Amazon's Kirshbaum move could reduce competition—BEA

Responses to Amazon.com's hire of Laurence Kirshbaum as publisher have varied from worried to fear of a "dampening" effect on competition among delegates at the BEA conference.

Word that started to spread Sunday night was confirmed first thing Monday morning with the announcement that Kirshbaum, former TimeWarner c.e.o.-turned-agent, would be heading up Amazon's publishing operation in New York.

Everybody knew that an Amazon push into frontlist publishing was coming: the move into original genre books and the cooperation with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was not enough to satisfy the giant's ever-hungry maw. Highly-placed executives from New York houses have been migrating to Amazon for a while, and the company ratcheted up expectations after circulating a recruiting letter for various personnel a few weeks back. The question was only when.

The news spread swiftly around the Javits Center even though the exhibition floor was not yet open, the first day of BEA being devoted to conference sessions. For Kirshbaum, it seemed a natural: as Workman's Bob Miller put it, "Larry missed running the whole show. Being an agent just wasn't the same."

Independent booksellers took the news in their stride: "it didn't surprise" outgoing ABA president Michael Tucker, whose store is in San Francisco. Another major indie bookseller, Elliott Bay's Rick Simonsen (on Amazon's home turf of Seattle), saw it being "of more concern to publishers than to booksellers at this point. Remember, most booksellers have to deal with B&N's Sterling [publishing subsidiary] already. And Amazon will now get trapped in the real world!"

The proprietor of a store much closer to New York, who preferred to talk on background, said that given the state of Borders, and the likely difficulties Amazon may encounter with B&N, indies might actually get higher discounts on the books Amazon publishes since they will need a bricks and mortar storefront.

What people on the publishing side are feeling—again, off the record for the most part—is worried. Publishers, already feeling squeezed, have been feeling even more so since Monday morning.

Agent Richard Curtis, who doubles as proprietor of E-Reads, one of the earliest e-publishing and POD reprinters of out-of-print books, said: "I think Larry is an iconic branded figure in the American book business and will be the perfect person to bring the old and new worlds of publishing together.

"However, because of Amazon's dominant retail position, their wealth and leverage could have a dampening effect on competition. B&N's publishing has had that effect: as an agent, I'll call a publisher and pitch a non-fiction project. ‘We'd love to do it,' they'll tell me, and then add, ‘but we know Sterling will undercut on price for the same kind of book."

And Amazon clearly intends to publish far beyond the Sterling model; they would not have brought Kirshbaum on board if they were not looking to go for some of the biggest fish in the frontlist fiction and non-fiction ponds.

Kirshbaum himself of course had been one of the earliest digital enthusiasts, before the world was ready for digital: at TimeWarner, he had started iPublish, a short-lived and very costly (reportedly the company lost some hefty millions) attempt at harnessing the future.

Another question is the role HMH may play. A few years ago, the company had a well-publicised liquidity crisis. It is unclear how HMH stands in terms of liquidity today, but a couple of observers wondered how the Kirshbaum hire and HMH connection will fit together in future.

Perhaps the Amazon news was not far from the minds of the publishing executives who participated in an IDPF roundtable. One attendee posed the following question from the floor: "Of the big five publishers [the questioner forgot there are actually six], how many will be around four years from now?"

Sourcebooks' Dominique Raccah predicted, "We will lose 50% of publishers." For Bloomsbury's Evan Schnittman, they are already "all just part of each other".