Amazon amps up aggression toward publisher Hachette

Amazon amps up aggression toward publisher Hachette
Pre-orders of "The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) were suspended by Amazon. (Screenshot)

In less than four weeks, J.K. Rowling's next book will be published -- but readers hoping to pre-order it on Amazon will be disappointed. Although it had been available to pre-order for months, "The Silkworm," written under Rowling's pseudonym Robert Galbraith, suddenly lost is pre-order button Friday morning.

The unavailability is the latest move in a more-public-than-usual dispute between Amazon and publisher Hachette.


"Amazon has now taken preorder capabilities away from Hachette Book Group publications," the publisher said in a statement. "Forthcoming books now bear a notice 'currently unavailable' and a note inviting customers to ask for an email when it becomes available.  There is no preorder button, and some not-yet-published books lack a Kindle page entirely."

Amazon is ramping up its retail pressure on the publisher. Two weeks before removing the pre-order option, Amazon began imposing a two- to 5-week delay on books that the publisher said should have been immediately available. Other retailers, such as Barnes & Noble, had no such delays.

Hachette and Amazon are negotiating a new agreement governing terms under which Amazon will sell Hachette e-books, the Wall Street Journal reports, adding, "In the talks with Hachette, Amazon is seeking a higher percentage split, said an industry executive. The two sides haven't yet reached an agreement."

In addition to not being able to pre-order pending books and having artificial delays imposed on books that have already been published, readers trying to find Hachette books on Amazon may not be able to find them. Some are not coming up in search results at all; others appear oddly, without their print editions.

But the most obvious change is the big pre-order button that used to exist toward the top right of the screen that now reads simply, "currently unavailable."

Like the 2010 disappearance of "buy" buttons from books by publisher Macmillan, Amazon is abruptly changing the online availability of books from a publisher with whom it is negotiating a business deal.

This week at Salon, book critic and author Laura Miller explained that she's quit Amazon because of their business practices. "Occasionally I've asked book publishers if they've ever considered a turnabout: withholding their books from Amazon until Amazon makes some concessions," she writes. "They always insist that they couldn't withstand the short-term financial hit such a move would entail."

Amazon's current moves seem to push that kind of financial hit on Hachette.

The publisher takes a conciliatory stance in its public communications. "We are doing everything in our power to find a solution to this difficult situation, one that best serves our authors and their work, and that preserves our ability to survive and thrive as a strong and author-centric publishing company," the official statement says.

That was in the letter sent to authors and agents Friday morning by Hachette CEO Michael Pietch. He followed it with this: "As we work through this challenging period, it is extremely encouraging to see our retail partners – thousands of chain, online and independent bookstores – showing their support for HBG and our authors."

Other retailers are jumping at the chance to pick up some of Amazon's Hachette business.  Zola Books, an online bookstore for e-books that hopes to become a major challenger to Amazon, is offering Hachette e-books without delay and adding a 30% discount to attract buyers. The chain Books a Million is doing the same for select titles.

"We've got plenty of Hachette Books in stock," tweeted the Corner Bookstore in Manhattan, "and you don't even have to wait 2-5 weeks to get them"