Why is Amazon bullying book publishers?

Four smart takes on this heavyweight fight

(Image credit: (AP Photo/Reed Saxon))

"Amazon is confirming its critics' worst fears," said Farhad Manjoo at The New York Times. While the online retailing giant "has marketed itself as a book buyer's best friend," the company's escalating dispute with publisher Hachette is revealing its true colors. "In an effort to exert pressure on Hachette," Amazon has started using some "hardball tactics," raising prices on Hachette titles, removing preorder buttons for upcoming books, and even increasing shipping times from a few days to weeks. Critics have long feared the impact on publishers, authors, and customers once Amazon monopolized the book industry, and now Amazon is "walking right into its detractors' predictions." But it won't be long before the retailer's tactics backfire, inviting bad PR, "scorn from the book industry," and perhaps more government oversight. And then there's the cardinal sin: upsetting customers. While Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos "has long pointed to customer satisfaction as his North Star," his actions of late look like those of a man who puts the bottom line above customer service.

I don't know about that, said Richard L. Brandt at Time. While Amazon's tactics might seem "ruthlessly self-serving," they may benefit customers — and even publishers — in the long run. Rumor has it that the current spat with Hachette revolves around Amazon's efforts to slash e-book prices. If true, Bezos may be looking out for the little guy after all, since lower prices will boost e-book sales. And since the product has "no paper, printing, or shipping costs," those sales "would translate into an almost pure profit increase, for Amazon, publishers, and authors." Its methods may seem harsh, but Amazon understands that e-books are the future of publishing. "If traditional publishers are smart enough to capitalize on that trend, everyone will come out ahead."

Still, enough with the bullying, said Lance Ulanoff at Mashable. When Amazon launched, it "sold nearly all books, no matter how new, for $9.99." Publishers — who often charge $20 or more for new hardcovers — weren't too happy, but those "who wanted to be on the vital new platform had no choice but to acquiesce." It's not entirely clear what Hachette is asking for in the current round of contract negotiations, but putting the screws to the publisher is not a sound strategy for Amazon. At this point, it simply can't "afford to have even the appearance of impropriety when it comes to stocking and selling partner books."

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But there's a reason Amazon can afford to pick this fight, said Timothy Stenovec at the Huffington Post. While the company "rose to prominence as a bookstore," book sales now account for less than 20 percent of its transactions. And consumer research studies suggest that "it may not be long before books, which are the retailer's second-biggest category, get eclipsed by groceries." Amazon may be "busy flexing its huge muscle" with book publishers for now, but as the e-commerce juggernaut starts branching out, other industries may come to view this as a cautionary tale.

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