An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

Publishers are hoping to learn from the mistakes of the music industry, in particular. It was the first victim of cultural digitization. Its customers ignored copyrights to music en masse, swapping albums and songs for free.

"We're lucky," says Frank Sambeth, the head of Random House's German operations, in Munich. "We had a little time to prepare for the new world and avoid old mistakes."

When the first e-book readers suitable for mass use came on the market, a reasonable number of legal e-books already existed. In other words, customers were not essentially forced into illegality, as was the case in the music industry around the turn of the millennium, when it was possible to buy the first MP3 players but there was no decent legal platform to download music.

"Our clientele is also financially strong and willing to pay," says Sambeth. "It accepts that an intellectual product is worth something, and it's willing to pay for it." Amazon Enters Into Publishing

But while publishing houses are currently trying to take Amazon's success casually and make the best of the triumph of the e-book, the company is clamping down on the industry by not only seeking to establish a monopoly in the sale of books, but also with its goal of producing bestsellers itself.

Larry Kirshbaum, the head of Amazon Publishing since 2011, used to be senior publishing executive at Time Warner. In addition to concluding joint venture agreements with established publishers for Amazon, he also went ahead and bought a few publishing houses and signed exclusive contracts with several popular American authors.

The competition is outraged, and they accuse Amazon of distorting prices. The company pays its authors such high fees and offers such favorable terms that the old-school publishers are also forced to pay their authors more, just to keep up.

The role of authors has also changed, although it's difficult to say in what direction. Of course, there are many more paths to success today, but it's questionable whether authors ultimately benefit when every book and every author has to become its own profit center. How will that affect Werner Fritsch, for example?

Scraping By

Fritsch is a Suhrkamp author, and because the world is an unfair place, he is still a starving author today. He has won many awards and fellowships. Suhrkamp has been publishing his books reliably for more than two decades, to reliable praise by the critics. Fritsch is highly respected and well reviewed, but he has a relatively small readership.

"Almost all artists I know, people who make an important contribution in terms of intellectual enrichment and bring color into the gray of everyday life, barely make enough money to survive," says Fritsch. He's also referring to himself. "I haven't written any prose yet that didn't take three years to develop, and yet it isn't even enough to live on for a month."

With E-Books or Print, Publishing Remains Game of Chance Sibylle Berg, who is also a SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist, is another case in point. The author of "Vielen Dank für das Leben" ("The Gift of Life") estimates that she makes about €5 an hour when she writes a novel. Readings "are usually worth exactly zero euros." Berg knows exactly what she's doing, though. Writing novels was "never a business-driven decision," she says.

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