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Amazon turns screws on French publisher: Don't feel sorry for Hachette, it's just 'negotiation'

Firm stops pre-orders on book firm's titles

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Amazon has admitted that it’s restricting the sales of books from publisher Hachette over a contract dispute and defended the restrictions as a legitimate negotiating tactic.

The online marketplace has been facing criticism from users, authors and publishing houses as it became apparent it was changing how it sold Hachette books on its US site. Amazon has stopped taking pre-orders on new titles from the publisher and has taken discounts off its books on Amazon.com.

For example, the latest novel in Scottish author Ian Rankin’s Detective Rebus books, Saints of the Shadow Bible, is selling for £7.00 in hardcover in Blighty, but will set you back a whopping $26.00 in the US, nearly twice the price. Meanwhile, new titles from bestselling authors like JK Rowling, under her pen name Robert Galbraith, and Michael Connelly are showing as “currently unavailable” for pre-order in paper form.

Amazon said on a Kindle forum that it had been unable to come to “mutually-acceptable agreement on terms” with Hachette. Although the site is restricting sales of physical books, it’s negotiating for how big a cut it gets from ebooks. Publishers currently make up to 75 per cent of the price of a digital novel and Amazon wants a greater piece of that pie.

“Hachette has operated in good faith and we admire the company and its executives. Nevertheless, the two companies have so far failed to find a solution. Even more unfortunate, though we remain hopeful and are working hard to come to a resolution as soon as possible, we are not optimistic that this will be resolved soon,” the ebook superstore said.

But it defended its negotiating tactics as normal for any book business, equating it with bricks-and-mortars stores deciding whether or not to feature certain titles in adverts or stack novels at the front of the shop.

“When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers. 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,” the firm said.

Hachette spokeswoman Sophie Cottrell has said that the publisher is doing its best to come up with a solution to the dispute.

"We are doing everything in our power to find a solution to this difficult situation, one that best serves our authors and their work, and that preserves our ability to survive and thrive as a strong and author-centric publishing company."

Amazon has been criticised for heavy-handed business practices in the ebook marketplace before and is frequently painted as the evil internet giant that’s single-handedly destroying bookshops and publishers alike. But the firm said that this dispute was being blown out of proportion.

It pointed out that French company Hachette is a big publishing house that’s part of an even bigger $10bn media conglomerate, Lagardère Group. Although technically the smallest of the so-called Big Five in the US market, Hachette counts a number of publishing imprints in its fold, including Little, Brown and Company, Orbit and Headline Publishing, and is the second-largest publisher in the UK and top dog in France.

However, Amazon did acknowledge that the dispute could affect writers. The firm offered to fund half of an “author pool”, with Hachette in control and funding the other half, to “mitigate the impact of this dispute on author royalties”. The firm said it had run a similar pool during a dispute with Macmillan a few years ago.

Hachette first complained that Amazon was delaying delivery on its books earlier this month and authors and publishers have since spoken out about the company’s tactics.

Prolific writer James Patterson said in a Facebook post that there was a war going on between Amazon and publishers.

“What I don’t understand about this particular battle tactic is how it is in the best interest of Amazon customers. It certainly doesn’t appear to be in the best interest of authors,” he wrote.

“More important - much more important - is the evolution/revolution that’s occurring now in publishing. Small bookstores are being shuttered, book chains are going out of business, libraries are suffering enormous budget cuts, and every publisher - and the people who work at these publishing houses - is feeling a great deal of pain and stress. Ultimately, inevitably, the quality of American literature will suffer.

“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 cross fire 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.”

Meanwhile, Dennis Loy Johnson, co-founder of the Melville House publishing group, was quoted by the New York Times earlier this week accusing Amazon of employing mafia tactics.

"How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the mafia does it,” he said.

But others have accused the larger publishing houses of using PR spin to smear Amazon in an attempt to preserve the traditional status quo. Amazon linked to a post from Martin Shephard, co-founder of The Permanent Press, praising the website for helping independent publishers.

“We’ve been publishing literary fiction for 35 years, and in the past found that the chain bookstores took few if any of our titles, that distributors like Ingram demanded bigger discounts from us than they charged the conglomerates, or that despite winning more literary awards per title than any other publisher in America we could not match the print review coverage afforded to authors of the five big conglomerates,” he wrote.

“But we’re not calling these other organisations mafia-inspired or asking for government intervention. Surely one must come to recognise that all these companies are - and should be - free to set their own terms based on their bottom-lines, and publishers like Hachette might consider tempering their complaints about Amazon’s discrimination or restraint of trade.” ®

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