Publishing Head Larry Kirshbaum’s Exit from Amazon May Be a Good Sign for Paperbacks

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Amazon has been making headlines a lot lately, mostly for new, exciting ventures like charitable e-commerce site AmazonSmile, new, original programming for Amazon Instant Video and it’s futuristic new headquarters. But this week the company hit an uncharacteristic speed bump. 

Larry Kirshbaum, previously the head of Time Warner Book Group and head of Amazon’s New York and Seattle adult and children’s publishing imprints, announced his exit from the e-publishing giant—a move that also signifies Amazon’s efforts to scale-back its publishing operations, according to a report from Shelf Awareness. Amazon’s publishing performance, at first perceived as a full-scale assault on the industry, has not panned out as planned, despite initially signing top authors like Timothy Ferriss (“The Four-Hour Chef”), Penny Marshall (“My Mother Was Nuts”) and Billy Ray Cyrus (“Hillbilly Heart”).

“There’s a lot of fallout to parse here, but it’s worth noting the beating that even a company like Amazon can suffer when engaging in disruptive entrepreneurship,” Slate notes. “In 2012, Barnes & Noble announced it wouldn’t sell books published by Amazon. After that announcement, indie booksellers followed suit.” Even more traditional retailers like Walmart and Target chose to not stock Amazon-published books.[more]

It’s a rare strike-out for the company that rarely misses. “I expected them to find the next ‘Hunger Games.’ I expected the next ‘Harry Potter’ to come through Amazon. They have not changed the world like many assumed they would,” Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester technology analyst, told the New York Times last year after Amazon started to cool in its pursuit of big titles. 

Despite the surge in e-reader and tablet use to consume books, the book market is still dominated by print sales, with 20 percent of sales going to e-books—of which Amazon controls 60 percent. “Some writers really do want to see their books on the shelves of certain stores. And those authors might be inclined to stick with traditional publishers. So, even in this digital day and age, the bookstore still has some clout,” NPR notes. And if Kirshbaum’s move could be any more symbolic of the trend, he will depart Amazon early in 2014 to return to his previous post as a (traditional) literary agent. 

There’s no doubt that Amazon’s potential exit from publishing would result in a collective sigh of relief from traditional publishing houses and book stores that have managed to weather the storm. But that doesn’t mean that Amazon is going to cool its digital jets. 

Seemingly undaunted, Amazon launched its Kindle MatchBook service this week, enabling consumers to buy a heavily discounted (between free and $2.99) Kindle copy of physical books they’ve already purchased. Amazon reports that 70,000 books are enrolled in MatchBook so far, with more to come. 

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