Sunday, February 2, 2014

On Amazon’s Christian Imprint

by Marcia Z Nelson)

Whoa, I thought, on hearing the news that Amazon’s publishing operation was beginning a Christian imprint. Let me check in with my Christian publishing pals and see what they have to say about this.

I’ve already heard some choice words in various publishing and bookselling circles about the Seattle behemoth/innovator/dreamer-of-drones. (Here’s a nicely typical roundup of diverging opinion from a panel at London Book Fair 2013, and this year’s worries expressed at DBW 2014.) So I was a little surprised when opinionated, intelligent, and articulate publishing executives responded with very loud silence.

On reflection, I shouldn’t have been. I remembered a time when I’d been at a gathering of publishing executives that also included a lawyer who was there to make sure any statements made about Amazon couldn’t be construed as, heaven and DoJ forfend, collusion or antitrustworthy. I had to think about questions I was going to ask. I also had to laugh.

There’s prudence in public and candor in private, always a challenge for a reporter but always negotiable. I’m a big fan of measured public speech; I prefer precision over fightin’ soundbitin’. But after a certain point, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, you have to wonder (and if you’re a journalist you get paid to wonder): Is somebody going to say something? Or is the gorilla perhaps chilling the conversation? After all, a lot of people do business with the gorilla, even if they don’t like his behavior or how much they must feed him to get help selling their books. Maybe it’s not a good idea to annoy or, worse, argue with the gorilla, since he’s a lot bigger than you.

I’ll stop with the gorilla analogy; those who argue for the adaptability, innovation, and fresh air that has been forced on a trade too enamored of hidebound ways and hardbound editions will find the comparison pejorative or prejudicial. But I won’t back away from my point that this is worth discussing in public.

It’s worth saying, as did Mark Kuyper of ECPA, the Christian publishing trade group: “Amazon’s decision to launch a Christian imprint is not surprising given the expansion of their publishing program over the last few years. Of course, this continues the bifurcation of our publishers’ relationship with them as a key retailer and a publishing competitor.” Kuyper rightly and politely points to tensions this imprint launch exacerbates, and perhaps there are special problems that bear revelation. Aside from competition, exactly what are the publishers afraid of? What dark Amazon plans are afoot?

There are, of course, more benign things to be said about Amazon’s new venture:

There’s money to be made in this healthy market segment;

The more the merrier; greater competition can benefit some players (authors, for one);

Heads up! A major player is gearing up for more activity in a market segment; and

It’s complicated.

So no, I’m not complaining about an article I didn’t write because no-comment does not a scintillating story make. I got this blog entry, which allows me to be more candid, and that’s the point to be made here and about countless other matters that rightly ought to prompt lively discussion among stakeholders. Speak up! Is that a gorilla I see, or does he just need a haircut? And please, hold the drones.