Amazon’s Hit List

The company is apparently delaying shipments of books published by one of New York’s largest publishing houses, Hachette:

Usually, a customer can log in to Amazon, search for a title and receive the book in just a few days (depending on what shipping option is selected). I just searched for Stephen Colbert’s “America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t” and, in red above “add to cart,” was a section of text reading “usually ships within 2 to 3 weeks.”

Dreher, whose book is among those affected, is pissed off:

I’m sorry, but who made Jeff Bezos filthy rich? Writers and readers — the same people he’s treating like crap with this garbage, that’s who. What kind of retailer treats customers that way? What kind of retailer treats his suppliers that way?

Alex Shephard points out that Hachette doesn’t have many options for fighting back:

[W]hat, if anything, can Hachette do? They have little leverage to speak of. This is, after all, a post-U.S. v. Apple world. If other publishers were to step up in defense of Hachette—a reasonable thing to do, considering that the other four “Big Four” publishers could be next up on the firing line—they’d have to fear another antitrust suit. The major publishers made that mistake once and the U.S. government stepped in at Amazon’s behest. They won’t make it again.

But Gobry argues that Hachette’s market share makes it, in some sense, the stronger party:

The very fact that Amazon is resorting to these comparatively small-ball tactics (suggesting other books, delaying shipping) is really a show of weakness. Because both Hachette and Amazon know that Amazon can’t afford to pull Hachette from its shelves. If anybody has a monopoly on this situation, it’s Hachette. …

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Hachette is the “bad guy” in this story (note: in the vast majority of business stories there is no “good guy” or “bad guy”), or that Amazon should fear Hachette more than Hachette should fear Amazon. Amazon is a very powerful and very audacious company that is clearly going after the publishers on several fronts. But the point is that a hardball fight between a retailer and a supplier is the oldest news in the world, that Hachette, a global multibillion dollar conglomerate, is hardly a helpless flower, and that this is how our economy functions.

Jordan Weissmmann notes that this is not Amazon’s first spat with a publisher:

Amazon has, of course, applied similar hardball tactics in the past. It revoked the “buy” buttons for thousands of books in Macmillan’s catalog when the two companies were in a tiff over e-book prices and removed e-books from the Independent Publishing Group from its site entirely during another contentious negotiation.

This is why many in the book world found it fundamentally unfair that the Justice Department saw fit to bring an antitrust case against publishers and Apple for banding together to force higher pricing on Amazon. Bezos gets to muscle the industry around, yet the publishers—as they would have you believe—are legally bound to sit helpless.

It’s a reminder that, for better or worse, our antitrust laws really have been sculpted with one idea in mind: low, low prices for the consumer. As long as Amazon’s actions seem designed to push down book prices long term, and it’s not colluding with other companies, the law will almost always work in its favor.