First Amazon Took Down Booksellers…Are Publishers Next?

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It’s not that Amazon set out to destroy small book stores. They just offered a better option for a large number of people. Now, Amazon is increasingly offering small features here and there that taken together may start to make a traditional publisher a lot less necessary for authors.

No one is more shocked by that sentence than I am. While I’ve jumped firmly from old-media to new-media when it comes to articles and videos, I’ve remained a big believer that self-publishing via eBook isn’t yet a viable option for most authors, assuming you want a lot of people to read your book. It’s just not personally satisfying either. A book is something I spend years of my life writing– usually for a comparatively small amount of money — and I want to hold it once all the pain is over. I want it to sit on my coffee table.  I want it reviewed in the New York Times. And I want to walk in a book store and see it on the shelf. In most cases, only a traditional publisher can do that for me.

Don’t get me wrong–  I’m sure I will sell more eBooks than physical books this year and over my lifetime. But without the vetting, marketing, distribution and clout of a major publisher, I doubt I’d sell many of either. The first question anyone asks an author is, “Who’s publishing you?” Much like how the WashingtonPost.com relies on the brand and legacy of the Washington Post, unless you are a huge name, you need the anchor of a “real book” for your eBook to do well and be taken seriously. That’s just reality.

But it won’t always be reality, and Amazon has quietly been doing small things on Author Central to help authors take more control. My second book comes out later this month, so I’ve been taking a close look at the services Amazon offers to authors. It’s changed dramatically since my last book was published in 2008.

Amazon recently integrated with Facebook to allow people with Amazon accounts to “like” books. This may seem laughably obvious or passe, but with so much inventory on Amazon, having a high vanity number like “likes” could actually help move sales. As is, the number of reviews makes a huge difference in purchase conversion. Likes is a far easier way to get people to interact with a title and spread it around the Web.

In addition, Amazon’s author pages have the basic social networking features made super easy. For instance you can import your existing blog via RSS and simply click thumbnails of books with your name to select the titles you’ve actually written. It uses your consumer Amazon account to vet that you are really who you say you are, and within minutes, all of the data, reviews and sales figures of your books are imported into your account.

The sales info was really the stunner. The publishing industry relies on something called BookScan to determine sales and Amazon gives each author all of their BookScan data, across editions and titles. In other words, you aren’t just seeing what was sold on Amazon– you are seeing what you sold anywhere in the US. And an impressive dashboard helps you break it down by geography and sales channel. It also has a chart showing Amazon rank over time. With my last book, I kept hitting refresh to see how low it could go. Now I know, my to-be-released-book’s lowest point was on January 3. I have no idea what happened to drive pre-sales on January 3, but I can easily find out and do more of that, and track how it goes.

This all may seem trivial, but for authors it’s as big of a revolution as being able to follow a stock portfolio in real time, not waiting for the Wall Street Journal’s finance section or your financial planner’s quarterly letter. When I told fellow-author Paul Carr, he actually didn’t believe me until I showed him the dashboard. Authors can experiment with search campaigns, targeted publicity and appearances and see in real time, how it affects sales– without a middle man.

It’s funny: Marc Benioff always talked about how he took the inspiration of the look and feel of Salesforce.com from Amazon. Now the ever-wily Amazon has done him one better, giving authors their own Salesforce.com-like sales dashboard.

Of course, the single most revolutionary thing Amazon has done for authors– aside from existing in the first place and providing a continuing market for books that aren’t bestsellers– is the Kindle store. It represented the first time in the offline or online world that impulse purchasing of books was enabled, changing everything, particularly when that Kindle– or iBook– store is on your phone. An author no longer has to rely on a chance conversation about a new book at a cocktail party staying in the forefront of your mind long enough to get to a bookstore, find what you want and order it. You can pull out your phone and with one click, you’ve got it. And as Amazon expands the Kindle to the Web, Apple devices and elsewhere, that insta-purchase effect is even broader. Of course, with Borders on the ropes, there’s one less big vendor making anything Amazon-related all the  more important.

None of this is shockingly newsworthy on its own, but it shows that Amazon intuitively get the road blocks to book consumption and creation and are working on solving them bit-by-bit. (It almost makes up for the company’s bone-headed no-page-number strategy on the Kindle.)

Smart publishers–like mine– will push authors to use these tools to the fullest extent. (Memo to Wiley: YES, I am working on that author video…) But considering there are idiot publishers who are threatened by the Kindle, no doubt some will panic more as Amazon continues to decode the business-side of being an author for anyone who just wants people to read what they write.

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