Amazon to book publishers: Welcome to the jungle, baby

Amazon (s amzn) isn’t happy just disrupting the book-publishing world by promoting self-publishing via the Kindle platform or launching a rumored “Netflix for books,” (s nflx) it seems. The giant online retailer — which recently unveiled its iPad competitor, the Kindle Fire, and also dropped the price of its lowest-priced Kindle, bringing it even closer to being free — is also busy signing up popular authors for its own Amazon publishing imprint. And those it’s signing up are becoming evangelists for the company as an alternative to the “legacy publishing” industry, including the latest addition: thriller writer Barry Eisler. Publishers are now in direct competition not just with the Kindle, but with Amazon itself.

Eisler, a former CIA operative turned author, has been one of the most prominent examples of self-publishing, along with fellow writers J.A. Konrath and young-adult author Amanda Hocking — who made more than two million dollars by publishing her own books via the Kindle marketplace (often charging as little as 99 cents for them) before signing a $2-million deal with a traditional publisher earlier this year. Eisler also got the publishing industry’s attention in a big way when he turned down a $500,000 advance for two books with St. Martin’s Press in March, and said that he was going to self-publish his new novel instead.

Amazon deal offered “best of both worlds”

Instead of doing that, however, Eisler has signed a deal with Amazon’s in-house Thomas and Mercer imprint. In an interview with National Public Radio, the author said that after he announced his intention to turn down the St. Martin’s deal and self-publish – a decision he discussed at the time in a conversation with fellow writer J.A. Konrath — Amazon approached him with an offer of what he calls a “hybrid deal, the best of both worlds.” The online giant agreed to publish an e-book version of the novel as soon as it was completed, and then follow that up with a paperback edition.

In the NPR interview, Eisler — several of whose books have become New York Times (s nyt) bestsellers after being marketed and published by traditional agencies — says he has come to the conclusion that mainstream publishers simply aren’t as efficient or as useful to authors as they used to be, now that there are other options:

To say that publishers really care passionately about books as though they are concerned about what’s better for the world … I’m sure when they look in the mirror they feel that way. But in fact, what they care about is preserving their own position, perks and profit — that’s just what establishment players come to do over time.

In a long comment posted at the New York Observer website, in which he takes issue with some of the points raised in a post about his decision, Eisler says one of the reasons he decided to decline the St. Martin’s deal was that the publisher was simply too slow in meeting its obligations. In particular, he says St. Martin’s took more than four months to send a draft contract, and during that time, the landscape of the industry had changed to the point where many of the terms were no longer acceptable — in part because of the explosion of e-books and self-publishing.

Eisler also noted that the delays he experienced before he dropped the deal were typical of an industry where legacy publishers deliberately slow down the process of publishing a book, so that they can earn interest on the money they would otherwise have to pay to authors. By contrast, he said, Amazon was willing to sign a deal immediately and then guarantee to have the e-book version and the paperback version of his new books on the market long before a traditional publisher could. Said Eisler:

What I care about is readers, because without readers I can’t make a living [and] I want people to read a lot. To that end, if I can find a way to get readers books that cost less and are delivered better and faster, I want that.

Amazon offered “more money, more control”

The New York Observer post takes issue with the fact that Eisler’s book will only be available to Amazon customers, but the author notes in his comment that it’s available without DRM (digital rights management) and therefore it can be read on any e-book reader, including the Nook and the Kobo. In addition, Eisler says that if he had chosen a traditional publishing deal, readers would have had to choose either a hardcover for $24.99 or a $12.99 e-book. “Availability six months earlier and at half the price seems like a pretty good deal for readers to me,” he said. He added:

My objectives were to make more money from the title, to get the digital out first, and to retain more control over business decisions. If a better way comes along … of course I’m going to take it. Publishing for me is a business, not an ideology.

What’s interesting about Amazon’s deal with Eisler is that — like an earlier deal with popular author Tim Ferriss — the arrangement strikes right at the heart of the traditional publishing business, which Amazon has had a love-hate relationship with for some time now. It was one thing to allow writers such as Amanda Hocking to publish their own books outside the traditional system (which some publishers saw as a kind of “farm team” approach they could profit from), but deals with popular writers like Ferriss and Eisler are taking the cream off the top. And in the process, Amazon is making the rest of the traditional industry look bad to boot.

What publishers need to realize is that authors like Eisler and Ferriss — and even some without that kind of pre-existing fame — don’t have to put up with the glacier-like pace and other downsides of the mainstream publishing business any more. If a publishing deal is lucrative enough they might take it, but even if it is lucrative, they might decide to simply cut their own deal, and Amazon is more than happy to step in. In that sense, the Eisler deal is yet another wake-up call for the industry: Adapt or die.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Marya