By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries.
Hannah Howard describes herself as a “writer, author, editor & cheese maven.” From her perspective, Amazon, like herself as a young writer, is new, bold and opening new opportunities for writers, readers and the publishing industry.
“As a writer,“ she explains, “my biggest hope/goal is for people to read my work, and Amazon was poised to enable that. As a first-time author, I believed in my book and my writing, but I knew I wasn’t famous and didn’t have a huge platform. Amazon does! They’re incredibly good at selling books (in addition to publishing them), which is a huge benefit.”
Both a writer and food expert, Howard spent her formative years in New York eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on hot lines, and flipping giant wheels of cheese in Manhattan institutions such as Picholine and Fairway Market while in college working toward her BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. In addition to her books, she has also been published in New York , Salon, and SELF.
Amazon may not have been her first choice, however, she believes it was the best choice for her – and for many others. “I ended up with Amazon Publishing because my agent pitched to many ‘traditional’ publishers and we received many lovely rejections…but rejections nonetheless. Little A, Amazon’s literary imprint, was enthusiastic about publishing my book. I was a first-time author and thrilled to have a book deal! My literary agent had never worked with APub before, but one of her fellow agents had, and we had a meeting with the agent to better understand the lay of the land, which was very helpful.”
PUBLISHERS AS GATEKEEPERS
In 1975, long before the technological revolutions of the late 20th century, Lewis Coser noted in an article in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, that “publishers stand at a crucial crossroads in the process of production and distribution of knowledge in any society. They are in a position to decide what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ of the marketplace of ideas. In the United States, the nature of the publishing industry has much to do with what kinds of materials are published. Decentralization of firms,” he continued, “a very unpredictable market and the peculiar internal organization of the industry itself all affect the situation…. is no doubt one of the most complicated of enterprises, and its key role in the shaping and distributing knowledge and culture.”
As noted in a blog posting at Lulucom: “Editors and publishers agree that the odds of being published are only 1-2%. That is, they only accept, and publish, one or two out of every hundred manuscripts they receive.” That is a very small percentage of all of the potential voices seeking an audience.
“I don’t know if I’m qualified to speak about the publishing industry at large,” Howard notes. “In the experience of myself and the writers I know, we all have had agents (Amazon Publishing doesn’t accept unagented manuscripts/proposals). It’s absolutely an old school model, but my agent has really helped me navigate the publishing process and advocate for me and my work.”
“I’ve had some naysayers pop up along the way,” Howard agrees. “One of my MFA professors grilled me on the supposed evils on Amazon during my graduating lecture, in front of the whole school community. My favorite childhood indie bookstore refused to host me for a reading/event because they are philosophically opposed to Amazon. But the vast majority of my experience has been overwhelmingly positive (and I’ve had events at many indie bookstores!)”
“Amazon is amazing at reaching readers. My first memoir Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen has more than a thousand reviews, so I know people are reading my book,” Howard explains. “My book wasn’t on the New York Times bestseller list, but it was an Amazon bestseller which felt (and was) meaningful. I didn’t see my book on the shelf at many bookstores, but I did see it in some bookstores (including the Amazon bookstores in NYC). I certainly feel my voice was considered at every step of the process.”
AMAZON – NOT A ‘BETTER CHOICE’ BUT ‘ANOTHER CHOICE’
Journalist Susan Orlean is the New York Times bestselling author of The Library Book which was selected as a New York Times Book of the Year in 2018 and a Reese Witherspoon – Hello Sunshine Book Club Pick.
The book was written as her homage to libraries: “I started taking my own son to the library, and I was reminded instantly and vividly of how much libraries had meant to me, how formative they were to my love of reading and writing, and how much they mean to us as a culture. The next thing I knew, I was investigating the largest library fire in the history of the United States. The life and times and near-death experience of the Los Angeles Public Library was a story that felt urgent to tell, and gave me a chance to pay tribute to these marvelous places that have been such an essential part of my life.”
Her 1998 book The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession was based on her research into the 1994 arrest in Florida of horticulturist John Laroche and a group of Seminoles for poaching rare orchids in a Florida State Preserve. The book received excellent reviews as well as inspiring the Oscar-winning film Adaptation.
“I don’t give myself credit for being much of a soothsayer,” Orleans explains, “but I do think we are heading toward a future where more and more writers work independently and leapfrog some of the more traditional gatekeepers in publishing. I don’t see an end to that more traditional model but I do think there will be a parallel world of independent publishing.”
“I don’t see Amazon as a ‘better choice’ than traditional publishing,” Orlean explains, “I see it as another choice! While much of publishing has contracted and shrunk in the last decade, it’s also sprouted some new opportunities, such as Amazon, for publishing, and I’m interested in exploring all of them. Amazon approached me, and suggested publishing at a length and tone that I wasn’t publishing elsewhere, and it seemed exciting for me to explore that. I haven’t had any negative response to that decision. I’m sure there are new readers seeing my work, since it’s a different reader ecosystem, and that’s very appealing to me.”
For Orlean, the APub process was a major advantage. “I was delighted by how much I was included in the publishing process – from the editing to the cover to the title and the release date. I felt very involved with all the decisions, which I appreciated very much.”
“I was delighted by how much I was included in the publishing process,” she continues. “From the editing to the cover to the title and the release date. I felt very involved with all the decisions, which I appreciated very much.”
“I don’t see a future in which traditional publishing has no traction,” Orleans believes. “I think it will continue to be the dominant form of getting books out into the world. But, like so much in our current age, things are changing and platforms are multiplying and consumers are open to new ways of experiencing literature (and film and television). I see a rich future where all of these possibilities exist, and readers have more options than ever.”
MIKYLA BRUDER STEPS IN AS APUB’S NEW PUBLISHER
After ten years leading APub, Jeff Belle left the company earlier this year. In his place is Mikyla Bruder, a ten-year veteran at APub who described the transition in a June Publishers Weekly article as “an easy transition.” With many years working in the publishing industry, and ten years at Amazon, she describes her goal in the article as “helping Amazon Publishing, which she described as a midsize publisher, take the next steps forward in its evolution while remaining ‘an author-centric publishing house’.”
As an Asian American, she stressed her interest in expanding the diversity of writers and topics, opening new doors for authors as well as readers. As Jim Milliot noted in this article on Bruder: “Though book publishing has been slow to diversify, Bruder feels fortunate to be in the industry at this time, as there appears to be opportunity to effect real change. She said she’s working with people who are passionate about addressing the questions involving the lack of industry diversity. And while there’s no simple answer to the question of how to improve things, she noted, bringing in diverse talent in the form of new staff and new authors is critical to success.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR THE PRINTED PAGE
Pete McCarthy and Jess Johns of Ingram Content Group noted key book industry trends in a March blog. Quoting from their research summary:
- “Book-related searches on Amazon and Google are up over 50% in the last 12 months.”
- “The method of book discovery and the places books are discovered. Some of these methods are not surprising like “recommendation from a friend”, but there are new places of discovery such as “browsing online libraries” (Overdrive, Libby, Hoopla, etc.) and ”browsing online bookstores” that shows the shifting preference to online discovery.”
- “2020 was a growth year for book sales, showing unit sales across the industry have never been higher. In fact, it was the largest year we’ve seen in terms of units sold in the last 15 years! At the moment, it feels like this is going to continue.”
- “In any search traffic data we observe leading to websites, we’re seeing channel and model diversity likely opening up new markets. The market is more varied than it’s ever been before in terms of channels and how people are finding, consuming and buying books.”
- “Data from NPD BookScan also shows backlist sales are up as a percentage of overall sales – going from 63% of overall sales to 67% in terms of units, 2019 versus 2020. We can attribute this to the rise of online shopping, as when shopping online for books there’s no front of store, no front table, and no end caps or books in the windows. All the ways of traditionally marketing frontlist titles in stores are no longer an influence on purchasing decisions.”
BOOK PUBLISHING INDUSTRY’S STRONG FUTURE
In examining the book publishing industry from 2016 to 2021, IBIS found evidence that: “the book publishing industry has experienced consistent declines over the five years to 2021 as competition from large online companies continues to increase. However, some segments, such as the education and scholarly markets, have experienced growth. This healthy growth can partially be attributed to an increase in college enrollment and growth in public funding for education. Conversely, the industry’s trade market has decreased as brick-and-mortar retail streams continue to decline. At the beginning of the period, e-books experienced a surge in demand due to lower prices and convenience.”
COVID has been a major disruptor for the industry. As a recent report in Publishing Research Quarterly noted: “COVID is unquestionably in control of the U.S. and world economy. Until the spread of the virus is halted or significantly diminished for a sustained period it will be impossible for anyone to offer a reliable economic forecast, short-term or longer-term.”
The report went on to question the long-term impact on key markets: “Despite much positive news around publisher net sales, the U.S. Census data show that bookstore sales declined 28.8% in October 2020 vs. 2019 and 31% YTD.”
The report noted that “Amazon sales have exploded during the COVID crisis. In the three months ending September 30, Amazon’s net sales increased by 37% over 2019 (Amazon never breaks out book sales revenue separately)….This had a negative short-term impact on book publishers, but seems to be no longer a significant business issue impacting overall book sales. It did, however, further highlight Amazon’s central position in the bookselling ecosystem.”
However, the report predicts a solid future for publishing: “COVID-19′s impact on publishing sales and the supply chain has been less than many feared it would be. Whatever doom and gloom surround the publishing industry in the midst of the COVID crisis, sales cannot be singled out for scorn. Trade sales in 2020 were almost uniformly ahead of 2019, and in several categories unit sales were up over 20% through mid-December. With sales strong, there have been no major bankruptcies. Supply chain issues, which early in the pandemic appeared dire, have for the most part resolved themselves. It’s not perfect, but things are working—books are being printed, distributed and purchased.”
As American historian Barbara Tuchman has noted, “books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.” COVID may have been a significant pause in the daily lives of our global population; however, clearly many have turned to the comfort of a good book (in whatever format) to fill the space of time. And in doing so, the publishing industry remains strong and growing, bringing in new voices, new visions and new publishing options to an ever-eager audience across the globe.