Robert Kennedy

Amazon as a threat to steal big titles from big publishers is still a ways off

When Larry Kirshbaum, the longtime head of TimeWarner Publishing (purchased right after he left in 2007 by Hachette and now the company called Hachette Book Group USA) joined Amazon many people thought — I among them — that Amazon was about to become a threat to take big titles away from the major publishers and, by doing so, also put pressure on competing retailers who would either have to buy from Amazon or do without major books.

An article last week in The Wall Street Journal spells out just how futile have been Amazon’s efforts so far to upend the Big Six. Their two biggest headline acquisitions — a celebrity bio from actress Penny Marshall and the latest from bestselling non-fiction writer Tim Ferriss — are achieving paltry sales outside Amazon as measured by BookScan.

Michael Cader does some deeper digging to suggest that the high-profile books are not the place to be looking for the successes in Amazon’s publishing. They’re publishing lots of genre fiction and buying up some backlists.

Yet, I can’t believe that the high-profile output from the New York office meets Amazon’s original expectations or Kirshbaum’s. If they miscalculated the impact they could make, maybe it was for the same reason I did. An abrupt slowdown in ebook switchover took hold at about the same moment the Kirshbaum era at Amazon began. Big publishers are reporting that ebook sales are now approaching 30% of their revenue, which is about a 50% increase from what they said last year. That follows several years when ebook uptake increased by 100% or more.

(It is important to note here that the reported figures are a percentage of all revenue. Many titles are not “ebookable”: they’re illustrated books or little kids’ books and, if they have ebook equivalents at all, they don’t sell nearly that percentage. So the digital sales of immersive reading would constitute a somewhat higher percentage than that.)

Amazon as a publisher has advantages and disadvantages against more traditional competitors. They have the advantages of direct customer contact, which pay off in two ways. They can send you an email pitching a book as the logical next one to the one you just read; general publishers can’t do that. And, as the publisher, they have more margin to either pay the author more or charge the customer less, which, either way, increases an author’s revenue through online channels.

But their disadvantages are also significant. For most books, and particularly non-fiction (as both of which the high-profile releases the Wall Street Journal wrote about are), more than half of the sales still come from brick-and-mortar stores. Despite their attempt to secure that exposure by a licensing deal with Houghton Harcourt, the resistance to Amazon from Barnes & Noble and many independent stores and mass merchants has curtailed that distribution.

Apparently Amazon led at least some people to believe with their success on the recent Barry Eisler book that they could sell more copies through their own channels than big publishers could through the entire network. The claim that they had outsold all his previous NY Times bestsellers was made to literary agents in a letter that also cited other great successes, all with genre fiction. Without questioning anybody’s numbers, I was skeptical about the significance of the relative Eisler sales because, it seemed to me, whatever they could do for Eisler (whom they published) they could do for any other book they wanted to, whether they published it or not. So it seems illogical to me that they would somehow magically sell more than the whole trade combined on a book because they were publishing it.  It seems apparent that Amazon isn’t succeeding at persuading agents that the Eisler case, even if it is as portrayed, is replicable.

I saw reports of bitter comments from Tim Ferriss, complaining about Barnes & Noble’s apparently-effective boycott of their competitor’s publishing program. Maybe he would be doing that even if Amazon is selling more than his conventional publishers did before. But I doubt it.

This is not a final answer. Amazon’s share of the trade market — ebooks and online print combined — is still growing and shows no sign of abating. Most publishers would still report that Amazon is their fastest-growing account.

But shelf space erosion — a metric with no reliable index anywhere — seems to have slowed down. That means that, at the moment, we have a more stable book trade than we’ve had for at least five years. It is smaller, but it is more stable. In the US at least, our market of three big ebook players (Amazon, B&N, Apple) and two sturdy and persistent upstarts (Kobo and Google) is still welcoming some new entrants. Zola eBooks, promising some interesting merchandising innovations, and Bookish — the repeatedly postponed effort from three major publishers — are expected to join the fray soon. Sony and Copia and Blio are still trying to gain traction, but they’re also still here.

Amazon definitely has the most advantages. Their Kindle ecosystem is still the best-functioning, deepest in title selection, and benefits in numerous ways from having more readers and selling more ebooks (and books, for that matter) than anybody else. The growth in their genre title base that Cader points out increases their market share of dedicated genre readers, who read other things too. They have the most self-published titles and the best ecosystem for self-published authors to make money. And the big title growth enables them to build subscription or subscription-like capabilities like KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library) which do take customers out of the game for everybody else.

As their share of the market grows — as long as it continues to grow — their argument to authors to cast their lot with them gets stronger.

But, for now, it would seem that B&N definitely did the right thing for their own good by boycotting Amazon’s titles. And, for now, it would seem that most of the authors Amazon will get for their general list will be those who are annoyed at the publishing establishment like Konrath and Eisler or curious about working with a tech-oriented publisher like Ferriss.

Authors who want bookstore exposure or to maximize their total sales across the US bookselling universe will remain hard to persuade for the forseeable future. But probably a little less so with each passing day.

I note with sadness the passing of Senator George McGovern. I am proud to have worked on all three of his presidential campaigns: 1968 at the Democratic National Convention working for Pierre Salinger, two years on the 1972 campaign, and a weekend in New Hampshire trying to light a fire in 1984.

What motivated us to join Senator McGovern was primarily his opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but his personal and political appeal went far beyond that. He was extraordinarily decent and straightforward. In my stretch of two years working for him in the early 70s, it was remarkable how consistently he took issue positions we young idealists could be proud of. A poorly-vetted choice for vice-president will always be part of the explanation for why he was crushed, but my friend Professor Wade — one of McGovern’s top strategists — told me years ago that it was the assassination attempt that crippled George Wallace that actually was responsible for the defeat. 

Nixon had won the 1968 election with a little over 40% of the vote. Wallace had taken a share in the high teens. The McGovern planning from the beginning assumed a similar race in 1972. When Wallace was eliminated by the assassination attempt, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” made him the heir to the Wallace vote and a landslide victory.

In the end, of course, it was Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who went to jail and his administration that ended in disgrace. McGovern was always gracious and never bitterBut, as a country, we’ve never spent enough time contemplating how different things could have been if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been shot in 1968 or if McGovern had won in 1972.


Merchandising ebooks is a problem not really solved yet

I have always been in the process of reading at least one book since I was about 8 years old. When I was a little kid, I’d find them in the house (Dad was in publishing) or at the library in my home village of Croton-on-Hudson or in the school library. Sometimes extraordinary measures delivered a lot of reading material. On the fourth to the last day of second grade, I got the chicken pox and was in bed for a couple of weeks. I had already developed an affinity for a Random House series of children’s books on American history called Landmark Books, which are still available. Dad knew the person at the printer responsible for the Random House account and a box of 40 of them arrived the day after I was diagnosed and was completely read through by the time I was back on my feet.

When I was in junior high school, I found that a big drug store in the retail space at 42nd and Vanderbilt in Grand Central Station had a massive selection of mass-market paperbacks and that became a shopping destination for me for a while.

As an adult, the shopping and discovery moved to bookstores. And although I did occasionally get my ideas of what to read next from book reviews or friends’ recommendations, usually I just shopped. I would go browse American history or biography or sports (baseball always had its own shelves within sports).

It never took me much time to find what I wanted to read next until I started reading ebooks.

In the pre-Kindle ebook era, I was a captive of the Palm Digital store, because I read on a Palm and their commercial approach was to not allow other retailers to sell their format. The choices were limited because the publishers before the arrival of Kindle were reluctant to make the investments required to deliver ebooks to me and the four other people who read them at the time. That changed immediately when Kindle arrived and, because of Kindle and the other major formats that have hit the marketplace since then, the choices are robust. Just about every new book I’d want to read is available for my device of choice (the iPhone) and the digitization of the backlist just carries on going deeper and deeper into publishers’ repositories.

But the merchandising, at least for somebody who shops on the iPhone (it’s a bit better through the ereading devices or PCs), leaves a lot to be desired. My shopping experiences are actually a bit of a random walk. I ask my ebook retailer to show me books by category and, since my categories don’t change much (and haven’t since I was a kid) I tend to see the same books over and over again, far too many of which I have already read (perhaps in somebody else’s format.)

A short time ago I was shopping for my next read on the iPhone. I started out shopping with Kindle and then Nook and a few minutes on each of their mobile sites didn’t turn up anything that moved me. Then at Google Ebooks I found “Making of the President 1968” by Theodore White. That was definitely one I wanted to read. I bought it and I’m in the middle of it.

There is no particular guarantee that I’ll find my next book on Google. I haven’t found any clear pattern yet among the four stores I shop regularly (Kobo being the fourth). Obviously, if I know I want to read another James Patterson or John Locke thriller, any of them would deliver it to me quickly and painlessly in response to a search. It is when I am hunting by subject that the search returns seem to be pot luck. I’m probably not making it any easier on the retailers by spreading my shopping around; if any of them actually did have a good engine to take my purchasing and reading profile and make the next great recommendation, I’d be screwing it up by spreading around my data.

All of this underscores how difficult is the challenge being faced by Bookish in the US and aNobii in the UK, two “find what to read next” sites financed by major publishers. And they join a long line of sites that have tried to build recommendations and community conversation around what people are reading: Goodreads, Shelfari, Library Thing, and the new ebook platform, Copia.

It happens that our office is now going through the exercise of placing the book of “The Shatzkin Files” on platforms other than its originator, Kobo. (Kobo’s 60-day exclusive is about up.) When we encountered a limit of seven keywords in loading process for Kindle, I inquired about it. Why limit this, I wondered?

I got a good answer when I asked. It turns out that any author or publisher’s inclination would be to put in lots and lots of keywords. That was my intention. I was going to take every keyword from every post and put it in for the book. But, on reflection, as my friend at Amazon pointed out, that really wouldn’t be helpful to the reader who was searching. The fact that one blog post is about a holocaust survivor doesn’t mean that somebody searching under that topic would want my book, of which more than 99% is about things totally unrelated.

It turns out that Amazon uses algorithms created by full text searching to enhance what they can deliver in response to searches in ways that the publisher and author would not necessarily think about when creating metadata. As an example, he pointed to a book that you’ll discover on Amazon if you search  for “erasure coding”, a term of art that might very well not have been included by any author or publisher inserting keywords but which their more sophisticated methods enable you to use for discovery.

My friend at Amazon didn’t say this, and maybe I’m reading too much into what they do, but it almost seems like the keywords we put in could be superfluous and the capabilities they have through full-text analysis and algorithms actually govern what is discovered. Of course, if the solicitation of keywords from authors and publishers is a placebo, that’s not something I’d expect them to reveal.

I was just looking for “American history” when I found “Making of the President 1968” on Google (and didn’t find it anyplace else in the time I allotted to look.) So Amazon’s sophisticated capabilities didn’t deliver it to me and now their engine doesn’t know that this was a book I wanted because I bought it someplace else.

But I’m really glad I found this book, which was probably pretty recently made available in ebook form. I was active in that campaign and at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where I was Pierre Salinger’s assistant on the first McGovern campaign. (George McGovern declared late to give the Bobby Kennedy supporters who couldn’t abide Gene McCarthy a place to go. I had been one of those; I left the Ambassador Hotel an hour before Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968 because the security was tight and I couldn’t get into the party. Ironic.) The author of the Making of the President books, Theodore White, was a friend of Salinger’s and I met him at the convention. But I’m saving the stories of that campaign for another post on another day.


On my friend, Professor Richard C. Wade

Richard C. Wade is credited with inventing urban history as a field of American history. He taught at the University of Rochester in the 1950s, at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, and became — along with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. — one of two Distinguished Professors of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center in 1971. He died last July.

I delivered this eulogy to Dick to a small group of historians who were in New York for a convention in early January. These were the people in his field, some of whom hadn’t met him; they just knew him as a titan in his field. Many knew nothing, or very little, about what you’ll read in my eulogy. I found that stunning.

But when I bumped into PBS pundit Mark Shields at the newsstand on Sunday morning and asked him, “Did you know my friend Professor Wade?”, Shields lit up and said “yes, wonderful man.” I think if you could ask George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, Hugh Carey, and Mario Cuomo, among those still alive, they’d tell you the same thing.

St. Patrick’s Day is the right day to do this post.

I met Professor Wade in August 1968 at the Democratic convention in Chicago. George McGovern had become the replacement candidate for Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated in June. McGovern had three heavyweight political operatives working for him there. I was working as an assistant to Pierre Salinger; of course everybody knew Frank Mankiewicz, who had been Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary. And then I met Dick Wade, at the time a Housing Commissioner in Chicago under Mayor Daley and a historian on the faculty of the University of Chcago.

In March of 1971, the 1972 McGovern campaign kicked off with a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline: “I’m tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” And one of the four signers of the ad was Professor Wade, who had just become a Distinguished Professor at City University Graduate Center in NY. I went to work as a volunteer on that campaign and began a friendship with Dick Wade that was one of the most important in my life until his passing last summer.

Dick and I shared love for American history, liberal politics, baseball, and urban living. I was his eager acolyte, lending a hand to any political effort he tapped me for and constantly interviewing him about his own life. I want to share a few of the things I learned about him FROM him over our nearly four decades of conversation. Dick was very modest about his involvement in history, almost as if he felt it would compromise his credentials as a historian to write himself into the story. Well, I have no credentials as a historian to sully; I’m just Dick’s friend. This is what I know.

Dick grew up near Chicago, a White Sox fan because Democrats were White Sox fans. William Wrigley, who owned the Cubs, was both a Republican and a Klan sympathizer. Dick was also a superior athlete, a Junior Davis Cupper in tennis and a football player. He enrolled at the University of Rochester just before World War II; I don’t know if Dick was pulling my leg when he told me that HE thought he was going to Rochester, Minnesota right up until he got his train ticket to go to college.

The way Dick told it, he wasn’t much of a student his first three years. But in his senior year, he suffered a serious football injury. He never actually said so, but he led me to believe that injury turned his hair gray and made him unable to father children (although he did a great job with two he adopted.) While he was recovering, he had to sit around for the first time in his life. “First I taught myself to smoke a pipe,” he told me. “After that, I was looking for something to do while I smoked the pipe and I read the first book I had ever read without it being required of me. I loved it.” And that, he would have had me believe, was how he discovered that he wanted to be a scholar.

In 1946, Dick was a graduate assistant at Harvard when young John F. Kennedy came by looking for support in his first race for Congress. That began a friendship which lasted until JFK’s tragic death and an association with the Kennedy family that was one of the defining aspects of Dick’s life.

Dick had two fabulous stories about 1948. I can’t remember all the details, but at an ADA convention, he ended up being put up in an extra room in Eleanor Roosevelt’s suite. His story about that was he was awakened by the sound of the typewriter well before dawn, as she wrote her daily newspaper column. That same year, Dick wrote the famous civil rights speech delivered by then-Mayor of Minneapolis Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention. Dick said that if that speech had been delivered at a time other than the middle of the night, it would have been the end of his political career. As it was, it was the start.

Dick was at the University of Rochester in the 1950s, deeply involved in the New York Stevenson campaigns in 1952 and 1956. In 1954, Dick collaborated on the history brief for the historic Brown versus the Board civil rights case.

In 1960, he was an important player in JFK’s successful run for the White House. Dick had a story about working in West Virginia and complaining at one point to Robert Kennedy about the lack of contact between the West Virginia campaign and the national office. RFK’s response was to give Dick a roll of dimes and to tell him to call whenever he needed to check in.

What proved to be one of the most dazzling demonstrations of Dick’s insight and prescience came at a Yankee-White Sox doubleheader we went to during the summer of 1971. While we watched the full two games, Dick laid out the McGovern strategy to get the 1972 nomination. Dick said we would come close in New Hampshire which would take the shine off Muskie’s inevitability; New Hampshire was a home state for a Maine senator. Then we’d win the Wisconsin primary, which would knock Muskie out because his top-down campaign couldn’t run without a constant flow of money.

The key to understanding how this could work, the Professor explained, was to know that polls were meaningless in primaries because of low turnouts — 10% or 15% was not uncommon — and that, with our superior canvassing and volunteer operation, we could drive up the turnout among OUR supporters to achieve what we needed in New Hampshire. We needed about 20,000 votes to do it. This was in July, and the New Hampshire primary was eight months away. McGovern at that point ranked last or near last in every national poll, registering about 2% support. But Dick’s explanation made the challenge seem manageable, which it was. And his scenario played out precisely. 

What I think was the most sensational achievement of Dick’s political career came in 1974. Howard Samuels had co-chaired McGovern’s post-convention NY State Campaign, alongside Dick’s good friend, ex-Mayor Robert Wagner. I don’t know exactly what the root of the problem was, but I do know Dick and Samuels didn’t like each other. This was a unique situation; I am not aware of Dick having animus like that for anybody else, but he didn’t like Howard Samuels.

In 1974, Samuels had an apparent hammerlock on the Democratic nomination for Governor. He had the designation of the State Democratic Party. There was a challenge from Brooklyn Congressman Hugh Carey, but the polls showed Samuels in the lead by 30 points or more and, with Carey having no money or statewide name recognition, it looked like Samuels would coast to the nomination.

Dick had always told me that he’d never lost a contested Democratic primary. In July of 1974, with the primary about 8 weeks away, he called me and asked for the phone numbers of a couple of people upstate, which had been my territory during the 1972 McGovern campaign. I gave him the information he needed and asked him “does this count?”, meaning “does this count as a contested primary? Are you risking your perfect record?” He knew what I meant and said, “I’ll tell you after the weekend.”

And after the weekend, he said “yes, it counts.” He had engineered a coalition among Carey, attorney-general candidate Robert Abrams, and lieutenant-governor candidate Maryann Krupsak to share poll coverage on election day. And all three of them swept to victory; Howard Samuels never had any power in state politics again.

One lesson Dick taught me, applied in 1974, was that in a statewide Democratic primary in New York, if you can establish that one candidate is clearly the liberal and another the moderate, the liberal will always win. I used that knowledge to win quite a few bets in 1982, when Mario Cuomo, again with Dick’s help, defeated Ed Koch for the gubernatorial nominantion in a result not expected by anybody except Dick Wade and the people who learned their politics from him.

For the last several years, even though his health had been in a gradual decline for more than a decade, we kept up having lunch every few months. Most of the recent times, I would go visit Dick with Ed Rogoff, whom I met on the NY McGovern campaign. Our last visit with the Professor was in June when we discussed the happy prospect of an Obama presidency. Dick’s comment on Obama was the hushed, almost reverent observation: “he has made so FEW mistakes!”

Right after we saw Dick, I read two books, both called “The Last Campaign.” The first one was about Truman’s 1948 race and in it were a lot of things I needed to ask Dick about. The book reported that it was the ADA that did the work for Truman of painting Wallace as too close to the communists, and Dick was a charter ADAer. I know he would have had interesting things to say about that.

But the second one was about Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign, and Dick was all over it. I had known that Dick had a lot to do with Richard Hatcher’s election as mayor of Gary. But I did not know that Dick had — according to this book — led a faction in the RFK campaign that said “keep campaigning among the black voters and keep talking about civil rights” that was opposed by another faction that said “we have the black vote wrapped up; let’s just go after the white voters and not take chances alienating them.” According to this book, Ted Kennedy was the leader of the cautious faction.

I was reading this book in London. I emailed Ed and said, “we have to go visit the Professor as soon as possible. We have to ask him about the things in this book.” Ed reached out immediately, but was told by Dick’s wife, Liane, that he was not up to a visit. We should try again next week. And the next week he died.

Dick Wade was a great man. He spent decades close to power and the powerful, but he never wanted anything except what was right for the country. For him, race was America’s exceptional challenge and devotion to civil rights was every citizen’s greatest responsibility. He was also fun, witty, kind, and a great storyteller. His loss is irreplaceable. It was an enormous privilege and joy to have been his friend.