Amazon’s war on books, writers and publishers

I got the word through a post on Facebook by one of my favorite writers, Margaret Maron.

“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.” Amazon has turned into a real bully, blocking a publisher’s sales in order to squeeze more money out of them. Last year, it was the Macmillan Group; this year, it’s my publisher, Hachette. I would urge my readers to order from your local bookstore or from Barnes and Noble. Up until this week, Amazon was taking preorders for my book, Designated Daughters. No longer.

For those who don’t know her work, she writes mysteries.  Her primary focus over the last few years has been on a North Carolina judge and her huge extended family.  Along the way, Maron comments on contemporary issues and national and local politics.  My late mother always used to ask me if there were any new books about that judge as she was an avid reader.  But I digress.  Maron included a link to a  New York Times story.

Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before.

Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention.

“How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it,” asked Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, echoing remarks being made across social media.

The battle is being waged largely over physical books. In the United States, Amazon has been discouraging customers from buying titles from Hachette, the fourth-largest publisher by market share. Late Thursday, it escalated the dispute by making it impossible to order Hachette titles being issued this summer and fall. It is using some of the same tactics against the Bonnier Media Group in Germany.

Hachette publishes Maron’s books.

Publishers tried to rein in Amazon once, and got slapped with a federal antitrust suit for their efforts. Amazon was not directly a party to the case but has reaped the rewards in increased market power. Now it wants to increase its share of the digital proceeds. The publishers, weighing a slide into irrelevance if not nonexistence, are trying to hold the line.

Late Friday afternoon, Hachette made by far its strongest comment on the conflict.

“We are determined to protect the value of our authors’ books and our own work in editing, distributing and marketing them,” said Sophie Cottrell, a Hachette senior vice president. “We hope this difficult situation will not last a long time, but we are sparing no effort and exploring all options.”

The Authors Guild accused the retailer of acting illegally.

“Amazon clearly has substantial market power and is abusing that market power to maintain and increase its dominance, which likely violates Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act,” said Jan Constantine, the Guild’s general counsel.

Independent booksellers, meanwhile, announced they could supply Hachette books immediately. The second-largest physical chain, Books-a-Million, advertised 30 percent discounts on select coming Hachette titles. Among the publisher’s imprints are Grand Central Publishing, Orbit and Little, Brown.

Maron urged her readers to purchase locally or from Barnes and Noble – which still has actual bookstores.

And there is a second New York Times story which points out that Amazon has walked into the predictions of critics who never like the way it did business.

Physical bookstores sell books at a huge markup, which necessarily reduces the number of books that people can afford to buy. Amazon sells printed books, e-books and audiobooks for much, much less. Anyone who has used Amazon’s services has noticed how that fact changes one’s attitude toward books. Through its Prime program, through the Kindle, and through its audiobook subsidiary Audible, Amazon has made it possible to buy books on impulse.

Just wait, the company’s critics have always shot back. Wait till Amazon controls the whole market — then see how well it treats authors, publishers and customers.

Now Amazon is walking right into its detractors’ predictions. There are a couple obvious reasons this is a bad strategy. It’s bad public relations — if it doesn’t already, Amazon may soon control a monopolistic stake of the e-book market and its tactics are sure to invite not only scorn from the book industry but also increased regulatory oversight.

Maybe the local bookstore does charge more, but there are places other than Amazon where you can get discounts.  And not everyone loves e-books. Higher prices probably do mean fewer impulse sales, but publishers and writers are fighting back.  The first Times story reports

The confrontations with the publishers are the biggest display of Amazon’s dominance since it briefly stripped another publisher, Macmillan, of its “buy” buttons in 2010. It seems likely to encourage debate about the concentration of power by the retailer. No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

James Patterson, one of the country’s best-selling writers, described the confrontation between Amazon and Hachette as “a war.”

“Bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the crossfire of an economic war,” he wrote on Facebook. “If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed — by law, if necessary — immediately, if not sooner.”

Mr. Patterson’s novels due to be released this summer and fall are now impossible to buy from Amazon in either print or digital form.

The retailer’s strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between the writers, who need Amazon sales to survive, and Hachette. But this does not seem to be working the way Amazon might want. Nina Laden, a children’s book writer, was one of many Hachette authors lashing out at Amazon in the last week.

“I have supported Amazon for as long as Amazon has existed,” she wrote in a Facebook posting she also sent to the retailer.

She went on to say that she was “frankly shocked and angry at what you are doing” to her new book, “Once Upon a Memory.” “It has made me tell my readers to shop elsewhere — and they are and will,” she wrote. (Amazon customer service wrote back, saying “We will be glad to investigate this issue further” if Ms. Laden would provide additional information.)

Physical books are, unfortunately, under siege and this doesn’t help.  So if books are important to you, I think it is important to stop shopping for them on Amazon.

Books

Photograph:  madeinepal.com

6 thoughts on “Amazon’s war on books, writers and publishers

  1. Amazon needs to be reined in and quickly. Their business model is good, those of us who shop through them, myself included, will always find the model a benefit. Oddly, books is one of the few things I don’t buy often through Amazon, unless it is something hard to find for my business or research that I want to keep on my cloud reader.

    Their ‘monopoly’ mindset is harming the industry. It doesn’t make sense. There is room for the Brick and Mortar bookstore and Amazon. I will always love the physicality of a book in my hand, always. I will always love wandering a bookstore, buying a new release from a beloved author. There are others like me, avid readers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s