Report: Amazon Publishing struggling to gain traction, top exec departing

amazonsignage2It turns out that Amazon’s scorched-earth policy of offering books at prices that are usually too low for anyone to compete with may have come back to bite it.

Shelf Awareness, an online newsletter for booksellers, reported today that Larry Kirshbaum, a publishing industry veteran who was hired in 2011 to head up the company’s Amazon Publishing division in New York and now runs the company’s imprints in New York and Seattle, plans to leave the company early next year, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter.

According to the report, Kirshbaum, who is also facing sexual assault charges for allegedly assaulting a former mistress prior to working for Amazon, is departing amid other editors being laid off or quitting. Amazon Publishing showed a lot of promise, but according to the report, general-interest authors and agents are steering clear of the retailer’s publishing business for one key reason: Amazon can’t get a book into Barnes and Noble.

Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss

In 2011, Amazon announced that it was launching Amazon Publishing, an arm of the company that would be in charge of finding books that Amazon could publish to compete with major publishers. In May of that year, Kirshbaum came on board. The company landed some big names, too, publishing books from James Franco, “Laverne & Shirley” star Penny Marshall and productivity guru Tim Ferriss’s “The Four-Hour Chef,” the latest in his line of books.

“My decision to collaborate with Amazon Publishing wasn’t just a question of which publisher to work with,” Ferriss said in a press release at the time. “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.”

And yet, Ferriss’s book and others, which should have made a splash, didn’t sell nearly as well as expected. The problem? Very few brick-and-mortar stores are willing to stock Amazon’s books. Barnes and Noble, the nation’s largest bookstore chain, refused to carry Amazon’s books on principle, since the company was such a fierce competitor, and many independent booksellers followed suit, according to Shelf Awareness’s reports.

The impact of that boycott was felt with Amazon’s superstars. The first two offerings in Ferriss’s “Four-Hour” series (published by Crown) were New York Times Bestsellers, but “Chef” never made the list. Genre titles published by Amazon through its Seattle publishing office have done better, according to the report, in part because of lowered expectations.

According to Shelf Awareness’s report, Amazon plans to roll back its plans for New York, and focus on its Seattle imprint.

Update: Amazon has provided GeekWire with the following statement, saying that it wishes Mr. Kirshbaum well, and continues to expand, not shrink its New York office.

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. 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.

[This article has been updated to correct Amazon's plans for its New York office, as well as Shelf Awareness's reports.]

  • panacheart

    The publishing game is a game of distribution, so it’s not surprising that Barnes and Noble wouldn’t carry books from its direct competitor. That would be kind of like Microsoft asking Apple to sell and promote its OS.

    But Amazon publishing can still be a great opportunity for people who are self publishing and need a wide distribution that can’t be obtained through other vanity publishers. For those building a name it’s a great option. For those that already have wide distribution it might not make sense.