Major book publishers have quietly begun selling directly to customers over the Internet, a move that could transform the trade by putting them in competition with online retailers such as Amazon.com.
The publishers, including Simon & Schuster Inc., Random House Inc. and Penguin Group, say they have limited retail ambitions and are simply trying to use their websites to help readers.
“We can offer features, services and guidance that might be difficult for another retailer to provide,” Penguin Chairman John Makinson said. “What we’re not going to be is competitors to Amazon or any other retailer in this area.”
Nevertheless, publishers have been none too thrilled about retailers such as Barnes & Noble Inc. encroaching on their territory by self-publishing a number of books, including classics by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Mark Twain.
“The retailers have become publishers, so why can’t publishers become retailers?” said Pat Schroeder, president of the Assn. of American Publishers, a trade group. “It’s an experimental thing. Everyone’s trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.”
Publishers are struggling along with many of their media and entertainment peers to adapt to evolving technology that is forcing them to rethink their business models. The issue has been a hot topic of conversation at a book fair this week in Frankfurt, Germany.
“We can’t rely any longer on the traditional assumption that we’re a publisher, he’s a retailer, we won’t retail, he won’t publish,” Makinson said. “We’ll have to accommodate one another.”
Simon & Schuster, the book publishing arm of media conglomerate Viacom Inc., launched its online sales in September.
“We never expected it would create an avalanche of sales, but it would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity to let visitors to our site buy a book they came to find out about,” spokesman Adam Rothberg said.