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Amazon as publisher: What does it mean?

With Amazon at the table, says one publisher, "the price of playing poker just went up."

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“Because of Amazon's dominant retail position, their wealth and leverage could have a dampening effect on competition,” Mr. Curtis told Bookseller.com. “Barnes and Noble's publishing has had that effect: as an agent, I'll call a publisher and pitch a non-fiction project. ‘We'd love to do it,' they'll tell me, and then add, ‘but we know [Barnes & Noble's subsidiary] Sterling will undercut on price for the same kind of book.' ”

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Dominique Raccah of the independent Chicago-based book publisher Sourcebooks had dire predictions about Amazon’s effect on publishing. “We will lose 50 percent of publishers,” he said in a recent International Digital Publishing Forum round table.

Booksellers, who are already dealing with Sterling, don’t seem bothered by the news. Amazon will still need booksellers for their bricks-and-mortar distribution.

“It didn't surprise me,” said outgoing American Booksellers Association president and indie bookseller Michael Tucker, to the Bookseller.

“It’s of more concern to publishers than to booksellers at this point,” said Rick Simonsen, of Seattle’s legendary indie seller Elliot Bay. “Remember, most booksellers have to deal with B&N's Sterling already. And Amazon will now get trapped in the real world!”

But how about writers? Might this be good news for them?

Some are arguing that it will.

Writing for Forbes three years ago, technology and strategy consultant Srmana Mitra was already anticipating Amazon's move toward "vertical integration" – and seeing it as a form of salvation for authors. Ms. Mitra lambasted the publishing industry, calling it "[a]rchaic beyond belief ... an industry that treats its most important asset – the author – badly," returning only a fraction of any profits made on a book to its creator.

She envisions a world in which "Amazon becomes the retailer, marketer, publisher and agent combined and takes 65% of the revenues, offering 35% to the author" and calls that "a much better, fairer world."

Given Amazon's current reputation as the company that has accustomed readers to the $9 book, it seems a bit of a stretch to also envision Amazon as a white knight. But in a business changing as fast as this one is, perhaps anything is possible.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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