Who decides what books you can read?

2 Jun

It’s no secret that the book business is dominated by a handful of firms. A half-dozen or so publishers dominate book publishing, although thousands of independent publishers still find ways to get their books out, and one firm — Amazon.com — dominates retailing, accounting for about 40% of all new books sold in the United States, with Barnes & Noble well behind. Neither firm established its dominant position in book selling through its knowledge of books or its eagerness to help new authors reach their readers. Rather, they used their emerging market clout to demand special “promotional” payments, cheaper prices, and other special treatment.

We posted earlier about Amazon’s fight with Melville House, a mid-sized independent publisher which was ultimately forced to capitulate when Amazon refused to carry its books unless it gave them larger discounts and special payments than were available to other booksellers (including us). Having used its market clout to force the small publishers to meet its demands, Amazon has now turned to the Big Six publishers, which it is taking on one at a time.

Hachette, the smallest of the Big Six*, is the first to face Amazon’s demands, which apparently center on control of ebook terms and prices. (Both sides signed confidentiality agreements before entering negotiations, and so the future of the book business is being decided by corporate moguls in secret.) In retaliation for Hachette’s refusal to let Amazon dictate the terms on which it will purchase the right to issue its books as ebooks, Amazon has eliminated discounts (discounts paid for largely by the special payments they get from the publishers) on Hachette titles, has set Amazon’s site to recommend that people consider buying their books instead by a “similar,” “cheaper” book, and is making customers wait for as much as several weeks after ordering before it will ship their books. Many Hachette books no longer can be ordered through Amazon at all.

The New York Timeslatest article on the stand-off quotes Hachette’s brief statement:

“Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good… They are not.”

Hachette says that they are filling Amazon’s orders as soon as they are received; the problem is that Amazon is refusing to order their books, using its enormous market leverage to try to keep them from readers until Hachette surrenders. (Then they will go after the other major publishers, before returning to the independents for another round…) Hachette author James Patterson spoke bitterly about Amazon’s behavior at last week’s BookExpo convention:

“Amazon also, as you know, wants to control bookselling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy…”

Bindlestiff is too small to keep all of Hachette’s many thousands of titles in stock. However, we will gladly accept special orders for books we don’t have, and ordinarily should be able to have them in the store for you to pick up within a week.

As Michael Wolff notes in USA Today,

“Amazon, evident to anyone paying the slightest attention, is a creeping totalitarian state. Its effort is to build a marketplace that will give it the most power to shape the behavior of its customers and suppliers…”


*You may have never heard of Hachette. They are a French-owned conglomerate which issues over 1,000 books a year through imprints including Little, Brown; Grand Central (formerly Warner Books), Hyperion, Yen Books, Orbit, and FaithWords. Wikipedia


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