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Amazon exec to depart amid its uncertain future in publishing

Larry Kirshbaum, the editorial head of Amazon's adult and children's publishing imprints, is on his way out as Amazon ponders its next move in book publishing.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stands next to a graphic comparing the trends of Amazon book sales against physical book sales during a press conference on September 6, 2012 in Santa Monica, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

Amazon may have the publishing industry in a bind, but it's not fairing so well when it comes to putting its own bestsellers on the shelves.

Larry Kirshbaum, the high-profile industry veteran who joined Amazon's publishing outfit in 2011 as editorial head of its New York and Seattle adult and children's imprints, is leaving the company early next year, as reported first by Shelf Awareness on Friday.

Shelf Awareness also claimed that Amazon Publishing will be scaling back its operations, and that members of its editorial staff have already been let go, though it declined to name individuals. Amazon countered this directly, saying in a statement to CNET, "We're sorry to see him go, and wish him the best of luck as he returns to life as a literary agent. Our New York office will continue to expand, as our overall publishing business grows." The company also confirmed that Daphne Durham has already stepped into Kirshbaum's role as publisher for its adult trade and children's businesses.

Kirshbaum, former head of Time Warner Books Group, joined Amazon Publishing in May of 2011, prompting vicious industry backlash from the bookselling industry that was just beginning to see how disruptive Amazon's business tactics had become to the traditional publishing field. Barnes & Noble refused to stock Amazon-published books in its stores, and independent publishers then followed suit.

But Amazon continued its aggressive pricing and distribution practices, earning a substantial victory in court this past summer when US District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled that Apple had conspired with five of the largest publishing companies in the US to fix e-book prices.

That antitrust decision secured Amazon's position as the most robust and consumer-friendly bookseller on the market. Still, Amazon Publishing has yet to gain anywhere near that kind of traction in the industry, thanks largely to the blows it's been dealt by Barnes & Noble and others and a marketing approach that failed to account for the appeal and reach of seeing a book on display in stores.

"I expected them to find the next 'Hunger Games.' I expected the next 'Harry Potter' to come through Amazon. They have not changed the world like many assumed they would," Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester technology analyst, told The New York Times last fall in a telling report that illustrated just how much muscle the traditional bookselling and publishing industries were putting in the fight against Amazon.

So far, Amazon has banked on memoirs and self-help books that it hoped could gain mass appeal and set a precedent for celebrity and high profile. But even consumer good and retail giants joined in with Barnes & Noble to further undermine Amazon's efforts at pushing its own titles. Walmart and Target decided to carry big launches as recent as last fall's "The 4-Hour Chef" in their online stores only.

Its unclear whether Kirshbaum's departure will have any effect on Amazon's presence in the nexus of book publishing in New York. The company is expected to continue its success with thrillers and sci-fi thanks to its Seattle-based imprints that include Thomas & Mercer, 47North, and Montlake Romance.

Amazon says its roots are still strong in New York, adding, "In fact, we will be announcing new imprints to launch in New York soon."