Last week, Amazon New York publisher Larry Kirshbaum — the publishing industry veteran hired to oversee the launch of the NY imprint’s first list this fall — sat down for an interview with writer and former Random House editor Daniel Menaker at Stony Brook Southampton‘s “Writers Speak Wednesdays.” Here are the most interesting things he said.*
- “Despite the fact that Amazon is a very large company on the retail side, as you all know, we’re really a very small publisher. We’re a startup. We only have about 20, 25 people. It’s a very intimate group…It’s a small publisher. In a lot of ways, we are operating it as a small publishing house. We, of course, have this enormous publishing capability because of our websites and stores [not sure what he means by stores here -- bookstores?] and our database and all that which we are trying to use to innovative ends to publish well…I like to model it on the companies I worked for for many years, Warner and Little, Brown.”
- Dan Menaker chimes in: “I’ve been in Larry’s office and the offices and I’ll say I’ve never been in a more sort of welcomingly barebones, to-the-point office….I was really impressed with the atmosphere.”
- “These new reading devices like the Kindle — have to get a little plug in there — they are a reader’s dream because if I decide I want to read Dan Menaker’s book…you just download it and click, click, click and 30 seconds later, you’ve got it. And so although I do still love bookstores and spend a lot of time–I love the Hampton bookstores, in fact–it’s a real readers delight to be able to get a book inside of a minute and just start reading because you read a review or whatever.”
- One of the books that Amazon Publishing will release this fall is “Hillbilly Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus. “This is the kind of book that does very, very well in the heartland of America, and I’ve always liked the idea, coming from Chicago, that we publish for the whole country. We don’t just publish for New York.”
- Amazon is also publishing “Why Have Kids?” by Jessica Valenti, the founder of the well-known blog Feministing.
- Amazon is publishing “a lot of novels. I don’t want to make this a sales presentation, but a LOT of novels. All of you novelists out there, we’re open for business and I think…literary novels are going to be our real mainstay.”
- Marketing people join editorial acquisition meetings because “we like to consider the whole arc of the publication process.” Kirshbaum’s office “triages what books we really want to go after, we look in our databases to see how either the author has been published before, or how the earlier books have done in the Amazon store. We also get Nielsen data.” Then “we do go to Seattle for approval before we make an offer.”
- “The big problem publishers have is this kind of auction fever that develops on brand-name authors where the price just goes very, very high and it is hard to earn back and make a profit. Our philosophy is going to be to publish across a broad spectrum and to do a lot of books that are discovery books, probably aren’t going to have huge advances but we’re going to put a lot of marketing money into it.”
- They are publishing about 40 books a year, “somewhere between 3 and 4 books a month.”
- “I know there have been criticisms of Amazon in the press and from some sources, but the agents have by and large been extremely excited about the fact that we can publish in a different way. They love the idea of the database, that we can actually reach readers directly, that we can use — of course all of you who are, I’m sure, Amazon customers know the suggestible idea — if you like X, you’ll like Y. We’ll be the Y. We’re going to show some really innovative marketing ideas to sell books in ways that they’re not being sold right now.”
- “I’m a huge fan of self-publishing. I say to all of you, each and every one, if you are writing a book, first choice is to find an agent, second choice would be to put it up, there are a number of — we have Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble has…[DM fills in: PubIt] PubIt, there’s a number of authors, what’s the one in Indianapolis, Authors Unlimited, you can find them on Google, whatever.”
- “In terms of finding an agent, I recommend you go into bookstores and you look in the acknowledgments and see books that you really admire. Look in the acknowledgments and usually the author will thank their agent. No better way to start a letter to an agent than to say, I just read XYZ and I saw they said wonderful things about you and I wondered if you would take a look at what I have.”
- On promoting a self-published book: “Go around locally to start and give talks if you can. Do your own publicity. Maybe even pay for a small ad in a local paper. Of course, also, I recommend going into bookstores as well and have some copies printed up…take some actual physical copies and see if a bookstore will put a few on the counter in a prominent position. Build from there.”
- “We’re very, very much looking for middle-grade…I think chapter books and middle-grade books are the area that’s next.”
- “There’s no question that we are looking for books that show talent but maybe they’re not quite ready for prime time, but we can develop it with the author and go from there.”
- “We feel that because we do have more direct access, as an in-house company, to the database, that we can take a book and expose it to readers that have read or like or bought books of similar interest…that’s a good way to launch a book.”
- “Every book we buy, because we only publish 4 a month, is going to be special.”
- “Houghton Mifflin, which is a very, very fine publisher, a very wonderful company based in Boston and New York…they will be distributing our books to bookstores. We are very interested obviously in selling to everybody. Our book distribution to libraries is going to be a very important part of our mix too because that’s where a lot of books get started.”
- “In addition to the books that we are doing both electronically and physically we’re going to be doing a certain number of e-books only and those are going to be the discovery books.”
Many thanks to Stony Brook for providing me with a recording of the session.
*Yeah, I know, it’s long! But the whole conversation was interesting and I figured that you all would prefer more direct quotes to read, with less editorial commentary from me because we have all heard a large variety of pro- and anti-Amazon publishing arguments at this point — and this interview is not likely to change anyone’s mind but should be interesting for both sides.
That said, if you wanted to pull one thing out of here, I would note how many times he mentions physical bookstores.