Earlier this year, I picked up on an Eric Hellman post that suggested (I think correctly) that publishers and Amazon are not playing the same game. In Hellman's view:
"Amazon is fundamentally a company about scale. The common thread between [Amazon Web Services] and the internet book seller of 1995 is the identification of markets with large inefficiencies that could be eliminated by using the internet to amass scale."
A recent post by publishing services provider Aptara, "Amazon, Apple battle shifts to digital content development", raises a related point. Citing Reuters, Aptara suggests that music and eBook (that is, content) catalogues are becoming commodities. To compete in the future, Aptara projects that Amazon and Apple will increasingly need access to developers.
Although they have not always received applause for the quality of their efforts, many publishers do try to compete for access to authors. "Author care" initiatives have been announced by a handful of houses, and most publishers would at least claim that adding value for authors is an important part of their work.
If content catalogues become commodities, though, content providers face significant pressure that would strip their ability to provide meaningful author care. According to Aptara, commoditization also strengthens the hand of any company that can leverage the power of its sales and distribution platform.
I'm still thinking through the Aptara post, but it has already put the Amazon publishing initiative in a different light for me. Maybe the various imprints gathered under Amazon Publishing aren't intended to compete with traditional houses. Rather, they're experiments that are teaching Amazon how to scale direct sales, ahead of the time when eBooks truly are commodities.