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It used to be that authors with hotly anticipated books coming out would enjoy lavish attention from their publishing houses. Armies of publicists would make sure their galleys reached the most influential readers; author tours were planned. There were radio and print interviews scheduled, carefully, around an excerpt in a major magazine. And then there was the author lunch, an elegant affair in which the goggle-eyed writer clinked glasses with critics and editors and generally basked.
As anyone in book publishing will tell you, such events have mostly gone by the wayside as the corporate makers-of-books have struggled with declining sales in the digital age. Many authors now pay for their own book parties—if they have them at all—and hire their own PR consultants to do publicity, as Random House/HarperCollins/Insert Major Publisher Here is less likely to devote precious resources to it.
On May 30 the publishers’ newest and scariest competitor, Amazon (AMZN), hosted its very first author lunch, for Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti, a buzzy young blogger who edits the website Feministing.com. The room was filled with lady writers and moms who listened with rapt attention as Valenti read from her book, the latest entrant in the burgeoning motherhood-as-terrorism genre. There were only three men present, and one of them was Larry Kirshbaum, the head of Amazon’s publishing unit. Why Have Kids? will be the second title being released by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, and the event left the impression that the “legacy” publishers, as the Amazon marketing folks kept referring to them, should be very afraid.
Amazon is intent on becoming a major force in book publishing, as a recent string of high-profile hires indicates, and the luncheon seemed designed to send a strong message. Radicchio salad, black bass, and some kind of salty chocolate-caramel devastation were served at Eleven Madison Park, a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. Wines were poured liberally. Farrar, Straus & Giroux could hardly have done better during Tom Wolfe’s heyday. As if that wasn’t enough, each attendee was sent home with a Kindle Fire, with Valenti’s book preloaded onto it.
In addition to the e-book version, Why Have Kids? will also appear in regular old hardcover, thanks to a partnership Amazon has with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A member of the Amazon Publishing publicity team explained that it means a lot to authors to see their books on bookstore shelves. The irony might be that—for now, at least—Amazon’s authors may never have the experience. In February the country’s largest bookstore chain, Barnes & Noble (BKS), announced it won’t be carrying Amazon-published books at all.