Amazon.com appears to be flexing its muscle against publishers once again.
The New York Times reported this morning that Amazon had removed preorder options for upcoming titles from publisher Hachette (which owns the imprints Grand Central Publishing, Little Brown, Orbit, and others), a move that affected books, including The Silkworm, the latest mystery by J.K. Rowling (writing under the pen name Robert Galbraith) and the paperback version of Brad Stone’s book about Amazon, The Everything Store.
It’s not exactly clear what happened here — Amazon declined to comment, and Hachette has not responded to my email. For some readers, this might not seem like a huge deal, since it’s focused on upcoming books, not ones that are already available.
Nonetheless, the news has prompted some critical commentary from writers and editors. For example, editor Ellen Datlow tweeted a link to the NYT story and said that Amazon is “evil,” while author Lilith Saintcrow (whose novel The Ripper Affair was affected by the changes) described this as an attempt to “blackmail” a publisher in a way that also hurts writers and editors.
Steven Gould, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America and author of the novel Jumper (I studied with him at the Viable Paradise workshop) emailed me a comment about why this is a big deal. To be clear, this meant to be a personal statement, not an official comment from SFWA. Anyway, here it is:
If Amazon were one of many comparable online distributors of goods, the Hachette/Amazon dispute (like the Macmillan/Amazon dispute of a few years ago) would not be significant. However, Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer with revenue that’s 58 billion dollars a year more than their nearest competitor so their actions have huge impacts on the viability of publishers and the careers of their authors. I am sadly reminded of “Too Big Too Fail,” in our recent economic downturn. A healthy industry needs retailers, lots of them, in both the digital and physical realm.
Even before, it looked like Amazon’s negotiations over e-book terms had affected Hachette’s books, with Amazon reportedly charging higher prices to consumers, shipping books at a slower pace, and recommending other titles.
A couple of years ago, The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta offered a pretty thorough overview of the complicated relationship between publishers and Amazon. (At the time, Amazon, Apple, and the publishers were embroiled in a legal battle over publisher’s attempts to ally themselves with Apple and become less dependent on Amazon, with the Department of Justice ultimately siding with Amazon.)
This isn’t the first time that Amazon has changed listings as part of its negotiations with publishers, either. As Gould alluded to, back in 2010, the company stopped selling Macmillan titles directly. The moves against Hachette thus far haven’t been quite as aggressive.
Will the criticism against Amazon make much of a difference? Well, the Amazon backlash is nothing new, and Gould’s comment is colored with almost a sense of helplessness — it may be unhealthy for one book retailer to be quite so dominant, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is. It’s also worth noting that after Amazon’s dispute with Macmillan, we declared that Barnes & Noble had come out ahead, but that bookseller’s fortunes have not noticeably improved.
On the other hand, it’s been interesting to see comments pointing readers to other sites where they can also buy Hachette books. Perhaps more importantly, Amazon probably doesn’t want to be painted as anti-author, particularly since it works directly with authors through initiatives like Kindle Direct Publishing. And the company did capitulate to Macmillan four years ago. I don’t think readers, publishers, or writers (aside from a few one-offs) will be abandoning Amazon anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean the company can’t be pressured into taking a different approach.
[image via Flickr/goXunuReviews]