New chapter in anti-Amazon feelings as Hachette loses the plot over margins

Site’s bargain-basement business sense causing ructions in publishing world

Amazon’s dominance of the books industry may have reached a tipping-point.

For years, publishers in Britain and America have complained privately about the online giant’s tough negotiating tactics and relentless discounting, but few have been willing to speak out.

However, the decision by Hachette, one of the “Big Five” publishers, to refuse to agree to a new contract with Amazon in America in a row about pricing could be a seminal moment.

Hachette has gone public after customers began asking why some of its books have been unavailable to buy on Amazon. Other titles are being offered at full price, instead of on discount, or are taking many weeks to ship.

“By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good,” says Hachette. “They are not.”

 

The impact has already been dramatic. A few weeks into the dispute that began a month ago, Hachette lost the number one spot on the Digital Book World bestseller list of ebooks in what news agency Bloomberg called “a palpable sign of Amazon’s dominance in the publishing industry”.

Authors are livid. US TV chat show host (and Hachette author) Stephen Colbert is so angry that he “gave the finger” twice to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos on his TV show this week.

“This is a big blow to my bottom line,” warned the waspish Colbert. “This has pushed me past my tipping point... so watch out, Bezos, because this means war.”

To make his point, Colbert urged viewers to buy the book California by Hachette author Edan Lepucki via an independent bookseller in Oregon. It instantly became a best seller.

Colbert, whose profile is sky-high after being named as the successor to talk-show legend David Letterman, also urged viewers to get a sticker saying “I Didn’t Buy It On Amazon” via his website. “We are going to prove that I can sell more books than Amazon,” declared Colbert. Other Hachette authors have felt similarly emboldened. JK Rowling, under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, tweeted: “There are lots of ways to order (the Robert Galbraith book) #The Silkworm in US, as Amazon kindly suggest.”

Meanwhile, James Patterson published a post on Facebook under the headline of “Read four of the most important paragraphs I’ll ever write,” in which the author declared: “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... 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 Connelly, me and hundreds of others whose living depends on book sales.

“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 crossfire 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.”

This dispute is far from being only an American problem. David Potter, chairman of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo publisher Quercus until April, revealed earlier this week that it was embroiled in a secret stand-off with Amazon in Britain for six months last year as the US giant demanded what he said was “constant discount, discount, discount”.

In a precursor to the Hachette dispute in America, some of Quercus’s books were unavailable to buy on Amazon and the small independent publisher lost revenue.

Combined with other factors, including its bank debt, Quercus fell to a significant loss and was sold abruptly earlier this year for £12.6m – ironically to Hachette.

Mr Potter says Amazon, with close to 90 per cent of the UK ebook market and 60 per cent in America, is too dominant.

“It is completely bizarre that it can behave like a cheetah which is grinding gazelles into the ground,” he declares.

“That shows to me that regulators and administrators have not caught up with how the internet is changing the books industry.”

Part of Amazon’s success has come from running at wafer-thin margins to keep prices low, helping to send its global sales soaring to $74.5bn last year.

“Negotiating for acceptable terms is an essential business practice that is critical to keeping service and value high for customers in the medium and long term,” explained Amazon, as it defended its behaviour in its dispute with Hachette.

Amazon says Hachette has acted in “good faith”, but adds pointedly that the French-owned publisher is “part of a $10bn media conglomerate”.

The implication is Hachette is able to absorb lower prices, though Amazon fails to mention its own $150bn stock market value.

At least one author, Barry Eisler, is standing up for Amazon, saying: “More people are buying more books than ever and more people are making a living by writing them. Why do millionaire authors want to destroy the one company that’s made this all possible?”

The problem for many in publishing is that the dominance of this one company, with its Kindle store, keeps growing. It is estimated that e-book sales will soar to almost $9bn this year in America, while print book sales fall below $20bn, down from $26bn in 2010.

The number of physical book shops has also dropped alarmingly – even if there are exceptions, like the long-awaited opening later today of a new flagship Foyles store on Charing Cross Road in London on the former site of the St Martins School of Art, with scarcely an e-book in sight.

Hachette could soon have more allies. Significantly, several other big publishers, Simon & Schuster and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, also have Amazon contracts that are coming up for renewal in America.

These contracts are thought to date from 2012 in the wake of the US Department of Justice crackdown over alleged price-fixing, when five big publishers and Apple were punished for trying to increase the price of ebooks and stop Amazon discounting.

The publishers lost that battle spectacularly and that’s why Hachette’s stand-off matters so much now. Because the war with Amazon is not over.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing