May 24, 2011

Amazon gets Kirshbaum to lead attack on publishers


Larry Kirshbaum

Let’s call it the bombshell everyone should have seen coming: the announcement that Amazon, after months of starting up genre publishing imprints, was going after mainstream publishing in a big way, by launching a major, general-interest trade publishing house. Beyond the question of why this isn’t illegal — isn’t fighting vertical monopolies the very reason we have anti-trust laws? — the only real question was which publishing industry alter cocker they would get to legitimize the effort by selling out his former colleagues under the delusion that he was, er, reinvigorating the industry with fresh new ideas.

Answer: Larry Kirshbaum, 67, the former head of Time Warner (now Hachette), according to a New York Times report by Julie Bosman. According to Bosman, Amazon broke the news not in a press release but in an email sent to agents. (A Wall Street Journal report says he’ll start in early July.)

A Crain‘s report notes that Amazon has been looking for someone to head the effort for months, and “High on its wish list was someone with connections to bestselling authors that the new imprint could effectively poach, helping to jumpstart its business and make books from the company a must-have even for brick-and-mortar players that consider Amazon their archrival.”

Calling the move “a full-on assault of publishers across many of their publishing markets,” Michael Wolf observes in a column for GigaOm that “Amazon has essentially become a book industry ‘in a box’, having completed the vertical integration of the book industry by launching their own imprints.” And with the news about Kirshbaum, he says, “that box has just gotten a whole lot bigger.”

While Wolf gets a couple of things wrong in his report — there already is a Big Six, for example; Amazon would make it a Big Seven — he does raise an interesting question: What about those “archrivals”? How will indie booksellers — many of whom “have gone so far as to organize a boycott of authors who go with Amazon’s imprints” — and Barnes & Noble react to the opportunity to sell books that say Amazon on the spine?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives