Friday, 30 July 2010

Publishers are living in interesting times...

Yesterday, Amazon announced its new Kindle e-reader models - available in the UK from August 27th - and the launch of a UK Kindle Store. "Our vision," says Jeff Bezos (sounding not unlike Google), "is to have every book ever written, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds."

Which sounds great (to a customer), until you start thinking about DRM, proprietary formats, monopolies and the like. Just as uber-literary-agent Andrew Wylie's threat to get all his clients' e-books published directly via Amazon (if publishers don't start paying better e-book royalties) sounds great until you start thinking about... etc.

Because when you first read that story, that is what you tend to think (or I did): "Actually, why don't authors just publish their e-books direct to Amazon?"

And then of course you remember (or I did) Cory Doctorow blogging about the true practicalities and logistics of self-publishing. And that those album release experiments by Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, etc. succeeded in large part because they already had their audiences. And indeed that Andrew Wylie can so easily sell Odyssey Editions to Amazon because the e-editions in question are by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike.

As Wylie has more or less admitted, the deal with Amazon is basically a clever short-term money-spinner designed to make a wider point and perhaps force publishers' hands a little - or at the very least force them to think a bit more urgently about the future. Which is precisely what both these stories should do: because they raise very interesting questions about the shape of the book market in the years to come, and about publishers' roles therein.

If the e-book market does in fact come to outstrip the physical book market, as Kindle vice president Steve Kessel is predicting (Amazon's e-books are already outstripping its hardback sales); if Andrew Wylie's experiment with Amazon proves as profitable as might be expected; where exactly will that leave traditional publishing houses?

Perhaps big literary agencies will be tomorrow's big publishers? Perhaps Amazon will? And Apple? (At least for established authors.)

But perhaps traditional publishing houses will then become primarily breeding grounds for new talent - and begin to rise again? And, perhaps just as likely, according to some, the more nimble and adaptable of today's small presses will be the publishers to adapt themselves most sucessfully to the new environment?

In any case, for publishers these are definitely interesting times: whether that proves a blessing or a curse is up to them.

Incidentally, for one of the most even-handed and comprehensive analyses of the Wylie/Amazon deal: head over to Open Letter Books' ever-excellent Three Percent blog.

And for the funniest coverage of the Wylie/Random House fallout: see Twitter (via the two preceding links).

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