Corporate Blues: On Eoin Purcell’s Amazon Appointment


Bit Of A Bombshell

My colleagues at The Bookseller broke the news in a report from our Benedicte Page: Eoin Purcell has been appointed head of the London division of Amazon Publishing.

I’m both heartened and saddened by this news.

Before the knees jerk, let me be perfectly clear:

  • I am thrilled for Purcell: he is more than deserving of this move. This is a case in which a wonderful position has gone to an equally wonderful candidate. Boy, can this guy do great things with a horse like this under him.
  • And I am deeply impressed with Amazon’s insight. As several observers are noting in our chatter about the appointment, Seattle is much smarter than a lot of the surrounding publishing establishment has been. Purcell is a man one of the majors should have tapped long ago. Amazon is making a thoroughly apt, intelligent selection, bravo.

Purcell is, most recently, editorial director with Dublin’s venerable New Island Books. He has been a commissioning editor there, as well, and at Mercier Press. He also worked in the past as publishing manager at Nonsuch Ireland, now the History Press Ireland. Devoted to his country, he founded and has published The Irish Story — an online magazine and ebook publisher focused on Irish history — and the Irish Publishing News. He’s been an Irish Times columnist.

In the international community, many of us in publishing have known Purcell for years as a dependably independent, relentlessly balanced thinker. I’ve learned to look to him when I needed to test a position that sounded extreme. Inevitably what I got back was rational, reasoned, often refreshing because it wasn’t the hair-trigger snarl-back we get too much of in publishing.

For that reason, when I interviewed Purcell in one of my live #PorterMeets sessions for The Bookseller, I opened the write this way:

When all about you are losing their heads, Mr. Kipling, it’s Eoin Purcell you want nearby.

Our focus in that February interview was the advent of Hugh Howey’s controversial reports. Purcell welcomed Howey’s new dimension of estimates and calculations as “hopefully [the] start of a more mature conversation around change in publishing,” emphasis mine. He made no excessive claims of accuracy for the Howey reports, but neither did he dismiss them out of hand as others would do.

When I asked him in #PorterMeets about the noisy debate around the Howey initiative, Purcell tweeted back, emphasis mine again:

Authors, as a class, growing in power, publishers as a class, losing some = change.

Our friend Sam Missingham of HarperCollins UK — formerly at The Bookseller — was able to recall and find Purcell’s column Amazon as publisher for Posted on June 9, 2010, the piece looks at the then-new Amazon Publishing imprints AmazonEncore (“overlooked books from emerging authors”) and AmazonCrossing (a world leader now in translation).

In part, this is what Purcell wrote four years ago, yet again my emphasis:

To dismiss AmazonEncore, and the latest imprint AmazonCrossing which will translate foreign language titles into English and sell them on the same basis as Encore, is to underestimate the change that can be wrought to a model over time by patient and gradual action, such as that engaged in by Amazon.

Right now, there is nothing to prevent Amazon ramping their publishing schedule up until they are publishing hundreds of books a year either within Encore or by launching new imprints…For authors, that may well be great news, it might even be great news for readers…But for publishers, the sad truth is that, if this continues, Amazon will have eaten their lunch.

The Change I Don’t Care For

You see the word Purcell has been saying to us. As crisply as he has been able to sort and embrace change — when many others feared it — I’ve felt a certain melancholy all day about this news, the announcement of his smart appointment to the Amazon Publishing editorial leadership in London.

For some weeks now, Purcell has been quieter than before. We haven’t had the benefit of his commentary on various issues. Now we know why. The hiring process was under way, something one doesn’t discuss, of course, when in play.

But even more frustrating? — we don’t get Purcell’s voice back now.

This is not Amazon’s fault. It’s far too facile for people to attribute all that they like or all that they dislike to Seattle. The realities of the standard corporate clam-up cannot be blamed on the Pacific Northwest.

I spent many years working in companies of the Time Warner system, and I know well the requirement of no comment in opinion-wracked times. These policies are prudent. Such influential, complex entities as these can’t allow everyone  on board to go mouthing off each time he or she has something to say.

But “understanding is the booby prize,” as Werner Erhard said. And I find my own understanding of corporate silence anything but comforting today. I know several fine, agile thinkers inside Amazon, people I sometimes wish could speak candidly. We could learn and comprehend so much more if they could.

I think publishing now is losing another important observer into that quietude, with Purcell’s excellent posting to London.

As for the backdrop of current unpleasantness, imagine if Amazon’s and Hachette’s executives didn’t have legal departments helping them remember not to speak their minds. If these corporate powers could just bark out whatever concessions they wanted, we might see fewer sales-page “negotiating tactics” that inflame authors and baffle customers and send Douglas Preston to the Times for an expensive full-page ad. We might even learn what actually stands between Hachette and Amazon, what’s stopping the deal. Remember, we don’t know what’s at issue. What we see is public performance, carefully crafted. The actual struggle is private, as well it should be, and that’s not either company’s fault.

But it sure is a shame. Because it’s a lot clearer when Godzilla and Mothra get into a big showdown. They’re not constrained on commenting, are they? No, and it’s instantly obvious that those roaring creatures should take it off the street and quit wrecking things. Get a room. Get a conference room.

I stand with so many well-wishers today, eagerly applauding Purcell for this superb appointment. I don’t doubt for a minute that he’ll helm Amazon Publishing UK with unswerving good taste, grace, and his love of literature, real literature, always out front. This is a genuine man of Ireland, after all. The move from Dublin alone cannot be easy for our friend.

I just wish I weren’t troubled by the accompanying effect: publishing is losing a wise perspective we can ill-afford to have silenced.

Nobody’s fault. It’s the condition and the fact of a corporate era. And I regret it.

I miss this voice already. And I will miss it, all the more, going forward.