Amazon Publishing reportedly retreating in NYC. Thank (or blame) Barnes & Noble

When Amazon Publishing launched its general trade imprint in New York in 2011, the goal was to go head-to-head with the big traditional publishers here. The company announced in May of that year that it had hired industry vet Larry Kirshbaum to run the new general publishing division. Kirshbaum said at the time that Amazon was “going to back [the imprint] significantly” and that he would run it “in the vein of a major publishing house.”

But agents, authors and booksellers didn’t play along. Industry newsletter Shelf Awareness reported Friday, citing unidentified sources, that Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon Publishing early next year.

Shelf Awareness also said that “In connection with [Kirshbaum’s] departure, the most ambitious part of Amazon’s publishing operations will be scaled back. Already several editorial people have left or been let go, and Amazon has not been a factor in bidding on major books the way it had been just two years ago.”

Amazon confirmed Kirshbaum’s departure but denies that it is scaling back its New York operation. Here’s its first statement, released Friday morning:

“We can confirm that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon on January 17. Larry joined us two and a half years ago and has been instrumental in launching our New York office, including our New Harvest partnership, and establishing our children’s book business. We’re sorry to see him go, and wish him the best of luck as he returns to life as a literary agent.”

And its second, released a couple of hours later:

“[Our] New York office will continue to expand, as our overall publishing business grows. In fact, we will be announcing new imprints to launch in New York soon. Daphne Durham has already stepped into the role of Publisher for our Adult Trade & Children’s businesses.”

Durham will be based in Seattle, not in New York.

In 2012, Kirshbaum’s role had expanded to include leadership of both the New York-based imprint and Amazon’s Seattle-based publishing division, which publishes genres like science fiction and romance. All of those imprints are continuing operation under Durham. If any New York-based imprints — the children’s publishing division is based here, for instance — are shutting down, Amazon is mum on that.

A big problem: Splashy books that Barnes & Noble won’t carry

In New York, Amazon Publishing aimed to snap up splashy titles and reportedly paid a lot of money to do so. Yet none of the books ever really took off. In the imprint’s first months under Kirshbaum, editors signed up titles by aging Laverne and Shirley star Penny Marshall (reportedly paying over $100,000 more than the next bidder for the rights), James Franco and Deepak Chopra.

Kirshbaum also planned to publish a lot of literary fiction. “All of you novelists out there, we’re open for business and I think…literary novels are going to be our real mainstay,” he told a group of students at Stony Brook Southhampton in 2012. In that same presentation, he repeatedly mentioned the importance of traditional bookstores, and said of his vision for Amazon New York: “I like to model it on the companies I worked for for many years, Warner and Little, Brown.”

Tim Ferriss app 2

The Amazon New York title that got the most attention was bestselling author Timothy Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Chef. It was the first book that Kirshbaum signed up. Ferriss had published his previous two books — The Four-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body — with Crown. Regarding his decision to go with Amazon Publishing instead, he said:

“My decision to collaborate with Amazon Publishing wasn’t just a question of which publisher to work with. It was a question of what future of publishing I want to embrace. My readers are migrating irreversibly into digital, and it made perfect sense to work with Amazon to try and redefine what is possible.”

But things didn’t go as planned, in part because Barnes & Noble (s BKS) refuses to carry Amazon Publishing titles in its stores. As I wrote in 2011 in my story “The truth about Amazon Publishing,” bricks-and-mortar bookstores are still one of the major ways that readers discover new books, and online sources haven’t picked up the slack. Barnes & Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon titles mattered less for Amazon’s niche-y science fiction, romance and mystery books, which it could target to very specific audiences on its website. But the big, general titles that Kirshbaum wanted to publish needed more of a push from bookstores, and they didn’t get it.

This was very frustrating for Ferriss. When The Four-Hour Chef was published in 2012, he tried to promote it as “the most banned book in U.S. history” based on the fact that Barnes & Noble wouldn’t carry it. But it never hit the general New York Times nonfiction bestseller list the way Ferriss’s previous books had.

“I think that no matter how well I do — even if I sell a million Kindle copies, for instance — there will be people in the book trade who call it a failure because they’re using different metrics,” Ferriss told me in 2012.

Ultimately, that problem wasn’t limited to Ferriss. Once literary agents and authors saw that Amazon wouldn’t be able to get their books into Barnes & Noble, publishing with the company became a much less appealing prospect. It’s likely one of the main reasons that we haven’t seen Amazon New York sign up a big, general-interest author in over a year.

An industry ripe for disruption — and sturdier than it seemed

This isn’t what the industry — or the media — expected in 2011. Amazon’s hiring of Kirshbaum right before BEA was the talk of the trade show that year, and a lot of people — including me — genuinely thought that Amazon’s entry into the New York book publishing market might be enough to take out one of the Big 6 publishers (there are now 5, but that’s just because Random House and Penguin merged). It didn’t work out that way. If you want somebody to thank — or blame — I’d recommend Barnes & Noble. The bookstore chain is in big trouble on the digital side, but its ban on Amazon titles was undeniably effective in crippling Amazon New York’s performance in general fiction and nonfiction books.

The apparent failure of Amazon’s New York publishing division doesn’t mean that all Amazon’s publishing efforts are a failure by any means. It dominates the self-publishing market and its piles of consumer data help it decide which genres to publish in. That just didn’t work so well when it came to the big books that Kirshbaum planned to publish. Beyond publishing, the company still has plenty of other things going for it, to put it mildly: The company’s stock hit a record $365 per share this morning, following its Q3 earnings report yesterday.

Nonetheless, at least seventy percent of the books sold in the U.S. are still print, so Amazon’s inability to get its titles into bookstores was a huge strike against the vision that it would be able to compete directly against general trade publishers on big fiction and nonfiction titles. And just because many have argued that the traditional book publishing industry’s business model is outdated didn’t mean that Amazon would be able to completely upend the way the industry does business in New York in two years.

This story was updated several times on Friday as more information became available.