News came out last week that Amazon is butting heads with one of the Big Five publishers, Hachette Book Group, over contract terms. In true “I’m bigger than you, so I can” fashion, Amazon has imposed lengthy delays on the shipment of some of Hachette’s titles, almost amounting to refusing to sell them at all. In an even more nefarious approach, Amazon is even suggesting alternate purchases that its customers can enjoy while they wait for Hachette titles to suddenly become available again.
Of course, public perception within the book industry is one of pure outrage as shouts of, “The evil empire strikes again,” circulate through social media and articles. But what many people fail to associate is the connection that Amazon’s current practices in this matter not only have a long-standing history within bookselling, but also closely mirror the exact scenario that has taken place between major book retailers or small independent shops and publishers in the recent past.
Amazon didn’t become the dominant force in international bookselling and publishing by playing nice, a fact that seems to continue to surprise people who have cried foul. What does continue to be shocking is that a better system has not been implemented; for as long as publishers and a small core group of authors have been complaining about Amazon’s practices (while selling their books quite happily through the retailer, of course), it should be logical that someone would have instituted something new. But efforts to build publisher-branded online bookshops fizzled out as most customers don’t think in terms of who published the book, they instead rely on a powerful search algorithm to often even tell them who wrote the book or what its exact title was.
Of course, the authors whose books are impacted are being pulled in two as the grown-ups fight. Some have taken to their own social media to rant or plead, while critics fear that Hachette will cave to Amazon’s terms simply because their authors beg them to. What actually stands to happen is these authors may take a serious look at their future publishing plans; if this kind of contract brawl interferes too greatly with their livelihoods, authors–especially those with a strong enough fan base that they don’t fear a loss in discovery or sales–may decide that their publishers have outlived their usefulness.