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A Battle by the Books

Amazon wants a bigger bite of Hachette’s sales; how this industry showdown affects you — and the entire future of publishing

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Oh, the books that could be written about this roiling feud between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group. (Though where the reader would buy said books remains to be seen.) The brouhaha — an explosion of tension that has been bubbling for some time between the giant e-commerce company and book publishers — came to a head on May 22 when Amazon stopped accepting preorders for Hachette books (including U.S. imprints Little, Brown & Company, Hyperion, and Grand Central). Customers suddenly were denied the option of clicking ”Add to Cart” on upcoming works from J.K. Rowling and Michael Connelly and were shown a ”Currently Unavailable” box instead. This on the heels of earlier reports that the site was delaying delivery of some Hachette books for weeks. Amazon reportedly wants a bigger cut of Hachette’s e-book profits, and the publisher has refused, with its chief executive, Michael Pietsch, saying in a May 23 statement that his company requires a deal that ”best serves our authors and their work, and that preserves our ability to survive…as a strong and author-centric publishing company.”

In a rare public statement on May 27 addressing the ”business interruption,” Amazon expressed regret to its customers while also reminding them that Hachette is part of a ”$10 billion media conglomerate” and not the equivalent of You’ve Got Mail‘s Shop Around the Corner. ”When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers,” the statement read, before inviting customers to seek Hachette titles elsewhere. (In a shrewd move, the Books-A-Million homepage is now offering customers up to 30 percent off on Hachette preorders.)

Many authors have slammed Amazon, which has a history of playing hardball with suppliers. In 2010, for example, it temporarily pulled books from Macmillan Publishers in a similar game of chicken. (Details of their eventual agreement were not released.) Hachette best-selling author Jeffery Deaver — who calls Amazon’s negotiating tactics ”repugnant, distasteful, and tawdry” — has seen his novel The Skin Collector become part of the feud’s collateral damage. He says Amazon ran banner ads on his book’s page for novels by other writers in his genre at deeper discounts. ”When Amazon says they’re doing this for their customers, I find that incredible,” Deaver tells EW. ”Do we really believe that whatever money they save because of a deal with Hachette or any other publisher is going to be passed on to consumers? Their customers are better served by viable publishers that can find talent and have the money and resources to acquire new authors or work with existing authors to create the best-quality books they can.” Fellow Hachette author James Patterson, who last September pledged to give $1 million of his own money to independent bookstores across the country, also recently went public with his concerns. ”[Amazon] wants to control bookselling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy,” he told a rapt publishing crowd at the BookExpo America convention in New York City on May 29. (Amazon declined to comment beyond its original statement.)

All this publishing-industry chatter seems to be echoing loud enough for even average readers to hear, at least according to Julie Wernersbach of Austin’s beloved independent store BookPeople. ”I’ve been surprised by how many customers are aware of the dispute and are talking to us about it,” she says, ”mentioning online that they’re supporting their indie instead of Amazon. This sort of hullabaloo has happened before, but it’s never quite broken through like this with customer awareness.”