Share story

The world’s biggest bookstore is a bit smaller these days.

Amazon’s secret campaign to discourage customers from buying books by Hachette, one of the big New York publishers, burst into the open Friday.

The uneasy relationship between the retailer and the writing community that needs Amazon but fears its power immediately soured as authors took to Twitter to denounce what they saw as bullying.

Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The scorched-earth tactics arose out of failed contract negotiations. Amazon was seeking better terms, Hachette was balking, so Amazon began cutting it off. Writers from Malcolm Gladwell to J.D. Salinger were affected, although some Hachette authors were unscathed.

On both sides, the stakes are high. Amazon controls about a third of the book business, which means big publishers cannot live without it. But Amazon risks alienating readers as well as authors and undermining its carefully wrought image as the consumer’s friend.

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

As accusations flew, the two antagonists kept a low profile. Hachette emphasized it was shipping orders promptly and yet Amazon was still showing the books as being unavailable. Amazon, as usual, declined to say anything at all.

The retailer appeared to be using three main tactics in its efforts against Hachette
which owns Grand Central Publishing, Orbit and Little, Brown, as well as many other imprints.

One is simply warning that books would take a long time to show up.
If a reader wants a Malcolm Gladwell book from Amazon, “Outliers,” “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “What the Dog Saw” were all listed as taking two to three weeks.

Then there is the question of price. “Outliers” was selling Friday for $15.29, a mere 10 percent discount. On Barnes & Noble, the book was $12.74.

With some Hachette authors, Amazon seemed to be discouraging buyers in other ways. On the top of the page for Jeffery 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.

Hachette authors were fuming.

“Like all repressive regimes, Amazon wants to completely control your access to books,” tweeted Sherman Alexie.

“Given AMZN’s near-monopoly position I think it’s an antitrust violation, but the U.S. antitrust regulators are broken,” tweeted Charlie Stross.

The Authors Guild said it had received about 15 complaints Friday from Hachette authors involving more than 150 titles.

“If you’re a monopolist, you get to be a bully,” said Richard Russo, a Pulitzer-winning novelist and Authors Guild vice president. “Maybe you feel immune.” Still, he added that he was surprised Amazon “would want one more bad story about its practices.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.