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Can Amazon Finally Crack the Bestseller Code?

The retail giant is publishing commercial fiction by famous authors. Publishers should be terrified.

David McNew/Getty Images

As the last decade concluded, book publishers breathed a sigh of relief. The 2010s were characterized by a series of Amazon-related shock waves—the growing power of the retail behemoth, the rise of e-books, a related Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit, and the decimation of bookstores both large and small. But publishers had survived. Once viewed as competitors to physical books, e-books and audiobooks were now considered just two formats among many. Indie bookstores saw a dramatic rebirth during the decade’s final years, while Barnes & Noble appeared to be in the early stages of a resurgence.

Amazon remained an existential threat, but it was one that publishers had learned to live with. Sure, adult fiction sales were cratering, but who cares when you’re raking in cash selling books about the president?

But the conventional wisdom that now governs book publishing—that things are, for the first time in a long time, not that bad—is wrong. At the very least, it overlooks the fact that Amazon has spent the last decade accumulating yet more power and leverage, and that its ambitions have since moved past simply being the world’s largest bookstore. On Tuesday evening, The Wall Street Journal surveyed one of the most important recent developments in the industry: Amazon is finally publishing work by some of America’s biggest authors.

Dean Koontz and Patricia Cornwell’s Amazon-published books won’t be found in most bookstores—they are being blacklisted by many booksellers, in protest of the company’s market dominance and rapacious business practices. The books are, however, available on Amazon, which is integrating every stage of the publishing process: It is acquiring and publishing books, then marketing and selling them to customers. It is creating a marketplace that omits publishers altogether.

The deal between these authors and Amazon would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Amazon’s early forays into blockbuster publishing were a disaster. In 2011, the company hired industry vet Larry Kirshbaum to helm its first publishing venture. He inked expensive deals with actress Penny Marshall and wellness guru Tim Ferriss, but their books failed to meet expectations, with Marshall’s memoir becoming one of the decade’s biggest flops. (Kirshbaum left Amazon after being accused of sexual assault in 2013.)

In response, Amazon’s publishing arm turned to a Moneyball approach. Rather than compete with traditional publishers for authors, it targeted areas overlooked by the industry, such as commercial fiction in translation. Over the 2010s, Amazon became the largest publisher of translated works in America and, in doing so, learned how to market its books to its gargantuan audience.

Publishers felt that this line of business—which is to say, the actual work of publishing—was the one area where Amazon didn’t really scare them. Amazon, many believed, didn’t understand the difference between a book and a dishwasher—to its founder, Jeff Bezos, both were widgets to be sold on its platform. As the novelist Richard Russo wrote in 2014, “Amazon has never clearly and unequivocally stated (as traditional publishers have) that books are different and special, that they can’t be treated like the other commodities they sell.”

Only publishers had the know-how to make books that sell. Amazon had the platform, sure, but it was missing the magical human touch of editors and publicists. Bestselling authors would never abandon big publishers, because doing so would ultimately doom their work.

For most of the 2010s, there was little to challenge these assumptions. If an author did cross over to Amazon, as Michael Lewis did two years ago, it was usually for a one-off project. In 2018, Lewis released “The Coming Storm,” a short work about weather forecasting, on Audible; three months later he published The Fifth Risk with W.W. Norton. Authors might wander, but they did not stray for long. Books published by Amazon, meanwhile, continued to struggle to reach mass audiences, thanks in large part to the bookstore boycott.

That appears to be changing. The deals with Koontz and Cornwell suggest that book publishers may finally be losing their monopoly on editing and marketing. “We had seven or eight offers, but Amazon offered the most complete marketing plan, and that was the deciding factor,” Koontz told The Wall Street Journal.

Cornwell’s latest work, Quantum, isn’t selling particularly well in hardcover—only about 6,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan—but Amazon is insistent that its digital muscle makes print sales irrelevant. Quantum, a representative told the Journal, has “reached approximately 600,000 readers across print, audio, and digital sales and downloads.” This is hype worthy of Netflix, whose numbers are routinely inflated, but it underscores an important point: Amazon owns Kindle and Audible, which effectively control both the audio and digital book markets. Combine that with its ever-growing video offerings, which could result in lucrative tie-in deals, and Amazon has a big selling point for famous authors.

To a large extent, book publishers have themselves to blame. Despite arguing that they provided necessary intangibles to the book-publishing process, they have spent the last decade gutting their marketing and editorial departments. It is increasingly common for publishers to work with freelance editors, many of whom recently left or were pushed out of prestige imprints, on projects. The layoffs were a cost-cutting move as conglomerate publishers consolidated imprints, but it has inadvertently leveled the playing field. Dean Koontz no longer has to go to a big publisher to have his needs met; Amazon and Bantam, his former publisher, are drawing from the same talent pool.

All of this puts Amazon in an enviable position. It has been the dominant force in book retail for two decades and has a near-monopoly on both e-books and digital audiobooks. The company has steadily increased its physical retail imprint and will likely end the 2020s as one of the three largest book retail chains in the country. And for the first time in its existence, Amazon is poised to become a key player in book publishing as well, with the ability to gain an even larger portion of the hundreds of thousands of sales made on its platform every week.

Book publishers grew complacent because Amazon has been less hostile in the past few years. But recent developments suggest that publishers have read the situation all wrong. Amazon isn’t playing nice. It’s lulled publishers into a false sense of security.