books

Publisher 1, Amazon 0

Those outside the book biz may not have even heard about this weekend’s dust-up involving the book publisher Macmillan and Amazon. But as this postmortem from the New York Times shows, “dust-up” was not the word most observers used. “I think everyone thought they were witnessing a knife fight,” is how one onlooker put it. “And it looks like we’ve gone to the nukes.”

The knife fight started when Macmillan told Amazon it wanted different terms and pricing for its e-books. Amazon sells e-books for its Kindle at $9.99; it loses money on every e-book (usually a couple bucks) but increases market share for the Kindle. With the imminent arrival of the iPad, Macmillan wanted terms similar to what Apple was offering to both Macmillan and other big publishers like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Random House, which would price new e-book titles between $12.99 and $14.99.

So far just your average, everyday, capitalist corporate knife fight. Nothing to see here.

The nukes arrived in the form of Amazon disabling sales for all Macmillan authors sometime on Friday. As in, you couldn’t buy a Macmillan title off Amazon — digital or print — all weekend long. Let’s go to blogger/author John Scalzi for the play by play:

[Amazon gave us] the Foot-Stompingly Petulant Friday Night Massacre: One minute the books were there, the next they weren’t. And everyone was left going “huh?” Was it a hardware glitch? Was it a software bug? Was it a terrorist act in which renegade Amish attacked Amazon’s server farm and poured jugs of hard cider into the machines, shorting out the ones holding Macmillan’s vast inventory? No! It was one corporate entity having a big fat hissy fit at another corporate entity, and everyone had to figure out what the hell was going on the weekend from bits and pieces that they found on the Internet, which was not easy to do. Which may have been Amazon’s plan all along: Kill every sixth book on your site, hope no one notices! Well played, Amazon, well played indeed.

Obviously you know which side Mr. Scalzi is on. (Which, it should not surprise you, is our side too.)

Macmillan and Amazon reached an agreement on Sunday that honored Macmillan’s terms. If we’re still using the knifefight-gone-nuclear imagery here, Macmillan was Jack Bauer and Amazon was whoever was strapped to the chair. At least this time around.

Three quick observations:

1) No one has blogged this more entertainingly that Mr. Scalzi. (If you’ve never visited his blog, do so.) As he put it, “Hey, you want to know how to piss off an author? It’s easy: Keep people from buying their books. You want to know how to really piss them off? Keep people from buying their books for reasons that have nothing to do with them.”

2) Amazon’s first statement on the issue included this indelible line: “We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles.” That’s right, folks — Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles. Just like Amazon has a monopoly on the Kindle or Kings of Leon have a monopoly over their crappy, Grammy-winning song “Use Somebody” or you have a monopoly on Park Place. You create something, you have a monopoly over it. That’s just how it works.

and 3) Independent bookstores all across the country did not pull their Macmillan titles over the weekend. What classy guys!

On a sad note, Laredo, Texas, lost its only bookstore, a B. Dalton, last month. Which means that the closest bookstore the 250,000 citizens of Laredo can visit is 150 miles away in San Antonio. All these things are connected.

UPDATE: Though it has “capitulated,” Amazon still hasn’t made the vast majority of Macmillan titles available for sale (except as used, through third parties).

More commentary from Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, here.

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7 thoughts on “Publisher 1, Amazon 0

  1. Wow — I hadn’t heard anything about this Amazon-Macmillan flap. Did it affect sales of physical books, or just ebooks? I should follow the links you provide so I can find out, but I didn’t want to navigate away from your page until I’d read your whole piece. Thanks for reporting on this.

  2. Thanks for bringing this up- it’s really interesting. I gotta be honest in that I don’t think I 100% take Macmillan’s side on this thing.

    Because 1. They’ve been happy to kiss amazon ass when it’s benefited them and 2. Macmillan wanted to charge more for their product.

    Books are too expensive. Period. $30 for a new hardback is ridiculous. That’s how much I pay for a month of (good) internet service. One book that I might not enjoy isn’t worth that much and I don’t think an ebook for $15 is worth it either.

  3. Mike, we know about you and Amazon hooking up on the side. We know that she has become your “Mistress of the Night.” That’s cool. Really. But when you come down with a case of herpes, our shoulder will not be there to cry on, my friend. Tough love.

  4. They have EVERYTHING!

    Seriously, they have EVERYTHING!

    Yeah, I have been messing around with Amazon over the past few months. Because, and I may have mentioned this, they have EVERYTHING!

    Look, every bad thing that Amazon has done to my beloved independent booksellers has had a complicit (willing?) accomplice in all of the major publishing houses (including McMillan).

    Watching this fight (and the outcome) is like watching Barry Bonds beat the shit out of Ron Artest. You don’t mind seeing Artest get his cumuppins, but you’d also like to see someone smack hell out of Bonds.

    For the preceding analogy, feel free to use Kobe in place of Artest. And any Bengals fan in place of Bonds.

  5. I was only aware of this because a Macmillan title that’s coming out later this month is on my “to buy” list and I follow its author’s blog. She was, not surprisingly, unhappy about it.

    P.S.–Publishers LOSE money at $9.99 for e-books? Really?! It just seems to me like they must be doing something wrong if they’re losing money on them. From what I hear, they’ve given authors fairly unfavorable terms on e-books and they don’t have the overhead of printing and warehousing e-books, so why are they so expensive for the publishers to produce?

  6. Publishers don’t lose money at $9.99 — Amazon does. But publishers obviously don’t like seeing their titles priced lower than (what they consider) the value of their book. Hence their initial favor toward Apple for being able to negotiate the prices of e-books for the iPad. But we’ll see how long that lasts.

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