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German Publishers Seek Amazon Inquiry

German book publishers have filed a complaint with the country's antitrust authority against Amazon, accusing it of violating competition laws and asking the government to investigate.

The complaint, filed last week, was announced on Tuesday, nearly two months after Amazon began delaying shipments of books from Bonnier, a leading publishing group in Germany, in a dispute over dividing revenue from sales of electronic books. Amazon, the online retailer, is in a similar struggle with Hachette in the United States.

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The logistics center of internet retail giant Amazon in Bad Hersfeld, central Germany.
Uwe Zucchi | AFP | Getty Images
The logistics center of internet retail giant Amazon in Bad Hersfeld, central Germany.

"Amazon's business conduct not only affects those publishers involved, but poses a danger to all who offer e-books in Germany," reads the complaint by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. The group submitted its complaint to the Bundeskartellamt, the federal antitrust authority, last Friday. The document continues, "We call on the Bundeskartellamt to open an investigation and halt Amazon's actions."

Amazon did not respond on Tuesday to requests for comment.

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Germany, the birthplace of modern printing technology, has a proud tradition of book publishing. Laws intended to minimize competition among booksellers create an environment that makes it easier for lesser-known authors to be published.

But the cozy world of German publishing has been slow to adapt to the Internet age, whether in online sales or digital publishing. That has left a vacuum, which Amazon, which is based in Seattle, has swiftly moved to fill. According to industry estimates, it controls as much as 70 percent of the German market for online sales of printed and electronic books.

Germany is the company's largest market outside the United States. Its earnings in Germany reached 1.9 billion euros, or $2.6 billion, last year.

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If Amazon is found guilty of violating German competition law, it could be fined or ordered to change its behavior.

The antitrust agency on Tuesday confirmed receipt of the 22-page formal complaint. After reviewing it, the government will decide whether grounds are sufficient to find that Amazon holds a market-dominant position and as a result may be investigated for potential antitrust violations.

That process could take several weeks and hinges on whether the online market is viewed as independent from traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores.

"For the publishers," the complaint said, "it is indispensable to be listed on Amazon, as the largest selling platform for books on the Internet in Germany."

The association accuses Amazon of abusing its "market dominant" position and argues that because many people use Amazon as a modern card catalog to explore what books are available, if an author is not listed, a reader would assume that the writer has not published any books.

"Whoever is not listed on Amazon doesn't exist in the eyes of a reader," the association said.

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In early May, authors published by Bonnier, one of Germany's largest media groups, noticed that Amazon was delaying shipments of their books, just as reports emerged that the online retailer was taking similar action against Hachette in the United States.

Bonnier later confirmed that it was in negotiations with Amazon about how to share the earnings of its electronic books.

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Some books from Bonnier are still listed on Amazon as not being available to ship for as long as 11 days, instead of the next-day deliveries that are standard for books ordered through any bookseller in Germany.

The publishers contend that Amazon's action should be considered "extortion."

Adam Fletcher, a British author living in Berlin, said in an interview that he had experienced the effects of being caught in the dispute. His newest book, "Denglisch for Better Knowers," a tongue-in-cheek look at the quirkiness of the German language, was released in late May by Ullstein, a Bonnier imprint.

Within weeks, however, he noticed that the book, which he wrote with Paul Hawkins, was not climbing in the Amazon sales rankings despite an online marketing effort that included a quiz. "For a new book, the first few weeks are critical," Mr. Fletcher said.

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At first unaware of the pricing dispute, he asked his publisher why it was taking six to 11 days to ship his book.

Although Amazon on Monday started promising deliveries of "Denglisch" by Friday, Mr. Fletcher said he was worried that shipping delays in the last few weeks had cost him crucial sales.

"Everybody has to be able to compete fairly," he said. "Amazon is not playing on a fair playground."

By Melissa Eddy of The New York Times

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