Amazon Publishes Books by Top Authors, and Rivals Fret
Dean Koontz, Patricia Cornwell are among the blue-chip writers whose books the tech giant is not just selling but publishing
Dean Koontz’s first novel for Amazon is expected to publish March 31.
Updated Jan. 14, 2020 7:43 pm ET
When Dean Koontz’s book contract expired last year, his stature as one of the country’s top-selling authors made him a hot target for several major publishing houses. He chose Amazon.com
It was a surprising move because it means his new books likely won’t appear in retail stores, which generally boycott Amazon published titles. But Mr. Koontz is banking on Amazon’s vast retail machine to get his work to readers, whether in physical or digital formats.
“Maybe I won’t be in some stores or make the New York Times best-seller list, but I’m willing to take that risk and I think we’ll sell more books in all formats,” Mr. Koontz said.
Amazon dominates the U.S. book-retail market—accounting for over half of all new books sold in October, according to research firm Codex Group—but it is also a force as a book publisher. Signing up blue-chip authors like Mr. Koontz could make the tech giant an even more formidable threat to the traditional industry, led by publishing houses such as Penguin Random House, which is controlled by Germany’s Bertelsmann SE, ViacomCBS Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Publishers, which is owned by Wall Street Journal parent News Corp.
Mr. Koontz’s first novel for Amazon is expected to publish March 31. He already has published a collection of short stories, “Nameless,” that generated over a million downloads in the first month after its debut last November. The stories are available only as e-books and audiobooks.
Mr. Koontz, whose over 100 books include hits like “Odd Thomas” and “Watchers,” isn’t the only high-profile writer Amazon Publishing has snared. In 2018, Patricia Cornwell signed a two-book deal; the first novel, “Quantum,” was published last October and enjoyed brisk downloads despite poor reviews. Both Mr. Koontz and Ms. Cornwell are in the top 25 of all currently published U.S. adult fiction writers, as measured by the size of their most dedicated fan bases, according to consumer surveys by Codex.
Amazon Publishing already has 16 imprints in the U.S. churning out titles from thrillers to romance novels. Rival publishers expect competition for top talent to heat up further, now that Amazon’s initial big-name signings have proved encouraging.
The fact Amazon is both a book publisher and the dominant book retailer is unlikely, on its own, to raise antitrust issues, said several legal and media experts. Current antitrust laws are meant to increase consumer welfare, so Amazon’s low prices act as a shield.
“When prices are low for the customer, that improves consumer welfare even if it puts out of business people who are charging more,” said Gregory Arenson, an antitrust lawyer and partner at Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP.
Mr. Arenson said Amazon might be in violation of antitrust laws, however, if it is using its platform to provide an advantage to books it publishes that it doesn’t provide to other book publishers.
“Amazon offers all publishers a variety of marketing programs, including adding titles to subscription programs like Kindle Unlimited, Amazon First Reads, and Prime Reading,” a spokeswoman for the company said.
Amazon can promise writers a big paycheck, agents say, and a powerful e-commerce platform and marketing tools to promote sales of their work. That is an appealing package, including to established authors who have had declining sales but still believe their best days are ahead.
“Quantum” sold only 6,000 hardcover copies through Nov. 23, according to NPD BookScan, a unit of NPD Group Inc. A spokeswoman for Amazon Publishing says the book has “reached approximately 600,000 readers across print, audio, and digital sales and downloads.”
Even when premier writers remain under contract elsewhere for their novels, Amazon can develop ties with them on other projects such as exclusive short works, and eye a larger deal down the road.
“They are playing a long game with a lot of authors, and yes, it worries me,” said a senior executive at one of the largest publishing companies.
Amazon isn’t “aggressively hunting big-name authors,” said Jeff Belle, vice president of Amazon Publishing. But it is cultivating relationships with writers, he said, and is willing to “write checks for great content.”
The downside for high-profile authors of tying up with Amazon is that Barnes & Noble Inc. and independent booksellers shun Amazon’s books. It is possible Barnes & Noble could change its approach under the new management team that took over after hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. acquired the retailer last summer.
“I am surprised that there is an overt policy at Barnes & Noble to boycott and generally would not personally be in favor of this,” James Daunt, the bookseller’s chief executive, said last month.
For Mr. Koontz—who has sold more than 500 million books world-wide—the opportunity to reach new readers through Amazon’s extensive promotions was too good to ignore, he said.
“We had seven or eight offers, but Amazon offered the most complete marketing plan, and that was the deciding factor,” said Mr. Koontz, who is 74.
The pact Mr. Koontz signed last spring with Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint ended his long relationship with Bantam Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest consumer book publisher. A spokeswoman for Bantam Books, which has published more than 50 of his works, declined to comment.
The six “Nameless” short stories, which feature a vigilante who suffers from amnesia and doesn’t have any fingerprints, sell for $1.99 each. Subscribers to the Amazon Kindle Unlimited service can access them as part of their membership, as can Amazon Prime users.
Mr. Koontz says another reason he signed with Amazon Publishing is because he enjoyed close ties with audiobook publisher Brilliance Audio even before it was acquired by Amazon in 2007.
Mr. Koontz’s success with Brilliance Audio caught the eye of Julia Sommerfeld, editorial director of the Amazon imprint Amazon Original Stories, who suggested working together. The novella that followed, “Ricochet Joe,” was published in December 2017 exclusively as an Amazon e-book and audiobook.
“There was no paperback, no hardcover, but hundreds of thousands of people read it with their e-readers, and he was well compensated,” said Richard Pine, his literary agent.
The ability to reach new potential readers was also a key attraction for Ms. Cornwell, best known for her novels featuring fictional medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. Ms. Cornwell signed a two-book contract with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint in 2018. Her most recent Kay Scarpetta novels had been published by HarperCollins Publishers.