PubWest Keynote Focuses on Amazon’s Dominance of the Book Market

PubWest members assembled last week at the historic La Fonda on the Plaza hotel in Santa Fe, N.M., for the trade association’s annual conference. Running from Feb. 7-9, PubWest programming revolved around three aspects of strategic change in the publishing industry: “Culture, Content, Commerce.” Dynamic keynotes, panels, and networking events kept the energy and turnout steady all the way through the final session. “Attendance was up,” said PubWest executive director Kent Watson, counting about 175 attendees. “We had one of our best conferences.”

The most discussed speech was by Open Markets Institute senior fellow Lina Khan who anchored PubWest’s “Commerce” track with a rousing keynote. The legal scholar described a “monopoly crisis” in the United States that arose after a fundamental shift in antitrust enforcement in the 1980s. “More than any other firm, Amazon depicts how a company can come to monopolize all sorts of markets without triggering scrutiny under our anti-monopoly laws,” Khan said, detailing the online retailer’s “sheer dominance” of the publishing marketplace. “Amazon is seller of books, a publisher of books, a printer of books, and dominant in both the e-reader and e-book markets. It is both a third party marketplace and a merchant of its own private labels, creating a huge conflict of interest,” she said.

Khan’s keynote earned a sustained standing ovation from attendees, sparking ongoing conversations throughout the conference. American Booksellers Association (ABA) CEO Oren Teicher singled out the session as an “indispensable discussion” about Amazon’s “extraordinarily negative effect” on bookselling. “All of us in the book business have the opportunity and responsibility to begin to educate ourselves, our customers, and the folks we deal with both in and out of our businesses, about Amazon’s impact on the overall U.S. economy,” he said.

The “Culture” track encouraged diversity in all corners of the industry. Samm Saxby, an author, editor, and bookseller at Portland’s Green Bean Books, won the year’s Jack W. Swanson Scholarship—an annual initiative to bring more young publishing professionals to PubWest, free of charge. “I would not trade this experience for anything,” said Saxby, pledging to support the new diversity committee that launched at the 2019 conference. “I’m thinking about all the people in my community that don’t know about PubWest. I’m already trying to think about who needs to be on the diversity committee,” she said.

The “Content” track at PubWest was packed with creative advice for attendees. The “Editorial: Examining Style and Tone” session shared resources publishers can access to make sure they are respectful and accurate when creating content about other cultures. Don Gorman, publisher at Canada’s Rocky Mountain Books, urged attendees to use Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples by Gregory Younging PhD and Indigenous Rights by Chelsea Vowel.

Overcup Press co-founder Rachel Bell explained how the indie publisher creates works with translators to create a style guide for multilingual books—keeping language usage consistent throughout a title. When working on a book that involved indigenous communities, Bell reached out to a tribe for “crucial” advice about usage. “If you are writing about Native American history or culture, most of the tribes have a marketing resource and a library resource within the tribe,” she said. “They really want you to reach out and are more than willing to help.”

Alfred A. Knopf associate art director Chip Kidd delivered a keynote address that explored his creative design process behind book covers for authors like Scott Kelly, Haruki Murakami, and Bret Easton Ellis. “You don’t need to be able to draw to do this,” said Kidd while sharing multiple cover iterations he made for Murakami’s Men Without Women story collection. “You want people to focus on the idea, not the drawing. If you only had the type, you would get one kind of idea in your head. If you only had the image, you would get one kind of idea in your head. But put them together, and it makes a third concept.”

On the final day of the conference, ABA CEO Teicher celebrated “a real generational shift” as a new cohort of publishing professionals join PubWest and other trade associations around the country. “The increasing number of younger owners/operator booksellers in our business is overwhelming,” said Teicher. “For us, that represents a really optimistic reason to feel good about the future.”

Journalist and author Luis Alberto Urrea received the 2019 Jack D. Rittenhouse Award, an annual honor recognizing “an important contribution to the Western community of the book.” Urrea recalled how the University of Arizona Press published Wandering Time, his personal favorite book out of his 17 published works of fiction and nonfiction. “There’s stuff that you need to do more humbly. Just out of sheer love,” he said. “And small presses allow you to do that.”

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