January 25, 2012

Amazon finds a beard to sell books from its publishing unit


Amazon‘s seemingly inexorable march to a vertical monopoly undreamed of even by Carnegie and Fisk took another deeply perverse twist yesterday when the company revealed how its New York book-publishing arm — which sometime in the night was apparently given the mellifluous name, “Amazon Publishing’s East Coast Group” — will get around the fact that numerous booksellers have decalred they won’t buy books from Amazon sales reps: It’s going to get the sales reps for a legitimate publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to front for them — under a pseudonym.

That’s right. According to a report from Publishers Weekly, HMH will form a new imprint called New Harvest to act as a front for Amazon’s books — New Harvest will only include books from Amazon Publishing and “the New Harvest imprint will appear on the spine of the book,” says PW.

Of course, people are only so stupid, and as the PW report goes on to observe this doesn’t necessarily seem like something guaranteed to work: “Bookstores have generally been reluctant to carry Amazon titles and it wasn’t clear at press time if the deal with HMH will win them over. Barnes & Noble has said it won’t carry any Amazon print titles unless it also has the ability to sell the e-book edition as well.”

According to a report on Paid Content by Laura Hazard Owen, however, the deal means “Barnes & Noble will not get a penny from the e-book sales of Amazon Publishing titles.” How so?

Since Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will hold the print rights to the East Coast titles—and Amazon’s official announcement clearly calls this a “print licensing agreement”—it should be able to get them into Barnes & Noble without Amazon and B&N having to strike any new agreement (though Barnes & Noble can still decline to carry these titles, or any other titles from any other publisher). And Amazon will continue to sell its e-books exclusively through Amazon.com, keeping all its digital sales for itself.

If it works, it’s a sweet deal, no? As Owen continues, “This workaround appears to solve Amazon’s Barnes & Noble problem while simultaneously maximizing Amazon’s company’s e-book revenue and allowing it to sidestep the costs of training its own sales reps and sending them into bookstores around the country.”

But of course, this doesn’t really appear to make much sense — Owen seems to be saying that because HMH won’t own the digital rights, B&N won’t stick to their dictum that they won’t sell books only offered to them in one format. That is, that B&N won’t know a beard when they see one.

As I say, people are only so stupid, and Barnes & Noble has always struck me as something other than stupid.

Meanwhile, what to make of the fact that a historic publisher such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — a company whose roots go back to publishing Emerson and Hawthorne, Twain and even Harriet Beecher Stowe — is willing to act as a front for Amazon? Well, in the days following Nancy Pearl‘s sell-out, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Amazon earlier paid enough for one of the great elders of the conglomerate publishing trade, Larry Kirshbaum, to come out of retirement to pose as a dynamic innovator — a.k.a. another front — for the “East Coast Group.”

But as one of the few clear sentences in Owen’s Paid Content report puts it, the announcement of HMH’s ridiculous pseudononymous effort “is unlikely to generate Amazon any goodwill from wary publishers and booksellers.” One has to think that’s going to wash over onto Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as well.

Booksellers, what say you?


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.