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.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London