March 5, 2012

Indie publisher James Atlas is indie no longer, or, Now Nancy Pearl has a friend!

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Biographer and editor James Atlas, who has acquired books for HarperCollins, Penguin, and WW Norton and later published an independent list at Atlas & Co., has teamed up with Amazon Publishing to publish a new series, Amazon Lives, expected to launch in June 2013.

Atlas established publishing credentials by encouraging big-name writes (David Foster Wallace, Christopher Hitchens, Francine Prose, and Karen Armstrong, among many others) to write short biographies for his list, first as part of the “Penguin Lives” series and later with other houses.

According to a Publishers Weekly report, Atlas & Co. will stop releasing new titles; Norton, which distributed the company’s indie list, will continue to offer the company’s blacklist. According to a fuller Times account by Julie Bosman, Atlas “has not taken an office at Amazon, and said he is not considered an employee of the company.”

As a result, some have downplayed the announcement (Publishers Marketplace emphasized that Atlas “isn’t working for Amazon”), but Atlas’ move is significant nonetheless: it’s another well-know publishing figure to partner with Amazon, and yet another indie player to be lured to the company. (He follows Nancy Pearl, known for years as a champion of libraries and independent bookstores, and Ed Park, formerly of The Believer).

Atlas told the Times “he was relieved to leave the business side behind”—which is not a surprise. While his independent company has gotten good reviews for its titles, it has not had a breakout success, and in 2008 it publicly admitted financial problems. By Atlas’ own account, he hasn’t always excelled at business.

But the move to Amazon is out of step with the mission Atlas proclaimed when he founded Atlas & Co with “the conviction that a publisher with a strong identity and a clear mandate would make an enduring contribution to the marketplace of books.”

Asked by the Times if he felt he had gone over to the dark side:

“I don’t feel too dark myself — I feel very light and unburdened,” Mr. Atlas said. “They’re going to accomplish what is getting harder and harder to accomplish, and that is effective marketing and distribution. I think they’re going to be very aggressive about promoting them. In this climate with retail bookstores threatened, just to get your books out there has been frustrating. I know that Amazon itself has very benign intentions here.

“Effective” distribution, “very aggressive” promotions, and certainty of his new employers’ “benign intentions”: all kind ways to describe a company Atlas has every reason to know behaves badly in the “marketplace of books.”

Why not just say: “I did it for the money.”

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.

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