Under the dome

As book fairs go, few could complain about London 2016. The show had all the hallmarks of a successful potboiler: sun, deals and parties. If publishing is dead* it’s going down in style. As ably recorded in The Bookseller’s show Dailies the five-day event was as busy as it was long, a testament to publishing’s twin pillars: optimism and indefatigability.

As ever, what was not going on at the fair—at least visibly—was equally as interesting as what happened at Olympia. As we report, Amazon held a series of meetings in the week of the show aimed at convincing publishers and agents of the merits of its e-book subscription service Kindle Unlimited (KU). The presentations, scheduled by head of Kindle content David Naggar and pitched as an“all hands”meeting with editors, marketeers and publicists, began on Wednesday and concluded with the agents’ session from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday (proving that Amazon may have a sense of humour after all).

No one I know is convinced by subscription (as modelled by KU, Scribd or Oyster), and none are more vehemently opposed to it than the bigger publishers and agents (Caroline Michel perhaps being the exception). There are a host of reasons why both parties are holding their positions on this, but the distillation is that publishers tend to rally against anything that might increase Amazon’s dominance; while agents are skittish about anything that might harm author income.

Amazon’s argument is not helped by the model it has built for self-published writers whose books currently dominate KU—an uncertain amount of pay from an unaudited pot of monies that may or may not relate to actual subscriber income—and how it has allowed the service to be gamed.

That said, I don’t blame Amazon for giving it a go, and the softly-softly approach used during LBF is to be welcomed. One template for a successful digital content store is to entice consumers in with free/cheap content but then upsell the good/new stuff: but to do that Amazon needs publishers. And in truth the Kindle store is creaking—I have seen three pieces from self-published writers recently bemoaning the amount of new content being published via Kindle Direct Publishing, while many more authors are concerned about the way

Amazon is tracking reads and hence allocating payments. More fundamentally, if Amazon is to justify the cost of its new £270 Kindle, it cannot afford to ignore the reader experience.

Amazon is not the only institution—it is 20 years old after all—struggling with this new world; LBF’s organiser Reed found itself under fire for the position of Author HQ (at the back of the West Hall) while the International Publishers Association continues to bristle with discontent over China’s membership. If the deals are the noise of the fair, then these stories are surely the signal.

*Publishing is not dead

Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.