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The Revolution Coming To A Kindle Near You

Flannery O’Connor was once approached by someone who complained about the way academic writing programs discouraged so many promising young writers from launching careers.  “Not enough,” was O’Connor’s reply. She was on the wrong side of history; America is a land of enablers, and technology is about to enable a huge wave of new authors to step up onstage.

As life keeps getting easier for undiscovered genius, Amazon may replace traditional literary agents and publishers as the gatekeeper of American letters. From the NYT: has taught readers that they do not need bookstores. Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers.

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction. It signed its first deal with the self-help author Tim Ferriss. Last week it announced a memoir by the actress and director Penny Marshall, for which it paid $800,000, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said.

Today, as one of Amazon’s executives says, “The only really necessary people…are the writer and the reader”.

Back when publishing was expensive, agents and publishers were vigilant gatekeepers.  It cost a lot of money to publish a book and publishers wouldn’t make that investment unless they thought the book could sell — or was of such enormous importance that it was worth putting it out.  Amazon can afford to be much more permissive and the distinction between the published and the unpublished writer is about to become much less clear.

This is the kind of disintermediation that the internet does, and it’s going to upend a lot of lives and careers.  We will still have gatekeepers; people will still need help sifting through the flood of new titles to find what they are looking for.

Editors may someday become the employees of authors rather than their masters.  I might hire a ‘book doctor’ to tighten up and otherwise improve a manuscript I planned to publish on Amazon, rather than seeking out an editor at an established house to publish my work.  Most writers I know welcome the hand of a talented and sensitive editor; we would pay good money (within limits) to have somebody help us craft that final product.

Things could change even more dramatically.  Already many writers turn to freelance book publicists; in the future the whole business of book promotion may be split off from book publishing.  Amazon and its competitors would be common carrier distribution channels, but authors would need to find people to do the promotion and placement of their books who were independent of the publisher.  Amazon might publish a million titles a year; how do you make yours stand out?  The people who can make that happen will be forces to be reckoned with and it is quite likely that prestigious editors and book lists will survive the age of publishers as we have known them.

Change won’t come overnight.  Many authors are conservative when it comes to their working habits and their professional partnerships.  I know plenty of writers who fought the word processor for decades before giving in, and in what is often a lonely life having an agent and an editor who you’ve known for years appeals to many established writers.  But the information and communications revolutions are putting even the most conservative and laid back of professions through the wringer.  The pace of change in the book business, as in so many areas of life, is picking up.

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  • Anthony

    The lessening of “gate keeper” constraints combined with internet disintermediation certainly avails new opportunity for “undiscovered genius” (and others) willing to write and publish (21st century information and communication change exemplified). Careers and lives as you imply WRM may be upended – ah, technological progress….

  • WigWag

    Amazon is now the hunter but before long it could easily be the hunted. Amazon is in the process of disintermediating the book business by destroying publishers but how long will it be before authors (especially the famous ones) realize that they really don’t need Amazon’s distribution system? Why should authors allow Amazon to stand in between them and their readers? How long will it be before Facebook or something like it replaces Amazon as the distribution channel of choice for authors and musicians?

    My guess is that it will happen in what seems like a heart beat.

  • Alan Kellogg

    At the same time the publisher White Wolf (World of Darkness and New World of Darkness) have, according to reports, decided to switch entirely to print on demand. So that’s another change to the publishing business.

  • Vinnster

    Perfect timing. In the November issue of MaximumPC is a story with step by step instructions on how to create your very e-book for Kindle readers.

  • ErisGuy

    “vigilant gatekeepers”

    And look how often they were wrong. And how often new publishing houses were established to overthrow the old, staid, stuffy publishers. Too much power in too few hands; too much undiscoverable corruption. Good riddance.

  • PacRim Jim

    Everyone a writer; no one a writer.

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