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Amazon's Scorched-Earth Campaign: Why the Internet Giant Started a War

Can't buy books by Colbert and Gladwell? Customers and publishers are livid. But it turns out Amazon doesn't care.

Photo Credit: Julie Clopper /


Here’s what monopoly power means: If you’re Amazon, you can ignore the public relations hits that come with  blistering front-page stories in the New York Times and stinging opinion pieces,and continue blithely about your business.

So what if the heavy-handed tactics Amazon has deployed in its dispute with the publishing conglomerate Hachette — delaying delivery of Hachette titles, including offerings by  Stephen Colbert and Malcolm Gladwell; eliminating pre-order buy buttons, hiking the prices of Hachette e-books, etc. — has incited a storm of outrage? Amazon doesn’t care.

On May 10, the New York Times  reported that, as part of an effort to negotiate better contractual terms from Hachette, Amazon had been for months making it difficult for Amazon users to purchase books by Hachette writers. Books that normally would be delivered in two or three days now required two or three weeks. Banner advertisements on author pages added insult to injury by promoting “similar books for lower prices.” Hachette authors exploded in criticism, and even some longtime defenders of the company, like the New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, called the behavior an  “ugly spectacle to behold.”

But so far, Amazon hasn’t backed down, and that’s nothing short of amazing — not to mention troubling.

Amazon has historically been extraordinarily sensitive to bad press, lest it run the risk of encouraging consumers of its services to think twice about the online giant. Everything Jeff Bezos does, so the story goes, puts the consumer front and center. So when Amazon says – as it did in a  press release this week detailing its side of the business dispute with Hachette — that “we regret the inconvenience,” we’re suddenly in new, uncharted, alien territory.

The company’s enormous self-confidence comes through even clearer at the conclusion of its press release, in the form of  a link to an opinion piece that Amazon says “offers a wider perspective” on the issue. The blog post, written by the co-founder of a small literary publisher, attacks the New York Times reporters who broke the story for their “alarmist zeal,” calling their article “poppycock” and dismissing the public reaction as a “kerfuffle of rage.”

Think about that for a second. To convey its opinion more fully, Amazon directed readers to wildly biased rant. Tell us how you really feel, Jeff Bezos!

The screed does make one useful point by noting how, in the past, chain bookstores and big distributors were hardly angelic in their dealings with publishers. As my colleague Laura Miller noted in her own piece about the Hachette controversy, it wasn’t so long ago that the big New York publishing houses were screaming bloody murder about arm-twisting from Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Boiled down to the basics, the fight between Amazon and Hachette is a dispute over contractual terms, with each side wanting a better deal. Nothing could be more normal. Similar fights happen every day in every other industry.

But the fact that it’s entirely normal doesn’t mean that we should casually dismiss this particular spat. Amazon’s influence over the book business is now greater than anything Barnes & Noble ever enjoyed. The retail landscape is vastly different than it was five or 10 years ago. There are far fewer options for buying books. What Amazon’s most virulent critics feared has come to pass. Having consolidated its power over the book publishing industry, Amazon is now exploiting it.

If it continues to do so, unchecked by antitrust enforcement or meaningful competition, there’s a very real chance that the quality product at the center of all this — the book! — will suffer.