Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.
The Internet retailer, which controls more than a third of the book trade in the United States, is marking many books published by Hachette Book Group as not available for at least two or three weeks.
I don't have enough info to tell you whether this allegation is true or not, but it's not impossible. What Amazon is described as doing is a new variation on an old industry standard; as you might recall B&N pulled much the same trick last year with Simon & Schuster.
I'm not trying to defend Amazon here, just show that, when it comes to business dealings between two money-grubbing multinational mega-corporations, what Amazon is doing is not all that unusual:
For at least a decade, Amazon has not been shy about throwing its weight around with publishers, demanding bigger discounts and more time to pay its bills. When a publisher balked, it would withdraw the house’s titles from its recommendation algorithms.
You could make similar allegations about most if not all major retailers, including Walmart, B&N, Borders - the list is endless.
But that has little to do with whether or not Amazon is pulling the industry standard dirty deed today, which brings me to my main point.
I'm not so sure that the NYTimes article makes a good case to prove that Amazon is Up To Something.
Of the 4 titles cited in the article, all are available on Amazon.com. They're just not available from Amazon itself:
The affected books are a mixture of new and old. A just-published memoir, “Everybody’s Got Something,” by the “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, is taking as long as three weeks to ship, customers were told. So is Stephen Colbert’s “America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t.”
James Patterson’s “Alex Cross, Run” published at the end of February, is taking as much as five weeks. “NYPD Red,” by Mr. Patterson and Marshall Karp, will take as much as three weeks. Other Hachette books by the prolific Mr. Patterson are readily available, however.
Of the 4 titles, Amazon has 2 in stock to ship to me today. But all 4 titles are available from marketplace sellers, so I would not necessarily say that the books are not available, which is what the NYTimes article claims. And of the two titles not in stock from Amazon, one is an exceptionally popular memoir, and the last is selling for only a penny plus shipping.
And as you can see in the screenshots, one of the so-called unavailable books (NYPD Red) is only 3 months old and has used copies listed as selling for a penny plus shipping. The other James Patterson title mentioned is also listed as selling for a penny plus shipping as new, and it is only 10 months old.
Those price points aren't ringing endorsements for the books being terribly popular, so I don't see why Amazon would keep very many copies in stock.
In short, the NYTimes article may be reporting on actual misdeeds, but they haven't shown enough evidence to prove that we are seeing anything other than a standard supply situation.
Update: Publisher's Lunch followed up on this story, and they say that there are far more than 4 titles being affected. Their story is behind a paywall, so I can't comment.
Second Update, 12 hours later: There's now a lot of anecdotal commentary on Twitter which shows that this story is true.