Jeff Bezos' purchase of the Post highlights the Seattle area's digital-media potential
Over the past five years, the traditional publishing industry has seen its century-old roots begin to pull up from New York City. Newspaper and book publishers that have for decades controlled what we read and how we read it have watched as tech companies have swooped in and carried away huge branches of the industry.
Devices like the Kindle e-reader, introduced by Seattle-based Amazon only six years ago, have changed the way people buy and read books. Smartphones, tablets and social media have changed the way we consume news. And digital-only news organizations have sprung up to fill the seemingly limitless consumer appetite for digital stories, even as newspapers across the country have cut staff, closed or given up on print publication.
While all of this may seem to have happened quite quickly, it's actually a transition that has been in progress for years - and has been driven in part by companies based in the Puget Sound area.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos may have just literally and figuratively grabbed headlines by buying the Washington Post for the bargain price of $250 million, but local tech companies have been making inroads into journalism and publishing for years.
Microsoft launched its news service MSNBC nearly 20 years ago, then financed the launch of the all-digital Slate magazine in the mid-1990s, later selling it to the Washington Post. The MSN news site, now run by many Seattle news industry veterans after a split from NBC, is still one of the top 20 most-visited sites on the internet.
Now, with Amazon's huge push into publishing and the growing number of startups seeing opportunities in the industry's turbulence, the Puget Sound area is poised to become a digital publishing powerhouse as the industry is forced into the 21st century.
For the publishing industry, this will mean huge changes to longstanding business models and the likely consolidation or closure of once-great companies that fail to adapt. For readers, it means more diversity of genres and authors on the digital shelves. For writers, it means fewer obstacles to getting published but more of a struggle getting noticed. And for Seattle-area companies, it offers a chance to cash in while helping to shape an emerging industry.
There's no denying Amazon and its hard-driving founder are leading the charge.
Authors as customers
"We don't really think about things in terms of competition," Jeff Belle, vice president of Amazon Publishing, said in an email. "We focus on what customers want, and in this case, on how we can create value for authors and readers as the landscape changes."
Technology like the Kindle might seem the most obvious way Amazon has changed the very landscape in which it operates. But that's not the only innovation Amazon has made.
The company pays its authors royalties every month instead of biannually, the way publishers traditionally have. That change gives authors quick feedback on marketing efforts, which helps given Amazon's authors typically must do their own promotion.
Amazon has made it easy for authors to publish through its automated services, catering to them like customers. The company offers editing and proofreading services, lessons in book marketing, and a variety of publishing options spanning print and digital. Amazon has hired former publishing industry veterans as liaisons to the writing community, and they frequently show up on industry panels previously dominated by New York agents and publishers.
The new Kindle Singles program has even opened the door to genres - short stories, essays, novellas and long-form journalism - that have traditionally been snubbed by publishers.
"I remember being told (by a traditional publisher) just a few years ago not to worry about those e-books. Now they're over 50 percent of my business," said Jayne Ann Krentz, a bestselling romance novelist who lives in Seattle.
Krentz still publishes traditional books, but digital publishing has opened up some opportunities, like re-publishing out-of-print titles via Amazon's Kindle e-book publishing service.
Amazon allows Kindle Direct Publishing authors to price their own books and to offer specials. Krentz can put an older book on sale when she releases a new one, for example, to entice readers to buy them both at the same time.
Authors also get to keep 70 percent of sales from Amazon e-books. That's significantly more than the 10 percent or less they have traditionally received from New York publishers.
Of course, self-publishing leaves authors to do much of their own marketing, something many aren't prepared to do. Fortunately, solutions to that problem are already in development.
Publishing industry explodes
Rather than killing the publishing industry, many, including Krentz, believe the digital revolution will create an explosion of small publishing companies.
"Those publishers wouldn't have stood a chance before, and now they do. All they need is one book that catches fire," Krentz said.
That's exactly what happened for Seattle publishing and marketing startup Booktrope.
"When people say Amazon is going to eat everyone's lunch, they're going to be the only publisher, that's just silly," said Katherine Sears, co-founder of Booktrope.
Booktrope started out by publishing local author Tess Thompson's book "Riversong" two years ago. That book has now sold more than 90,000 copies, most of which were e-books.
"It takes 12 to 18 months to launch a book in traditional publishing. For us, it's more like 12 weeks," Sears said.
Since its launch, Booktrope has published 144 books. The startup has only nine employees and relies on a software system that connects authors with an editorial, marketing and design team whose members are paid based on a percentage of book sales.
Booktrope takes 30 percent of the sales and, in exchange, uploads the books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple's iTunes and several other digital and physical book publishing systems.
"Being close to Amazon is a big benefit. Anybody can call them up... I can go have coffee or run into them on the street," Sears said.
She also noted that the strong Seattle-area writing community has helped push the publishing industry forward.
That's something Kelsye Nelson knows a thing or two about.
Nelson co-founded Writer.ly, which has created a marketplace for authors to seek editors, marketing experts and proofreaders as they prepare their books for self-publishing. She said that in addition to the 500 or so Seattle-area writers who have joined the Writer.ly community, thousands have joined from around the country.
The explosion of self-publishing, Nelson said, has helped readers discover authors they might never have had a chance to see.
It's also been a big win for tech companies.
"Tech companies are moving fast and they're nimble," she said. "They aren't tied to the old model."
An 'efficient machine'
So what's it like going from a traditional publishing company to a tech company? Many in the news industry have experienced that transition firsthand.
"This is much more of team mentality," said Athima Chansanchai, a writer for the Microsoft News Center who reported for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before the newspaper became an online-only publication in 2009.
Chansanchai, who also worked for MSNBC, said that in newsrooms run by tech companies, everyone writes, reports and edits. That means things get done faster than under a traditional hierarchy of editors and reporters.
"It's an incredibly efficient machine," she said.
The newspaper industry is slightly ahead of the book publishing industry when it comes to tech companies taking over.
"The American newspaper industry has lost about 55 percent of its ad revenue," said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst and author of the book "Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get."
Most of that revenue now goes to tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, Doctor said. That's forced newsrooms to lay off staff just as the competitive environment heats up.
Dan Raley, another former Seattle P-I reporter and now an editor for MSN, said, "This is one of the few news agencies in the country that's expanding and hiring."
While no one would say how big Microsoft's newsroom is, an executive said last year that the company planned to hire some 100 journalists, making it one of the largest newsrooms in the state.
Todd Bishop, co-founder of the online tech-news company GeekWire, said he and his business partner, John Cook, saw the writing on the wall when they were working together at the Seattle P-I before the New York-based Hearst Corp. turned it into a digital-only publication.
Bishop and Cook, who worked briefly for the Puget Sound Business Journal before leaving to start GeekWire, don't rely on advertising for revenue, like print publications traditionally have. Instead, GeekWire hosts a variety of events to pay the bills.
"I think over the next five or 10 years, you're going to see more digital publishing startups," Bishop said - many of them in the Seattle area. "The specialties of the larger companies ... have a deep effect on the startups."
Watching the big guys might tell us a few things about the future of the fast-changing digital publishing industry.
One common refrain since Bezos bought the Washington Post is Amazon's propensity for responding quickly to its customers' demands, something traditional publishers have been accused of being slow to do.
Amazon's Belle wouldn't predict whether tech companies would completely take over publishing, but he did say Amazon's goal was to connect readers directly with authors and make Amazon the place they discover each other.
"Our approach is to keep trying new things, plant a lot of seeds, and to be patient," Belle said. "Customers will decide what works and what doesn't."
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