It looks like Amazon might have reported some positive earnings after the market closed last night and the stock is up $77 today or about 16%. I am trying to decide if there is a message I should be paying attention to here. Amazon, of course, is one of the major disruptors in the publishing world. Many independent bookstores went under during the recession as Amazon hit its stride selling books for below cost right while Apple came out with the smart phone and readers responded enthusiastically. But the recession is mostly over, surviving bookstores have stabilized, and Torrey House is waving a white flag and planning on converting to a nonprofit. But I still wonder if I am paying full attention. If(!) we had invested the money we poured into Torrey House into Amazon instead not only would publishing not have eaten my checkbook and my airplane, we could now have a shiny fleet of planes. Here is the AMZN monster of a five year chart:
What to make of that? Is Jeff Bezos a million times smarter than we are? Are we continually rushing the wrong way down a dead end street? Are publishers on the wrong side of history, particularly small presses? Should we quit now before we fall even deeper and further behind? Well. on the one hand Amazon does carry all of our titles. They don’t do anything to help sell them besides list them and they take a bruising discount, more than any other, even slightly more than the wholesalers. But they do not return books (and man oh man do the wholesalers ever make returns). On the other hand disruption hurts in multiple ways. Amazon helps readers see what everyone else is reading and drives the herd into a few best selling titles. They publish all comers via CreateSpace creating a blizzard of white noise with millions of new titles. There is more disruption to come. AMZN is not going away, at least not soon. Given how Wall Street continues to finance them with virtually unlimited free money, much to my everlasting dismay, we have just begun to see what changes Amazon will bring. Jeff Bezos is the king of the hill of corporate competitors. We cannot beat him. Yet joining him is just another form of losing.
Of course the world is ever changing and it appears that even though there is a growing winner take all phenomenon in the world of competition, there is a growing compensating factor in a robust nonprofit world. Three of our most admired publishing peers are in the Minneapolis area, Gray Wolf, Milkweed, and Coffee House. All three are nonprofit. And even though they presumably compete in their own backyard for funding, they are all raising a $million or two a year in contributions. Their titles are of the same high literary quality as ours and like us their experience is that book sales only cover about sixty percent of their costs. And yet they are getting award winning titles out that would never exist via Amazon alone. Donors are teaming up on the side of quality and diversity and nonprofit corporations are making the most of it.
Maybe even some nouveau rich AMZN investor will want to share his spoils and make a contribution.