Amazon escalates its battle against Hachette

David Streitfeld
Amazon.com page for "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon" book
Source: Amazon.com

Amazon, under fire in much of the literary community for energetically discouraging customers from buying books from the publisher Hachette, has abruptly escalated the battle.

The retailer began refusing orders late Thursday for coming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling's new novel. The paperback edition of Brad Stone's "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon" — a book Amazon disliked so much it denounced it — is suddenly listed as "unavailable."

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In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons's new novel, "The Girls of August," coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.

The confrontation with Hachette has turned into 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 enormous power the company wields. No company in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

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An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. A Hachette spokeswoman did not return a message for comment.

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Amazon, which is under immense pressure from Wall Street to improve its profit margins, is trying to get better terms on e-books out of Hachette, the smallest of the top five New York publishers.

The retailer controls an increasing share of the digital book market in the wake of the Justice Department's successful pursuit of most of the major New York publishers on antitrust violations having to do with the pricing of e-books.

For several months, Amazon has been quietly discouraging the sales of Hachette's physical books by the several techniques: cutting the customer's discount so the book approached list price; taking weeks to ship the book; suggesting prospective customers buy other books instead; and increasing the discount for the Kindle version.

Amazon has millions of members in its Prime club, who get fast shipping. This, as Internet wits quickly called it, was the "UnPrime" approach.

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Amazon is reportedly using the same tactics in Germany, squeezing the publisher Bonnier by delaying shipment of its books. It is said to want better terms for e-books there as well.

The retailer's strategy clearly seems to be to drive a wedge between the writers, who need their sales at Amazon to survive, and Hachette. But this does not seem to be working quite the way Amazon wants. Nina Laden, a Hachette children's book author, lashed out at Amazon this week.

"I have supported Amazon for as long as Amazon has existed. I've been published for 20 years now and you have sold so many of my books," 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."

"Your actions to raise the prices of our books, place banners touting books that 'are similar but lower in price' and saying that our books will ship in 3-5 weeks when they are in stock is not only a disgusting negotiation practice, but it has made me tell my readers to shop elsewhere — and they are and will," she wrote.

--By David Streitfeld, NYT.com