Amazon and Hachette, a publisher of well-known authors including J.K. Rowling, are fighting over e-book royalties — and their customers are the big losers. Amazon has apparently decided to punish the publisher by making it hard to purchase Hachette books. The online retailer is reportedly saying certain titles are out of stock and removing “preorder” buttons from certain titles.
The listing for the Hachette paperback of J.D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories” says it “usually ships in two to four weeks” and offers “Similar items at a lower price,” including a collection of Ernest Hemingway stories published by Scribner.
The Los Angeles Times says numerous Hachette authors have criticized Amazon in recent weeks, including Sherman Alexie (one of my favorites) and James Patterson, who on his Facebook page noted that the purchase of his books, as well as books by Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Sparks, has been made more difficult.
“What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers,” Patterson wrote. “It certainly doesn’t appear to be in the best interest of authors.”
After being silent for days and receiving widespread criticism, Amazon spoke up on Tuesday: “At Amazon, we do business with more than 70,000 suppliers, including thousands of publishers. One of our important suppliers is Hachette, which is part of a $10 billion media conglomerate. Unfortunately, despite much work from both sides, we have been unable to reach mutually-acceptable agreement on terms.”
It’s important to note Amazon’s immense power in the book industry. Its market share of ebook sales is about 60 percent; its share of all books sold is about 30 percent, according to The Times. It has a history of aggressive actions with publishers, most dramatically in 2010 when it removed the buy buttons for releases by Macmillan, whose authors include Jonathan Franzen, Bill O’Reilly and Augusten Burroughs. It fought with Apple over ebook prices and lost, but Apple’s victory was overturned after the U.S. Department of Justice intervened.
Amazon hardly stands alone in a tech industry dominated by a handful of companies. For years, Microsoft enjoyed a near monopoly in the OS market. Now Google holds a similar position in search, Intel in processor manufacturing, and four companies — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — dominate the wireless market.
I’m an avid reader, and this really rubs me the wrong way. Amazon has already done a lot to try to destroy its brick and mortar competitors. Like it or not, the seismic shifts in publishing may well be an inevitable part of a larger shift to digital technology and new consumer buying habits. But bullying, which is what this appears to be, is not inevitable and is flat out wrong.
Now and then I name an industry figure the “Tech Bozo of the Month.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gets that honor in May.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.