April 18, 2012
The “Amazon Problem” comes to the LBF
by Dennis Johnson
Greetings from London, where I’m at the London Book Fair meeting with publishers from around the world — who all want to speak about one thing: what they call the “Amazon Problem” (known in the U.S. as the “$9.99 Problem”), and what we can do about it. Thus, I must insist that those of you who read this do not tell the Department of Justice about it, or by law the thousands of publishers in attendance from around the world will be subject to prosecution in the U.S.
But even as you read the stories in the trades about what’s going on here — the announcement of really silly books drawing six- and seven-figure advances; the ground-breaking digital initiatives (read: further monetization efforts) of somebody or other at one of the big houses; the panels consisting of CEOs from the conglomerate publishers who still bend over backwards, especially now after the DOJ and EU clampdowns, to avoid saying in any direct way that the only issue that really matters now is fighting Amazon — despite whatever you hear, the real action in a convention like this is on the floor. I’ve yet to meet with a working rights director, editor, agent or publisher who’s gone to a panel, or had the time to even think about doing so. In fact, the only talk I’ve heard about the panels has been about how — totally insanely for a publishing convention — most of them seem to concern how to self-publish, as listed in the guide given to attendees, quoted verbatim here:
— “eBooks for the self-publishing author” (This event is repeated each day of the fair)
— “Serious self-publishing: From manuscript to market” (This event is also repeated each day of the fair)
— “Why self-publishing is not only the future but the present” (This event, too, is repeated each day of the fair)
— “Publishing today with Kindle Direct Publishing (Presented twice on Monday, once on Tuesday)
… and so on (including lots of thinly-veiled stuff obviously aimed at self-published or vanity press authors, such as “A helping hand with book design”).
It’s a rights fair, though, after all. And even as we enter the hall each day beneath the towering photo that is perhaps the most Photoshopped author portrait of all time, announcing the hilarious title of J.K. Rowling‘s forthcoming novel aimed at the same adults who enjoyed her Harry Potter books (clearly, no one had the balls to tell her the title was simply too apt for someone with a photo like that), the publishers — even the local ones — who have spent a wad to have their representatives here, know what it’s all about: holding thirty-minute meeting after thirty-minute meeting to tell each other about books that they think will work in some foreign market, in an exhausting but hopeful variant of speed-dating. So to me, the most interesting observation about this fair is that expensive meeting after expensive meeting opens with, or quickly breaks down to, a discussion of Amazon.
Often, it feels like the foreign publisher is saying to me: HELP ME, AMERICAN PERSON WHO HAS BEEN DEALING WITH THIS MYSTERIOUSLY VICIOUS COMPANY FOR A FEW YEARS ALREADY.
Sometimes, it feels like they are saying: YOU BETTER TELL ME HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS, YOU AMERICAN FUCKER WHO DID NOTHING ABOUT THIS BULLSHIT WHEN YOU HAD A CHANCE.
Today’s hot story, in any event, was about the massive number of people from Amazon stationed not at the company’s booth but quietly working the floor in a giant disinformation and recruitment effort — or, as some saw it, an intimidation campaign. One of Amazon’s main efforts here seems to be to break up the alliance of little indies known as the Faber Factory, an ebook production and distribution service run by one of the world’s truly great indie publishers, Faber & Faber. Amazon has apparently targeted the membership aggressively in an effort to lure them away to Amazon’s own, similar services. One little publisher told us of being asked to take a meeting with the company, and having a team of five Amazonians show up to ‘splain it to him.
Meanwhile other stories are circulating of Amazon blanketing the rights hall — scene of the most intense, one-on-one rights sales meetings — with an enormous amount of personnel to have meetings directly with publishers’ rights agents, in a campaign to get them to sell rights directly to Amazon, skipping other publishers.
It is, in other words, classic Amazon behavior: Rather than openly saying hey, we’re here with a good product we think is better than anything else out there, the company’s reps are sneaking about, trying to screw the competition rather than openly competing with them, and fucking with the little guys first. And by the time the trades get around to covering that — which they probably won’t — the fair will be over and the Faber Factory might be, too.
It’s left to the little indies to take a stand in a very private way, which is not an easy thing to do. Amazon is, no doubt, offering a better deal … for now. The thing is, in not only this visit but visits last month to the Leipzig Book Fair and the Paris Book Fair, Valerie and I have found the independent publishers of Europe in particular to be pretty smart about Amazon’s aims, and its tactics as well. They know all about what Amazon did to the alliance of little indies working with IPG, for example. Which is enough to make little old naive me wonder if those tactics might not fail here. The question is, however, once we don’t have the floor of a major international book fair as a place to trade information, will we hear about what happens next, and be able to sustain the growing sense of solidarity amongst publishers that’s palpable on the floor of the London Book Fair when it comes to the “Amazon Problem” — that sense of solidarity known in the U.S as “collusion”?
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.