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Is Amazon Evil?

Amazon's cheap books are easy on our wallets, but publishers have been deeply undercut by the rise of large retailers and predatory pricing schemes.

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When Johnson returned from the convention, he discovered that the entire catalogue of Melville House books had disappeared from “I just didn’t believe they were going to play hardball like that,” he told me. Even a search for ISBNs failed to bring up Melville House’s books. Johnson gave in and agreed to the new plan. Soon after, his books reappeared. In a recent article in The Nation, Johnson says that when he refused to sign onto the new program, Amazon reps told him they were keeping an eye on him and advised him to “get in line.”

Johnson’s story is familiar to Phil Wood, former publisher of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley. Wood received a phone call from Amazon around the same time as Johnson. “What it amounted to,” Wood says, “is that they wanted more discount.” When Wood refused, the “Amazon flunky”—as Wood puts it—threatened to delist all of Ten Speed’s books. “I didn’t even know what that meant,” Wood says. “I told him to go fly a kite.”

Ten Speed’s books then disappeared from the Web site. For about a week, Wood fielded panicked calls from his authors, wondering where their books had gone. Never a fan of computers or email, Wood sat down to pen a letter to Bezos. “I described what his company had done, and I said this was not the way gentlemen treat gentlemen,” Wood told me. He informed Bezos that his next letter would be to The New York Times. After a week Wood received another call from Amazon, further pressuring him to agree to the new terms. When Wood again refused, Amazon relented, and agreed to continue doing business with Ten Speed on the original terms.

High co-op fees allow Amazon to claim higher discounts without asking for them, but sometimes the company doesn’t bother with pretense. Two years ago an Amazon buyer told Kristen Frantz, vice president of sales and marketing at Berrett-Koehler, a San Francisco–based publisher of business titles, that her company’s discounts weren’t high enough. Frantz checked around and found that Berrett-Koehler’s discount to Amazon was about average. She brought her concerns to her distributor, Ingram Publishing Services, and her representative there was able to go to bat on her behalf, arguing to Amazon that Ingram, as Berrett-Koehler’s distributor, should be handling the terms and that the discount should stay as-is. “Once we made that clear to them, they left us alone,” Frantz says. “I think they just try to squeeze everything they can out of publishers, and if you’re small or on your own, you’re going to be much more vulnerable.”

Frantz might be right. Scale seems to matter to Amazon. Ten Speed—responsible for bestsellers such as What Color Is Your Parachute and the Moosewood Cookbook—was doing at least three million dollars in annual business with Amazon. Melville House was doing less than a hundred thousand. But Amazon’s punitive tactics may be more arbitrary than that. A number of publishers have said “no” to Amazon and lived to tell the tale, suggesting that publishers ought to push back harder.

Nonetheless, cases of disappearance continue. Amazon doesn’t always go as far as delisting books entirely. Sometimes it just makes them impossible to purchase by taking the “buy” button off a title’s page. In 2008 two huge British publishers—Bloomsbury and Hachette—had their buttons pulled. That same year, Amazon also removed buy buttons from any printon-demand publisher that didn’t use Amazon’s on demand printer, Book-Surge, a move that led to an antitrust lawsuit in which Amazon agreed to pay a settlement to a competitor, though it admitted no wrongdoing. The Author’s Guild recently launched in order to keep track of buy buttons. On the front page of the site is a note greeting visitors:

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