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Amazon retreats from the book world as publishing chief announces resignation

Amazon chief of publishing Larry Kirshbaum will step down early next year, according to an official statement.

The resignation comes as Amazon appears to retreat from plans to expand its publishing arm into a major New York publisher, although the online giant denies any plans to scale back its operations.

"We can confirm that Larry Kirshbaum is leaving Amazon on January 17," an Amazon spokesperson said when contacted.

"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 joined the company in 2011 as vice president and publisher of Amazon Publishing's New York office, and soon rose to editorial director for imprints on both the east and west coasts. His position as the former CEO of Time Warner Publishing Group (now Hachette Book Group) until 2005 made him a formidable force in the book world, and a major coup for Amazon's publishing aspirations.

At the time, his appointment was seen as a move by Amazon to go head to head with the 'big six' traditional New York publishers. Upon his appointment, Kirshbaum promised to run the general trade imprint "in the vein of a major publishing house", bypassing publishers by acquiring authors directly, and providing "quality books in literary and commercial fiction, business and general nonfiction."

The news of Kirshbaum's resignation is a sign of how poorly this plan went for the Seattle-based online marketplace.

Part of the problem was the book industry's inherent hostility towards Amazon. First, major bookshops like Barnes & Noble refused to stock the company's books, and big-name authors saw no advantage to signing directly with Amazon. First-time authors who signed with the online giant saw poor sales and a lack of market penetration harm their books' performance.

Kirshbaum has also seen negative media attention drawn his way. The resignation announcement comes just a month after allegations of sexual assault were levelled against the executive, allegations which Kirshbaum's lawyers described as "baseless".

A trio of independent bookshops also sued Amazon earlier this year for allegedly using digital rights management (DRM) technology to create what the plaintiffs claimed was a monopoly on the sale of eBooks in the United States.

Proponents of traditional publishing shouldn't get too carried away with celebration at Kirshbaum's departure, though. Amazon still dwarfs all major publishers in sheer retail, and even mergers of huge publishing houses into monsters like Penguin Random House have done little to threaten its industry primacy. However, it looks like for the time being, Amazon will still be going to the publishers to find its talent.

Image: Flickr (bookmkr_64)