The Cold War Between Hachette and Amazon Grows Hot

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

Hachette Book GroupThe Guardian reports that “Titles by authors including Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson and Iain Banks are taking weeks to be sent to readers from, as the online retailer is accused by the books’ publisher Hachette of delaying delivery ‘for reasons of their own.’”

The paper reported that The New York Times has found estimated delivery times of two to three weeks in the United States on a full range of books published by Hachette, “including titles by Gladwell, Stephen Colbert and JD Salinger. Other affected Hachette titles include Bank’s Consider Phlebas, Kate Adie’s memoir The Kindness of Strangers, Antony Beevor’s The Second World War and Cressida Coswell’s How To Train Your Dragon,” all of which are labeled as having delivery times of at least a week as opposed to Amazon’s usual next day delivery.

The New York Times reports that not only are delivery times being effected, but Amazon is also charging more for its books and suggesting that readers “might enjoy instead a book by another author.” For example, “On the top of the page for Jeffrey Deaver’s forthcoming novel The Skin Collector, Amazon suggested that the prospective customer buy other novels entirely. ‘Similar items at a lower price,’ it said, were novels by Lee Child and John Sandford”

Why is this? According to the Times, “The scorched-earth tactics arose out of failed contract negotiations. Amazon was seeking better-terms; Hachette was balking, so Amazon began cutting it off.”

“What we are seeing is a classic case of muscle-flexing,” Andrew Rhomberg, founder of Jellybooks, an e-book discovery site, told The Times. “Kind of like Vladimir Putin mobilizing his troops along the Ukrainian border.”

The stakes are high on both sides. Since Amazon controls around 33 percent of the book business, large publishers can’t live without it. But at the same time, according to the Times, “Amazon risks alienating readers as well as authors, and undermining its carefully wrought image as the consumer’s friend.”

Not surprisingly, the news has caused quite an outcry.

Sherman Alexie said in a twitter post, “Like all repressive regimes, Amazon wants to completely control your access to books,” while Charlie Stross also tweeted, “Given AMZN’S near-monopoly position I think it’s an anti-trust violation, but the U.S. antitrust regulators are broken.”

The Guardian quoted publishers who told the New York Times that Amazon was “determined to squeeze as much margin out of its suppliers as possible,” adding that The Bookseller said that the delay came “as the two companies seek to come to new terms,” and Publishers Lunch reported that the move “appears to be designed to exert pressure on Hachette regarding revised terms of sale, which is the ‘agreement’ that is being negotiated.”

Hachette US released a statement to the Guardian, noting that while it is the publisher’s “normal policy not to comment on negotiations under way with any retailer,” it had been asked “legitimate questions about why many of our books are at present marked out of stock with relatively long estimated shipping times on the Amazon website, in contrast to immediate availability on other websites and in stores.”

The publisher told The Guardian that while it is “satisfying all Amazon’s orders promptly, and notifying them constantly of forthcoming publicity events and of out-of-stock situations on their website,” the publisher is still “holding minimal stock and restocking some of HBG’s books slowly, causing ‘available 2-4 weeks’ messages, for reasons of their own.”

Hachette added that it was “grateful for the patience of authors and all Amazon readers as we work to reach an agreement and to encourage Amazon to be back to offering Hachette Book Group’s books within normal shipment times.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Amazon has played hardball during contract talks. Back in 2010, while negotiating with Macmillan over the price of eBooks, Amazon removed the “buy new” buttons from its pages of Macmillan titles. And in 2012, while involved in a dispute with independent publishers over terms, thousand of independently published eBooks were quietly removed from sale.

Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, told The Guardian that the latest stand-off “shows how once again, and contrary to its PR, how Amazon is more than willing to disadvantage its customers and authors, in order to put the squeeze on its suppliers. Since its eBook business is now beginning to go off the boil, I’d imagine this is just the beginning of what will be a tough round of new negotiations for publishers and their authors.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.