s Inferno taking first place. This is the third time he’s claimed that position, with the first being The daVinci Code in 2004. Here’s the top 10 from the adult list:

  1. Inferno by Dan Brown
  2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  3. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
  4. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
  5. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
  6. The Hit by David Baldacci
  7. Sycamore Row by John Grisham
  8. Entwined with You by Sylvia Day
  9. Never Go Back by Lee Child
  10. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

And here’s the top 10 from the YA/child list:

  1. Allegiant by Veronica Roth
  2. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
  3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney
  4. Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans by Rush Limbaugh
  5. Never Too Far by Abbi Glines
  6. Out of Breath by Rebecca Donovan
  7. Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare
  8. Forever Too Far by Abbi Glines
  9. Twisted Perfection by Abbi Glines
  10. The Son of Sobek by Rick Riordan

You can find the complete lists over on Amazon’s website.

I’ve been looking at the list this morning and I noticed something interesting. Of the 40 titles listed, only one was published by Amazon (so far as I can tell). That would be Out of Breath by Rebecca Donovan, which reached number 6 on the YA list.

I find that detail rather interesting because by my count no fewer than 9 titles were published by indie authors. (I could be wrong; some of the smaller imprints mentioned might or might not be owned by the author in question.)

Nearly a quarter of the titles on the lists were published by independent authors. (What’s even more interesting is that 2 authors, Morgan Rice and Abbi Glines, took 6 spots on the YA list all by themselves.) That’s more than some of the major publishers can claim, but more importantly it’s more than Amazon can claim.

As you might recall, a couple months ago Larry Kirshbaum left his position as the head of one of Amazon’s imprints, Amazon Publishing. I didn’t think much of the speculation which at the time suggested that Amazon’s publishing efforts had fizzled, but now that Amazon has shared their best-seller lists I might have to change my mind.

The above lists has arguably shown that Amazon is not any better at picking and promoting books than any other publisher, even with Amazon’s home court advantage of owning the retail operation.

If Amazon’s goal is to disrupt publishing then you would think they would have to do a better job than existing publishers.  That did not happen in 2013.

Would anyone care to predict whether it will happen in 2014?

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carmen webster buxton December 16, 2013 um 12:08 pm

Can you really say "dominated" with 9 out of 40? I would be tempted to say indie publishing has arrived and is actively competing but not that it dominates. I don’t think any of the top 10 adult books (that sounds so naughty!) were indie, were they?

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 12:22 pm

You’re right that it doesn’t fit. I just can’t think of a better word.

flyingtoastr December 16, 2013 um 2:57 pm

"Amazon’s Multimillion Dollar Publishing Experiment Fizzles as Indy Titles Claim The Bestseller List"

Bury the lead like a real journalist.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 2:59 pm

Okay, now this is a title I like.


William Ockham December 16, 2013 um 3:22 pm

I think you are applying the wrong mental model to Amazon’s publishing efforts. They don’t need to make bestsellers. They need to keep their best customers happy. And that’s not the same thing. Amazon makes, more or less, the same amount of money selling 10,000 copies each of 100 different titles as they do selling 1,000,000 copies of 1 title. The difference is that most of the million customers who buy that 1 title are customers who don’t buy very much stuff from Amazon. Whereas those 100 titles will be bought by people who buy tons of stuff from Amazon.

Amazon isn’t playing the same game as a legacy publisher. It’s a mistake to judge them by the legacy rules.

flyingtoastr December 16, 2013 um 4:30 pm

You’re confusing Amazon’s shiny new publishing arm with their self publishing system. Amazon spent northwards of a million dollars to get the rights to Tim Ferris' book, and somewhere near that for James Franco. Both bombed. Amazon is not getting that advance back. This isn’t like KDP where they just get a cut of the sales – they had to foot the editing, marketing, and publishing costs – along with said massive advances – that normally are handled by publishers, and it looks like they’re not seeing much return on the investment.

The far more worrying thing is that Ferris is an incredibly successful author, and even his brand power couldn’t overcome the issues Amazon is having. 4 Hour Work Week and 4 Hour Body both topped nonfiction bestseller lists. 4 Hour Chef (the Amazon book)? Not even a blip.

Amazon shot themselves in the foot. Not only have they alienated the companies that supply them with their main product (publishers), they successfully united pretty much every B&M retailer against them. What other company is so reviled that they can successfully get Wal Mart, Target, Costco, B&N, and pretty much every independent bookstore to all get together and boycott your product?

And Ferris even said that he’s most likely going to go back to a "legacy" publisher for his next book. Womp womp.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 4:45 pm

And as a result of the outside resistance Amazon’s titles need to have greater success inside of Amazon in order to sell a comparable number of copies. That means that Amazon really could have used more than just a single best-seller.

William Ockham December 16, 2013 um 4:54 pm

I’m not confusing anything. You’re confusing two failed experiments with the whole of Amazon Publishing. I agree that those didn’t work, but talk to a few 47North authors. That’s where the action is.

flyingtoastr December 17, 2013 um 12:02 am

You’re still missing the point.

Amazon stormed in last autumn and made the bold statement that they were going to completely upend the publishing world and do it in a big way. They plunked down millions of dollars to sign some big authors who had some major brands behind them (Ferris and Franco, for example). They were going to drive everyone out of business with their vertical integration. There was nothing that could stop them.

And it flopped. Ferris' first book (4 Hour Work Week), has sold more than 1.35 million copies. He is not a small pea. Yet his new Amazon book couldn’t even crack the NYT bestsellers, even with the prime advertising space on their home page they devoted to it. It was an incredibly high profile failure, because of how much hype Amazon put behind their platform.

And you’re right, he’s not the only author on Amazon’s payroll. But such a massive public failure undermines their entire enterprise. Amazon came in blowing huge amounts of wind about how they planned to change publishing. But their big enterprise looks like a bust. And that’s important, not to the consumers, but to the authors and publishers.

For authors, it means Amazon’s marketing, declaring how their publishing house can offer even better sales numbers and profits than a traditional publisher, does’t hold up in practice. Authors will look at the very high profile flop of Ferris, an author with a well established brand, and think twice before signing a contract with Amazon over a traditional publisher. If Amazon wants big name authors on their imprints, they’re going to have to shell out those huge advances to convince authors that it’s worth giving up a huge chunk of their sales, which in turn forces them to rely even more on picking up bestsellers to make up the advances. It turned Amazon Publishing essentially from a potential rival to the Big Five to a vanity press.

And it was also a warning shot to the publishers. The B&M retailers all banded together (and, again, if you can get Target and Wal Mart to hate you enough to work together, you *know* you’ve pissed off the entire planet) and said "we’re not going to take this exclusive shit any more". I’ll bet you a huge sum of money this exact example came up in the S&S/B&N negotiations earlier this year. Amazon’s failure proves that the physical bookstores, whether they be B&N or an independent member of the ABA or a wholesaler like Costco, still matter a ton for sales, and that the publishers need them just as much as they need the publishers.

It changes the entire dynamic. And that’s what’s important here.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 5:05 pm

Or to put flyingtoastr’s argument in other words, those 100 titles you mention represent a cost that is 100 times higher than for a single title (100 cover design fees, 100 editing fees, 100 proofreading fees, etc). Amazon might earn the same amount on a million titles sold, but their costs were still 100 times higher.

fjtorres December 16, 2013 um 5:16 pm

Uh, do you *know* Amazon costs are the same as the BPHs?
Especially considering how much of BPH costs are overhead?

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 5:26 pm

Given how publishing has done their best to outsource jobs like editing and proofreading and then pare the prices to the bone, I would bet there are a number of areas where Amazon has the same cost.

fjtorres December 16, 2013 um 8:34 pm

No doubt.
But the overhead is where I would expect a big difference.

William Ockham December 16, 2013 um 5:55 pm

Oh really? You are telling me that the advances on those titles are 100 times the advance on the bestseller. That is the most ridiculous claim I’ve heard today.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 6:07 pm

Did I write the word advances in my comment?

No I did not, making this a straw man argument. So you cannot throw it back at me.

William Ockham December 16, 2013 um 10:30 pm

You said the cost were 100 times higher for 100 titles. So, if your not including the advance, what is your point? Even if you are correct about the the book production costs are 100 times higher, those costs are so trivial that my point still stands. Amazon makes the same amount, more or less, either way.

Nate Hoffelder December 16, 2013 um 11:04 pm

You’re right; that does imply advances 100 times higher. My error there.

But I still think your counterpoint about bestseller advances is questionable. In your original comment you didn’t specify the size of the advance, so it’s not reasonable to switch from an advance to a bestseller advance. You were arguing a general case and I turned it around on you.

The point you missed, and which I used against you, was that Amazon has to make capital investment in their publishing business in ways that they don’t with KDP or ebooks. Those just require the platform, not content acquisition costs. Those extra costs aren’t zero, so it would help if Amazon had a few more best sellers to cover the cost.

Richard Adin December 17, 2013 um 5:03 am

Even with these failures and with Amazon continuing not to make more than a nominal profit, its stock moves upward. In contrast, stock at its competitors stagnates or moves downward. Bezos has found a winning formula in failure and thus I doubt it matters one whit to Amazon whether the publishing unit is master of the best seller lists or not.

Amazon’s publishing is a failure when measured against traditional measures of success and failure. But Amazon has introduced a new paradigm and one that is only applicable to Amazon — failure breeds success where it counts, in the stock price. None of the traditional publishers and none of the B&M’s are able to make the same claim.

As for Amazon’s book production costs, they are less than what traditional publishers incur. Traditional publishers, while pushing down pricing and forsaking quality editing for many titles, still pays more than Amazon is willing to pay, especially for those books that the traditional publishers think have a good shot at decent sales and profits. Amazon has a formula for editing costs that is applied to everything and everyone, and it follows the Wal-Mart manufacturing model.

fjtorres December 17, 2013 um 7:40 am

Jeff Bezos is probably the only person that knows what he expects out of Amazon Publishing.
But it is doubtful he expects it to become a BPH able to go toe-to-toe with the big boys any time soon.
Look at the number and types of books they publish, look at their catalog…
They’re a startup publishing company putting out a few dozen titles a year, with a few hundred titles to their name. Is it reasonable to expect their results to compare to decades-old companies putting out thousands of titles, many from long-established name brand authors. How many Kings or Robertses does AP serve?
Any Grishams or Pattersons?
None, right?
Because they’re a startup that’s been around only a few years.
Their stock in trade is relative newcomers and mid-listers.
Kirshbaum’s bestseller dreams aside–and he is, as they say "no longer with the company"–AP’s investment has gone to build the framework for a *future* BPH, with dozens of placeholder imprints each putting out a bare handful of titles a year.

So, how’s about a simple benchmark: what is AP’s ratio of bestsellers per new title this past year? And how does it compare to the same ratio for the BPHs? To IndiePub, Inc?

It is truly a wonderful thing to see Indies grab a major portion of the bestseller list.
Hats off, hip-hip-hooray, etc. Long may they endure.
But how many published titles did it take to get there?

And, seriously, how much does it matter?
The Indies aren’t playing the "bestseller or die" game like the BPHs.
The game there is more like "let the story find its audience" and if it sells big, so much the better. But sales volume isn’t the only yardstick in this new era of publishing, as Hugh Howey among others keeps reminding us. A book doesn’t have to be a bestseller to be a success.

As to the multimillion investment Amazon has made in AP… What of it? Just because we don’t see an immediate return doesn’t mean there won’t be one. How long did it tske for their investments in Mobipocket and Lab126 to even start paying off? Have we seen a visible payoff from the billions spent on warehouses? How about their grocery delivery business; five years old and only now starting to spread beyond Seattle?

Everybody talks about how Bezos plays along game… and promptly forgets what it means, day to day. Everybody talks about how big Amazon is… and fails to appreciate that for a company moving tens of billions in merchandise a year a few million here and there is noise.

Above all, it can’t be said often enough: Bezos is not afraid of failure.
As Lois Bujold said of one of her characters: "He’s not running a get-rich-quick scheme, he’s running a get-rich-BIG scheme."

And getting rich big out of retail and services is neither easy nor fast. Give it time before proclaiming AP a failure.

flyingtoastr December 17, 2013 um 7:55 am

Except for the fact that Bezos specifically said that Amazon Publishing was going to compete head on with the big 5 when they launched last year. They were going to "change publishing" and all that.

It totally was their express goal to be a large competitive bestseller driven publishing house. They failed. They can certainly retool themselves to be a small vanity press, but they lost their chance to make a big impact because authors aren’t going to leap on board now for fear of massively lost sales.

William Ockham December 17, 2013 um 4:02 pm

I think part of the problem here is that I was responding to Nate’s initial phrasing of " Amazon’s publishing efforts had fizzled" while other folks are talking about Amazon Publishing, the NYC imprint. I agree that the NYC imprint hasn’t done well and probably won’t as long as B&N and other stores refusing stock any of Amazon’s imprints. My point is that focusing on the imprint is missing the bigger picture.

flyingtoastr, on the other hand, appears to come from some alternate universe where the propaganda of legacy publishing is reality.

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