By Brad Stone
There’s a glaring anachronism at the center of most Amazon.com fulfillment centers: aisle after aisle of old-fashioned books. Amazon stocks these volumes for the many customers who still favor the tangible pleasures of reading on paper. Yet the company is relentless about increasing efficiency and has at the ready an easy way to remove some of those bookshelves: on-demand printing. With an industrial-strength printer and a digital book file from the publisher, Amazon could easily wait to print a book until after a customer clicks the yellow “place your order” button. The technology is championed by those who want to streamline the book business—and it might turn out to be a flash point in the hypertense world of publishing.
The book industry isn’t eager to embrace any more wrenching changes. The introduction of the Kindle in 2007, and Amazon’s insistence on a customer-friendly $9.99 price for new releases, has set off a multifront fracas. Efforts by the largest publishers to sidestep Amazon’s pricing strategy attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five book publishers over their alleged collusion to raise e-book prices. (Three publishers have settled the lawsuit.) The issue of print on demand has taken a backseat as this e-book drama plays out.
Yet executives at major New York-based book publishers, who requested anonymity because of the legal scrutiny of their business, say Amazon regularly asks them to allow print on demand for their slower-selling backlist titles. So far they’ve declined, suspecting that Amazon will use its print-on-demand ability to further tilt the economics of book publishing in its favor. Asking publishers to move to print on demand “is largely about taking control of the business,” says Mike Shatzkin, founder of Idea Logical, a consultant to book publishers on digital issues. “It adds some profit margin, but it also weakens the rest of the publishing universe.”
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