Readers and Authors are Casualties of Amazon Price War

Amazon has pulled from sale books published by Macmillan. This includes books by - amongst many, many others - authors including Ken Bruen's books published by Minotaur and Duane Swierczynski.

This is the first time I've seen such clear proof that adherence to publishing ethics (as per the guidelines of organizations such as MWA), quality of product, and consumer demand are completely irrelevant in book sales and distribution.

Actually, I find myself wondering if Amazon is doing this not so much because of Macmillan, but because of the new iPad, which has been called a Kindle killer by some.

One thing that's clear to me is that this isn't about consumer rights and protecting consumers. This is about control. I say let publishers decide how much their ebooks should list for, and let shoppers decide whether or not they want to pay the price tag.

But also let shoppers decide what device they want to read their books on - don't force them to buy your product.

I've heard a lot of whispers over the past few years, about the fear that in the future we'll see fewer books published, just the mega sellers. Amazon's actions have convinced me that day may be closer than we think. As a major bookseller, pulling thousands of products from their inventory is clearly irrelevant to them. Kindle sales are reported as in the millions. This is what Amazon is making their money off of, and they're using controlled pricing of publisher products in order to entice consumers to buy their big ticket item.

The questions are, what happens when we reach market saturation? With other electronic devices prices eventually decline. Once Kindle sales plateau, where will Amazon turn to replace that income?

I see two primary options. One is through the sales of the books for Kindle, which would mean they'd raise the prices, and consumers who'd already purchased expensive electronic devices to be able to read that way would have little choice but to pay the increase.

The other is by replacing the Kindle with an updated version with a few new bells and whistles, with a slight change in code that rendered new books inaccessible on the old Kindle, thus forcing Kindle readers to replace their Kindles.

Neither sounds like protecting the rights of consumers, does it?

This isn't about my rights as a reader, or the rights of so many friends of mine whose books have been pulled because of this pissing contest. This is about Amazon cornering the market, pure and simple.

John Scalzi also has a post on the subject, which is well worth the read.

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Comment by Jon Loomis on January 31, 2010 at 2:35am
John: we have an expression where I grew up that's descriptive of your situation. Or used in response to such situations, maybe. It's this: Fuck me, Marge.

That said: looks like Amazon is trying to position itself to compete with the iPad, as Sandra points out. But what's interesting is that iTunes now has differential pricing: lots of songs are .99, but some are $1.29. Move prices are all over the map, from $5.99 to $19.99 for new releases and HD stuff. So for Amazon to insist on pricing uniformity seems like kind of a weird move--maybe a way of making the Kindle appear more attractive, given its relative blandness, clunkyness and mono-purposing compared to the iPad.
Comment by John McFetridge on January 31, 2010 at 2:07am
Wow. When my first book was about to come out in the US the publisher, Harcourt, merged with Houghton Miflin and my editor was laid off. The book didn't get any promo and never really made it into stores. They weren't interested in my next one.

That's okay, another publisher picked it up and it's coming out in three weeks - Macmillan.
Comment by Jon Loomis on January 31, 2010 at 1:50am
Wow--this is freaky but true. My Amazon Kindle stuff has disappeared, and only one of my physical Minotaur books is still available direct from Amazon. Holy crap. Seems to me publishers should get to set the wholesale price, and retailers the retail price. What's interesting about the ebook phenomenon is first, it's going to completely obliterate the brick-and-mortar bookstore as we know it, and it's going to make the physical book pretty much a relic of the past. The big, centralized ebook sellers like Amazon, B&N and now Apple will have a lot of power in the industry in terms of setting prices and determining, ultimately, what the market looks like (and therefore what gets published and what doesn't). For publishers the trade-off is huge savings in production, warehousing, transportation and returns, but instead of having terms dictated by WalMart, B&N and Borders they'll be dictated by Amazon, B&N and Apple, and maybe a few other online entities we don't know about yet. Our local indie bookstore is, alas (though predictably) about to go under--new book sales, they say, are virtually non-existent, and they've been hanging on by their fingernails selling used books on Amazon. So, big changes coming in the next months and years--a total remaking of the industry, maybe. Right now, all I can say is man, am I glad I don't have a just-released book up (or not, currently) on Amazon. That would REALLY suck.
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on January 31, 2010 at 1:19am
I should clarify - I believe the root of the speculation about reducing books to mega-sellers stems from brick and mortar stores. We already see them cherry picking selection, and particularly Borders has reduced their stock dramatically but been able to improve sales numbers by only carrying high demand books. However, Amazon's move shows me they don't give a rat's ass about volume of books for sale. I mean, if I were to start listing the St. Martin's authors just that I know that are affected by this... I can't even imagine the total number of books that have been pulled with this stunt. It's got to be in the thousands.
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on January 31, 2010 at 1:16am
Macmillan wants to set different prices for their books that are offered on Kindle.

This is far deeper than being nice to authors. I don't expect Amazon to be any nicer than Barnes and Noble or any other stores. But this is about proprietary rights. Amazon could pull all the Macmillan books from those who've purchased them for the Kindles, like they have with other titles before. When you "buy" a book on Kindle you don't own the content, and if at any time Amazon decides not to carry it any longer, they can just take it away from you. It's not like buying a physical book you own. That's why I actually think Amazon is reacting to the iPad announcement, because if people are limited to having to read ebooks on Kindle then they can just upgrade Kindles to the point where the new files won't work with old devices and people will have to buy new Kindles - that's not unprecedented, we see it sometimes with new computer software not working on older machines, so an upgrade requires the user to purchase new computers as well as the software.

It isn't Amazon that would want to cut back only to mega-sellers - that's the trend foreseen by those looking at physical copy sales. But what does Amazon care? They don't care how many books are available because they're offering a lot of Kindle titles for free, and they set that price, regardless of the desires of the publishers and authors, so effectively they can give away an author's product for nothing because they're making their money on the Kindle sales. Effectively, they're screwing authors and publishers financially by using their products to sell their own stuff. That may not affect me, but if you're one of the authors whose found your Kindle book listed at $0.00 you can kiss any hope of royalties from Kindle sales goodbye.

So I guess it's nice (ahem) they support the unpublished while they rape publishers and authors in a bid to monopolize an industry, and if they succeed then they'll be able to make readers bend over at their whim.

Amazon may be good to those who can't get publishing contracts, but if you want to buy a new copy of Duane Swierczynski's The Blonde or The Wheelman, or Ken Bruen's Sanctuary or anything else published by any subsidiary of Macmillan, then you won't be doing it on Amazon unless this is resolved. This isn't about leveling the playing field or giving consumers what they want. It's about control. And anyone who wants to completely control the industry could do serious damage to publishing at a time when it's already vulnerable. None of this may affect me as an author, but it's not good for me as a reader, and I find that deeply disturbing.
Comment by I. J. Parker on January 31, 2010 at 1:01am
What has MacMillan done?

Amazon is a business. One doesn't expect them to be any more considerate of authors than, say, publishers are.

As for controlling the market: since there is no limit to how many titles Amazon can carry, it's not in their interest to cut back only to mega authors. That's the way book stores and big box stores operate.

So far, Amazon is still the hope for authors who cannot get into the big houses or get print contracts at all, as well as for those who have unpublished material or books that have gone out of print. I'm for supporting them.

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