Amazon continues on its mission to disintermediate publishers

What if you could ask the author of a book a question while you were reading the book? That’s the kind of world Amazon (s amzn) wants to offer with its new @author feature, which the online bookstore launched on Wednesday with a group of writers including Susan Orlean and self-help guru Tim Ferriss. Readers can ask questions directly from their Kindles while they are reading a book, and the question gets sent to the author’s Twitter account as well as to their home page at Amazon. In addition to creating what the company hopes will be a kind of reader community around Kindle titles — something it has been pushing in other ways as well — this new feature looks like another step in Amazon’s quest to cut publishers out of the equation and build relationships directly with authors.

In addition to Orlean and Ferriss — author of “The Four-Hour Body” and other similar books — the Amazon pilot includes writers such as Steven Berlin Johnson, J.A. Konrath and John Locke. All have agreed to respond to reader questions, and many are already active in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Amazon says on the FAQ page for the feature that authors won’t be able to answer every question, and the idea is clearly to get other readers to respond to questions as well, much like movie-watchers do at sites like the Internet Movie Database.

The FAQ page also asks readers to “behave as if you were a guest at a friend’s dinner party,” and not post anything defamatory or offensive, and allows readers to flag questions or answers as abusive. Anyone who asks a question will be notified by email if their question has been answered, Amazon says.

Building social features around books

The @author feature comes just a few months after the online bookseller launched a social-networking style program based on the Kindle, which allows readers to “follow” other readers the same way they would on a network like Twitter — and thereby see what books they are reading, as well as any highlights or notes they have created in the books they have read (if the user chooses to show these items). The program got some attention recently when it added a feature that auto-followed a reader’s Twitter or Facebook friends, in what appeared to be an attempt to promote the program.

As Megan Garber notes at the Nieman Journalism Lab, one of the most obvious aspects of the new @author feature is that it disintermediates the publishers who normally act as middlemen between writers and readers (and who rarely pass on questions to authors, as anyone who has tried to contact one knows). While not every writer is going to want to respond directly to their audience, many have begun to get more interested in interacting with readers, including some who have adopted Twitter as a method of direct communication with fans — such as Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who took part in Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe’s recent experiment with a Twitter-powered global book club called “1book140.”

But connecting authors directly with readers isn’t the only way Amazon wants to disintermediate publishers. The online retailer has also taken a more direct step recently by signing a deal to publish Ferriss, whose books have become phenomenally popular over the past year. Although Amazon has published other authors, the Ferriss deal got the attention of many in the publishing world as a kind of shot across the bow of traditional publishers — many of whom are still smarting from their recent battles with Amazon over book pricing.

As we’ve pointed out a number of times at GigaOM, the whole concept of what a book is has been evolving rapidly over the past few years, and Amazon has been a big part of that from the beginning, thanks to its launch of the Kindle e-reader platform. In addition to spurring the sales of e-books in general, the Kindle has also played a central role in the publishing industry’s disruption because it allows anyone to sell their own e-books and keep up to 70 percent of the proceeds (provided the book sells for $4.99 or over).

The rise of the self-publishing superstar

Among those who have taken advantage of this phenomenon are Amanda Hocking, who started writing Kindle books for young adults a little over a year ago and managed to bring in more than $2 million in revenue without the help of a traditional publisher or agent. That performance convinced the publishing world to take another look, and Hocking signed a $2-million multibook deal with St. Martin’s Press earlier this year. Other self-publishers such as Konrath have continued to promote the benefits of self-publishing (my colleague Cyndy Aleo has a series of posts based on interviews with young adult authors about self-publishing).

Given that, it’s no surprise that Konrath is part of the Amazon @author launch — and so is another author who has played a role in popularizing self-publishing: John Locke, a former businessman who took up writing Kindle novels several years ago and recently became the first e-book author to sell more than a million copies. Not long afterward, Locke signed an unusual deal with mainstream publisher Simon & Schuster, which will see the publisher handle marketing and sales of print versions of his books, while still allowing him to continue self-publishing his own e-books and keeping all the proceeds.

That deal was a tangible sign of how the balance of power in the publishing business continues to shift, with authors (or at least, the ones who can demonstrate they have a connection with their readers and an ability to sell) gaining more strength and traditional publishers having to adapt. And Amazon continues to be at the center of that ongoing transformation of the industry.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Mike Licht and timetrax