HALT, WHO GOES THERE? [friend or foe at the London Book Fair]

Tuesday 16th April – London

Whilst the progressive and ever expanding Authorlounge at the London Book Fair was vibrant, a matter of yards away some were still debating the same old thing… and the ‘friend or foe’ in question of course is Amazon. There seemed something very reactionary about the debate, with the fear of change itself being as much an issue as its nature.

Few would doubt that Amazon remain vulnerable to attack, though much of that relates to the understandable fuss over their tax affairs. In terms of Amazon’s role in the literary world however who exactly are Amazon’s foes, and what are they afraid of?

The London Book Fair has been a hive of activity this week, and much of the buzz was emanating from the Authorlounge. A series of panel debates on a whole range of publishing issues and trends were brim full, and remained so throughout the first two days. Many were packed several deep at the back, in fact so much so that a couple of slightly bemused security men were posted specifically to keep the crowds from blocking the aisles. There was a clear sense that this is where things were ‘happening’.

Many of the panels and seminars focused on the direct publishing revolution, where, as the main player, Amazon were well represented. Now I’m duty bound to declare an interest, in that I was invited as their guest along with fellow indie author Mel Sherratt. But that ‘interest’ wasn’t in the company, but in their drive to deliver platforms for writers… platforms that didn’t exist up until a few years ago.

There was a time when self publishing was a dirty word, but so much has changed, and so quickly. It’s a fact that surprises many, but the reality now is that over a quarter of Amazon’s best sellers are now written by independent authors. That would have been unthinkable as little as two years ago. It’s making some publishers nervous and only goes to highlight just how difficult it is to predict the future.

A few years back if the writer/agent/publisher relationship didn’t gel, and no deal was forthcoming, it would be the end of the road for all three. The publisher would look elsewhere, the agent lost a client and the writer had no means of finding an audience for their work.

These days however things are very different, and constantly evolving. Whilst many are still clinging rigidly to their traditional roles some of the more progressive folk in the industry are moving with the times. We are all entering new territory, and writers are leading the way in this publishing ‘wild west’. However, some literary agents are also discovering that there may be ‘gold in them thar hills’.

It was often the case that if an agent couldn’t secure a traditional deal for their client their journey together would come to an end… sometimes a rather abrupt one. However, rather like the way some music industry A&R folk adapted to change, some literary agents are now continuing to back their judgement, thus venturing beyond the old frontiers imposed by publishers.

In doing so, some independent writers are now succeeding in a domain which was exclusively occupied by the big publishing houses… and there perhaps lies the rub. In effect, all Amazon have done is provide vehicles for an alternative journey by offering writers an opportunity to publish ebooks direct via KDP and paperbacks via CreateSpace. Some of the larger publishers bristle at Amazon’s ‘nerve’, but only because they are a potential threat to their vice like grip on the great reading public.

For many years the books we read were strictly controlled. Decisions on what was made available to the public were in the hands of a few. If a publisher thought a particular writer wouldn’t sell, or a particular genre was ‘out of fashion’ they could dramatically affect the literary output. These days however readers not only have a far wider choice of material but a largely uncensored one. This has given them the chance to find independent writers, many of whom are writing what they want to read.

So be careful when you find yourself taking an automatic stance on the ‘friend or foe’ debate. Yes Amazon have some issues, and ones which need to be addressed, and yes a rise in online sales is bound to have an impact on bookstores, but as far a publishing in general terms is concerned Amazon are a company who are at the vanguard of change, and that change is as progressive as it is liberating. For writers there is certainly nothing to be scared of, and if agents adapt to change with them they too have little to fear.

The larger publishing houses held the keys to the doors for many years, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they haven’t taken kindly to someone turning up and barging those doors open. Many writers have taken advantage, and the fact that some are now outselling their own cherished charges has led to a good deal of head-scratching.

How publishers adapt is a matter for them, but spending their time bad mouthing an easy target is unlikely to bring them much joy. The foe, if there is one, could be their own lack of vision. With things changing so rapidly it may be that those who stand still and throw stones will end up with the largest bruises.

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3 Responses to “HALT, WHO GOES THERE? [friend or foe at the London Book Fair]”

  1. Margot Kinberg Says:

    Tim – Thanks for your thoughts on this. There’s no doubt that the publishing landscape continues to change rapidly. Authors do well to pay attention to what’s happening and to think through what their choices for getting their work ‘out there’ will be.

  2. Alexander Hemus Says:

    Tim, people are always afraid of change and at the moment Amazon is in a position to change the publishing world with the press of a button. As you say, this makes them an easy target for the frustrations of publishers who may be struggling to adapt to the fast nature of change at the moment.

    It is clear that Amazon is in an incredibly powerful position and it is important that they do not abuse their position. At the end of the day they are giving independent authors a great tool to work with to get their work in front of readers. They are here to stay but until they blatantly abuse their position it is too early to put them in either the friend or foe category.

  3. timscribe Says:

    Fair comment Alex. I’d say they are more ‘friend’ to writers and readers at the moment, by offering more opportunities to the former and more choice to the latter…. early days….


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