Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Bully Amazon’s Abuse Of Power

Amazon.com has now dramatically raised the stakes in its battle with Hachette (which, full disclosure, is the publisher of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, through its Grand Central Publishing imprint). This is jaw-dropping: In the United States, Amazon has been discouraging customers from purchasing titles from Hachette, the fourth-largest publisher by market share. Late Thursday, […]

Amazon.com has now dramatically raised the stakes in its battle with Hachette (which, full disclosure, is the publisher of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, through its Grand Central Publishing imprint). This is jaw-dropping:

In the United States, Amazon has been discouraging customers from purchasing titles from Hachette, the fourth-largest publisher by market share. Late Thursday, it escalated the dispute by making it impossible to order Hachette’s forthcoming books. It is using some of the same tactics against the Bonnier Publishing Group in Germany.

But the real prize is not the physical books. It is control of e-books, the future of publishing. Amazon is by far the dominant e-book company, and feels it deserves more of the digital proceeds than it is already getting. The publishers, contemplating 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.”

 Megaselling author James Patterson sounds the alarm:

The press doesn’t seem to consider this newsworthy, but there is a war going on between Amazon and book publishers. This war involves money of course, and though I have an opinion, I’m not here to comment on what might be a fair and reasonable settlement.

There are other significant issues people might want to consider. Currently, Amazon is making it difficult to order many books from Little, Brown and Grand Central, which affects readers of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connellyme, and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales. What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers. It certainly doesn’t appear to be in the best interest of authors.

More important—much more important—is the evolution/revolution that’s occurring now in publishing. Small bookstores are being shuttered, book chains are going out of business, libraries are suffering enormous budget cuts, and every publisher—and the people who work at these publishing houses—is feeling a great deal of pain and stress. Ultimately, inevitably, the quality of American literature will suffer.

If the world of books is going to change to ebooks, so be it. But I think it’s essential that someone steps up and takes responsibility for the future of American literature and the part it plays in our culture. Right now, bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the cross fire of an economic war. If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed—by law, if necessary—immediately, if not sooner.

Farhad Manjoo at the Times lays out the stakes:

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.

But the more basic problem here is that Amazon is violating its own code. To win a corporate battle, Amazon is ruining its customer experience. Mr. Bezos has long pointed to customer satisfaction as his North Star; making sure customers are treated well is the guiding principle for how he runs Amazon.

Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons, lengthening shipping times and monkeying with recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves of a man who cares about customers above all else?

Oh, hell no. This is not the free market at work. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, but the Post‘s report is pretty bruising to Amazon. In this excerpt, reporter Steven Mufson talks to author Meryl Gordon, whose new Grand Central Publishing book has good reviews, and was doing well in pre-publication orders — until this feud erupted:

On the list of bestselling books on Amazon, Gordon’s book had ranked in the 2,000 range on Thursday and fell to 4,025 by midday Friday. By Friday evening its ranking sank to 6,945.

“I spent three years on this book and I’m very happy and excited by it,” said Gordon. “But it’s devastating as an author to see the market power they have. It just comes as a bit of a sucker punch when you are trying to reach an audience.”


Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose (and a former Washington Post staff writer), said the display had given some of the titles a boost in sales, but he deplored the impact of Amazon’s feud with Hachette.

“If the Justice Department is not looking into this and remains reluctant to go after Amazon for their abusive behavior, then I think that should be a real concern to the American reading public,” Graham said.

One of the authors caught in the middle is Daniel Schulman, author of “Sons of Witchita,”about the Koch brothers. The publication date was Tuesday, and the Amazon page for it says shipping will take three to five weeks. There is only a modest 10 percent discount from the $30 list price.

“Hachette authors are kind of caught in the crossfire of this business dispute and it’s us that are really getting hurt here,” said Schulman. “This is how we make our livelihood. And if you can’t sell books it directly affects your ability to sell another book if your book is not seen as a success. It’s disheartening after pouring your soul into the subject.”

My book, The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, is now out in paperback. Amazon.com now says “Usually ships within 3 to 5 weeks.

I imagine that most readers of this blog who are inclined to buy my book have already done so, but if not, you don’t want to get it from Amazon. Consider your local bookstore, Eighth Day Books (for the hardback), or BN.com, which is selling the paperback for four dollars less than Amazon, and will ship it to you right away.

I know this is going to sound like special pleading, but Amazon’s outrageous behavior has to be stopped, somehow — preferably by consumer outrage, otherwise by antitrust legislation. I have just written to my US Senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, about this, and will soon be e-mailing Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and a candidate for US Senate this fall, running against Mary Landrieu. If you’re the sort of person who loves books, I suggest you write to your Congressional members as well. You might think that Amazon is negotiating to provide the best price for you for the future, but it is absolutely not in the best interest of writers or readers to have one company wield so much power over the book business. Once they’ve driven everybody else out of business, there will be nothing to stop Amazon from raising its prices without fear of competition, or effectively cutting off writers and publishers it doesn’t like from the marketplace.

I’m ticked off at Amazon for what it’s doing to Little Way, but I’m a lot luckier than my fellow Hachette writers. My book has pretty much had its day in the sun. Given how hard I worked on that book, and what a labor of love it was, if Little Way were just now coming out and Amazon was doing this to it, I would be absolutely crushed. If they can do it to Hachette authors, they can do it to anybody. Besides, it’s not just the writers getting screwed by the near-monopolist bully Jeff Bezos, but every reader in America.

This is important.



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