This article by Nina Shapiro originally appeared on Seattle Weekly on 11/4/14.
Amid a boycott and bicoastal culture clash, Amazon has created a new model of publishing. Where does that leave authors?
One day in 2012, Megan Chance, a historical-fiction writer from the Kitsap Peninsula, arrived at Amazon.com’s South Lake Union headquarters for a meeting. The retail giant’s sleek new campus was bustling with software engineers of various nationalities, marketing mavens, and MBAs. The floor Chance visited, though, was practically empty. “There were, like, four people there,” Chance recalls. “It was bizarre.”
The two-decade-old online retailer was still getting a relatively new and little-understood division going—one devoted not only to selling books on the vast digital platform it had created, but also to publishing them. With the frenetic speed of a start-up, Amazon Publishing had in a few years launched a series of imprints devoted to different niches: mystery, romance, historical fiction, science fiction, and more. Now, the company’s fledgling imprint devoted to her genre, Lake Union Publishing, wanted to publish Chance’s latest work, Bone River, a novel about a 19th-century ethnologist who develops a mystical connection to a mummy.
Chance, in her early 50s, was at a low point in her career. She had spent two decades writing books that languished on bookstore shelves, caught in what she believed was a “vicious cycle” common to the publishing world. She had sold her first book to Hachette, which saw enough promise in the work to give her a big advance. The book sold poorly, though, and the publisher paid for a smaller print run the next time around, according to Chance. Those numbers weren’t great either. After that, she says, Hachette “was done.” She moved on to another publisher, where the downward spiral continued.
She was ready again for a new publisher with Bone River, but the New York publishers she approached didn’t bite. “Come back to us when you have better numbers,” she recalls being told.