Amazon's Publishing Chief Announces Plans to Step Down

Amazon distribution center in Fernley, Nevada Photograph by Hardy Mueller/Redux

1:45 p.m., Oct. 25: Adds comment from Amazon.com

Book industry veteran Larry Kirshbaum, the chief of Amazon.com’s high-profile New York City publishing division, announced today that he’s leaving the company. The news was first reported in the publishing industry newsletter Shelf Awareness.

The simplest thing you can say about Kirshbaum’s two-year tenure is that it didn’t work. Kirshbaum’s role was to hire big-name authors and to allow Amazon to experiment with their books—try different formats, set different prices on the Kindle. The initial response was chilly: Kirshbaum’s longtime colleagues in the cloistered world of  publishing criticized his move to the Seattle e-commerce giant and disrupter of the book business. Much of the media coverage of the move was hardly complimentary, and in some cases could be construed as (ahem) inflammatory.

Then the real problems began. First, the book industry’s auto-immune response kicked in. Book chains like Barnes & Noble declined to stock Amazon’s books, and big-name authors balked at signing with the company. The few who did, including actor Penny Marshall and self-help guru Timothy Ferriss, saw their titles underperform. Even today, it turns out, books need physical stores to become true blockbusters.

More recently, Kirshbaum, who’s in his 70s, encountered some personal challenges: He’s been sued for sexual harassment, an accusation that he has strongly denied. Kirshbaum did not immediately responded to a request for comment.

“We can confirm that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon on January 17,” says Amazon.com spokeswoman Sarah Gelman in an e-mailed statement. “Larry joined us two and a half years ago and has been instrumental in launching our New York office, including our New Harvest partnership, and establishing our children’s book business. We’re sorry to see him go, and wish him the best of luck as he returns to life as a literary agent.”

Kirshbaum’s departure doesn’t mean Amazon is giving up on its publishing ambition. The company will still have a presence in New York, and it has imprints in Seattle that publish works in genres like romance and science fiction.

So if anyone in the publishing business is feeling a little joy at Kirshbaum’s misfortune (read this interview with agent Andrew Wylie to get a taste of the acrimony), that feeling won’t last. The threat from Amazon hasn’t gone away.

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