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Up Against Amazon

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by Karen Christensen —

Amazon doesn’t just take orders. It is used to barking orders at publishers and getting us to salute. But bullying only goes so far, and I’m thankful that a single large publisher, Hachette, stood up to it and that The New York Times ran an editorial about its strong-arm tactics.

IndependentCoverI’ve been sitting on my own Amazon story for a while, after having receiving a threatening phone call from its legal department when I refused to agree to a unilateral change of terms. But with all the publicity and debate about Hachette, I thought other publishers, as well as Berkshire Publishing’s friends, colleagues, and customers, might like to know about our experience and why I believe that Amazon is destroying healthy competition in the publishing world.

I am an academic publisher as well as an environmental author (with one book published by Hachette, in fact). My company is very small. Amazon.com has a market cap of $US141 billion. “They have infinite resources,” said a friend when I told him that I had received an angry phone call from Amazon.com’s legal department. The telephone call wasn’t to discuss terms, but to threaten me for “telling lies about Amazon.” What I had written was that if we had to stop supplying Amazon I would have to write to all my customers, authors, and colleagues to tell them why.

Discount Demands

My fight with Amazon began when it decided to go after traditional “short discount” publishers (academic presses as well as presses like Berkshire Publishing) with a unilaterally imposed change in business terms announced only in a “case note” within their order-processing platform. This platform is normally used to inquire about the availability of certain books and is used by customer service staff.

A colleague of mine whose staff was puzzled enough to pass the “case note” along to him asked Amazon to contact him directly by telephone or email, saying that business terms were a matter for our company’s executive team. Amazon refused to talk—communication would take place only through the “case.”

Berkshire Publishing had sold print through Amazon.com since 2006. Although it originally demanded a 40% discount—four times our standard—I decided that we should make books available through any major platform that individual readers and libraries use. Our authors like knowing that their books are readily available worldwide. And we reach some people who would never otherwise know about our titles. In fact, I was recently at a meeting in Beijing and showed a copy of our book This Is China: The First 5,000 Years. Two of the people there started whispering and giggling, and finally one spoke up, “I have that book. I ordered it from Amazon!”

Amazon’s demand in 2012 was for an additional 5%, bringing the discount to 45% (some academic presses had been at 25%, so the change to 45% meant a reduction of 80% in their net income from Amazon sales). Bookstores generally get a discount of 30-40%. Amazon has been getting 50-55% from the big trade presses, and the current battles are in part over further discounts that Amazon is demanding to increase its marginal profit.

It is not only publishers who are affected (who, after all, really feels sorry for publishers?); independent bookstores cannot compete with this kind of pricing. Amazon discounting also affects authors, because many book contracts specify a lower royalty percentage if the discount is 50% or higher. The more Amazon demands, the more authors will be hurt.

In the end it is readers—students, professionals, and those who read for pleasure—who will suffer because innovative writers won’t get the chance they deserve and hard-working midlist authors won’t be able to afford the time they need to write.

And who says cut-rate pricing will continue once Amazon’s market dominance is assured? Publishers, including self-publishers, love the 70% Amazon pays them on e-books now, but the split was 70% for Amazon until after agency pricing, and the contract allows Amazon to change it any time. There’s no reason to think the company won’t impose changes on any group of suppliers (which is all we authors and publishers are).

Amazon, by the way, does not necessarily pass those discounts on to the customer. Most Berkshire books are academic reference works that sell for hundreds of dollars; Amazon has generally sold them at full price, keeping that substantial “discount” as its profit, which is far greater than our profit on our own books.

Current Consequences

Amazon is destroying competition and innovation because it is not letting the market determine winners and losers, but is instead making the selection itself, deciding arbitrarily where to take its pound of flesh and shore up its feeble margins. Publishers (and authors) would be fine if they were actually competing with one other for sales without Amazon sucking the life out of every transaction.

Finally, what happened? Are Berkshire Publishing titles available through Amazon? Dear reader, I capitulated after four months. It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t good for anyone but Amazon, but I was losing sales that I needed and I gave in. Amazon made one change, too: it hired its first small-press liaison and I met her at BookExpo last year. I didn’t hear from her this year and have no idea if that department of one still exists, but I hope that in future we will be able to discuss and agree on terms that make sense. “Hurrah” for Hachette and for everyone else who is now standing up to Amazon.

Karen Christensen is a publisher, author, journalist, and blogger. She worked for Blackwell Science and Faber & Faber in London and founded Berkshire Publishing Group, which specializes in academic resources for global audiences, after returning to the United States. She consults on library services including book and e-book distribution, and writes and speaks about online and offline community building. (This piece appeared first in the Berkshire Publishing website/newsletter and was reprinted with permission in the August 2014 issue of IBPA’s Independent magazine.)

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