Editor's note: This post has been updated.
We already knew that Amazon has been putting the screws to book publisher Hachette and its authors with hardball business tactics. But now we learn from The New York Times that Amazon may also be playing political hardball, giving special favors to one very special Republican.
Amazon, which controls more than a third of the US book business, and the giant Hachette Book Group have been in a bitter dispute since last spring over the pricing of e-books. Saying it wants to save its customers money, Amazon has demanded that Hachette lower the price of its e-books to $9.99; Hachette has refused, saying it wants to retain the ability to set prices for its own books. So, in a heavy-handed display of power, Amazon has been delaying deliveries and withholding discounts for all books from Hachette—and damaging writers’ careers in the process.
With at least one exception:
Take, for instance, the different treatment Amazon has given two new Hachette books on political themes.
“Sons of Wichita” by Daniel Schulman, a writer for Mother Jones magazine, came out in May. Amazon initially discounted the book, a well-received biography of the conservative Koch brothers, by 10 percent, according to a price-tracking service. Now it does not discount it at all. It takes as long as three weeks to ship.
“The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea” by Representative Paul Ryan has no such constraints, an unusual position these days for a new Hachette book.
Amazon refused to take advance orders for “The Way Forward,” as it does with all new Hachette titles. But once the book was on sale, it was consistently discounted by about 25 percent. There is no shipping delay. Not surprisingly, it has a much higher sales ranking on Amazon than “Sons of Wichita.”
An Amazon spokesman declined to explain why “The Way Forward” was getting special treatment. A spokesman for Mr. Ryan, the 2012 Republican nominee for vice president, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Hachette declined to comment.
Many Hachette writers, most visibly Stephen Colbert, have not declined to comment, and some have formed a group, Authors United, to campaign against Amazon’s tactics. In Monday’s Times, David Streitfeld listed the non-Hachette “literary lions”—from Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera to the estates of Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, John Cheever, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Hunter S. Thompson—that have joined Authors United, which is asking the Justice Department to examine Amazon for possible antitrust violations.
“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ursula K. Le Guin told Streitfeld. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy.”
And by choosing not to disappear an author who just happens to be the chair of the House Budget Committee, Amazon is not only making friends in high places but sending a dangerous message.
Streitfeld, by the way, has been doing a great job covering this story, a much better job than that of his alma mater, The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Bezos’s fight with Hachette is just the tip of the iceberg, Jim Hightower writes in Alternet. To get Amazon to where it is today
Bezos followed the path mapped by Rockefeller and other 19th-century robber barons: (1) ruthlessly exploit a vast and vulnerable low-wage workforce; (2) extract billions of dollars in government subsidies; and (3) wield every anti-competitive weapon you can find or invent to get what you want from other businesses.
UPDATE—Wednesday, Oct. 1, 12:20 pm: I’ve quoted Streitfeld above from his Monday Times piece. But he amended the chronology a bit in a post on Tuesday. He found that Amazon originally did treat Ryan’s book like all Hachette titles, i.e., lousy, refusing to discount it or ship it promptly. But on Aug. 20, Ryan complained about Amazon on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” and even entertained a question about whether some regulations might be in order. Suddenly his book was given the full Amazon discount and customers could receive it immediately. “All Hachette authors are equal, but some are more equal than others,” Streitfeld writes.