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Authors United Calls for Antitrust Inquiry into Amazon

If you haven’t had your daily dose of craziness today then you might want to pay attention to what Authors United is doing.

The Financial Times reports that AU is now working on a letter to the DOJ, asking that Amazon be investigated for antitrust violations. From behind the paywall (just the good bits):

Authors United, which counts bestselling writers including Malcolm Gladwell, Donna Tartt and Stephen King among its supporters, is soliciting signatures for a letter to William J. Baer, assistant US attorney-general for antitrust, according to Douglas Preston, the Hachette writer who started the group.

 The letter will ask the justice department’s antitrust division to “examine Amazon’s business practices”, Mr Preston wrote in an appeal to authors seen by the Financial Times. The appeal was circulated by the literary agent Andrew Wylie, who has criticised the retailer.


So after not taking sides in taking out a $104,000 advert in the NYTimes, and after not taking sides in sending a letter to Amazon’s board of directors (and then revising it so it was even more insulting), Authors United is now going to not take sides by calling for Amazon to be investigated for antitrust violations.

According to Doug Preston, it’s strictly going to be a legal request. "It’s not an emotional or a populist appeal, it’s simply citing points of law," Mr Preston said, adding that he had been in touch with the Justice Dept. "They are expecting this letter and they have told me that they welcome any information we can provide."

I for one am looking forward to that letter; if Authors United’s grasp of antitrust law matches their grasp of marketing/propaganda then the letter will prove to be deeply entertaining. Oh, there won’t be any valid legal arguments, but that is going to be what makes it so much fun to read.

I plan to file a FOIA request for this letter, but I doubt that will be necessary. We will probably be able to read it on the Authors United website.


Tell me, does anyone else think it’s time to simply come out and call AU for what it is, a publishing industry astroturfing group?

They’re clearly taking a side, and they are arguing a position which authors have at best a remote interest in.

If anything, an author advocacy group should be pointing at how Amazon deals directly with authors and critiquing it, a topic which AU has ignored. I would also suggest that an author advocacy group should be complaining about how publishers treat authors.

By remaining silent on these topics while interjecting in the affairs of Amazon and publishers, Authors United (or The Authors Guild, for that matter) confirms just which masters they are actually serving.

image  by Gabriel 'Briel' Rocha

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Juli Monroe September 24, 2014 um 3:30 pm

You know, I once submitted a manuscript to the Wiley agency. So glad they declined to take it.

Richard Herley September 25, 2014 um 4:22 am

Wylie is nicknamed "The Jackal" 🙂

SethDove September 24, 2014 um 3:33 pm

The term astroturf group usually refers to organizations that pretend to be grassroots but aren’t. I don’t see how AU has ever been anything but clear what it is. I think Amazon’s behavior has been terrible in this ordeal. Trying to dictate and strong arm book pricing is just wrong. I want cheaper books too, but a publisher should be able to destermine its price. If Amazon doesn’t want to sell it that’s fine too. But they don’t get to decide for everyone what’s what. That’s just a bully. That’s what Walmart does with its suppliers, and I don’t like it either. I really don’t understand why you defend Amazon.

Nate Hoffelder September 24, 2014 um 3:47 pm

" a publisher should be able to determine its price"

That is complete and utter nonsense. It hasn’t been true in decades, and it is not at all relevant to the current dispute.

"I really don’t understand why you defend Amazon."

Because the arguments made by Amazon’s detractors like Authors United are so stupid that they piss me off.

If someone would offer a good argument I would change my mind. As you may or may not have read, I did float a suggestion a few months back that indie authors should side with Hachette. That was quickly shot down but it wasn’t just a straw man post; I thought it was a good idea at the time.

J.A. Konrath September 24, 2014 um 7:15 pm

Nate, you owe me a keyboard, because I just sprayed beer out of my nose.

You also owe me a beer. 🙂

Ruth Barringham September 24, 2014 um 8:03 pm

J. A. That is so hilarious that I nearly sprayed coffee out of my nose too. I love this post and the comments. Yours had me in stitches. I enjoy a good laugh in the morning. Hope you get your new keyboard (and your beer). HaHaHa!

Nate Hoffelder September 25, 2014 um 2:01 pm

Thanks, Joe!

J. R. Tomlin September 24, 2014 um 4:17 pm

Amazon is a profit making retail corporation. The idea that they aren’t supposed to 'dictate' prices is absurd. They do not dictate prices in B&M stores and they have no right to in Amazon.

Paul September 24, 2014 um 4:21 pm

Except its strategy isn’t to make money but to bankrupt all its competitors thanks to its crazy shareholders.

fjtorres September 24, 2014 um 5:06 pm

Those crazy shareholders are making tons of money as the stock appreciates and they sell off chunks.

Matthew September 24, 2014 um 8:49 pm

No, their strategy *is* to make money. Research has shown that more books are sold, with higher gross *and* net sales, at Amazon’s preferred $9.99 price point, than at either the $12.99 or $14.99 that Hatchette is fighting for. Hatchette, at this point, is nothing more than a modern-day version of Orwell’s sheep bleating, "Pricier books good! Cheaper books bad!"

If it weren’t for the writers being caught in the middle, this would all be quite comical.

Anne September 24, 2014 um 5:23 pm

It appears that you’re ok with the publisher (wholesaler) determining retail pricing. That’s not ok with me. Neither would a retailer determining wholesale pricing be ok. They both have their parts to play in a capitalist economy where competition matters.

Please let me know if I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying or if you have an argument as to why fixed pricing on a non essential item is a good thing for consumers.

Also, I don’t think someone dissing the AU necessarily means they’re defending Amazon. The missteps by the AU have been laughable all the way down to the typo in their letter to Amazon board members. All the more so because these people are supposed to be brilliant and responsible for bringing culture to our lives. Their disconnect is unbelievable to me.

Please note that Amazon has already been investigated by the DOJ once during the pricing fixing and was cleared at that time. They were also cleared in the investigation. I’m not saying Amazon is blameless or has never messed up but so far they are clear in these particular matters with US law.

And wasn’t Wiley the one who signed an exclusive contract with Amazon for a digital backlist when it was questionable as to whether or not he had the rights to do so? He had to back off when publishers refused to do business with his agency? How times have changed or maybe not.

puzzled September 24, 2014 um 5:49 pm

They are claiming to be a grass-roots organisation, they are just so bad at it that it’s clear they are an astroturf group.

Paul September 24, 2014 um 3:42 pm

Considering how much secrecy is behind Amazon’s numbers (can you tell me how many Fire phones they sold?), and that it is influencing vast sectors of the retail landscape, an investigation is probably long over due. Some of their tactics would be considered predatory by most definitions of the term (see for example).

Nate Hoffelder September 24, 2014 um 3:45 pm was investigated; it passed.

Edit: Also, Amazon was investigated at the same time that the DOJ investigated the publishers and Apple for conspiring. This has actually been documented.

Paul September 24, 2014 um 4:19 pm

Thanks! Tried to look it up but got overwhelmed by all the apple DOJ links.

I would point out that compared to 30-40 years ago, you really have to screw up to get prosecuted, and sometimes not even then (how many bankers were jailed for mortgage fraud again?)

Peter September 24, 2014 um 10:36 pm

Now, now, no need to bring facts into the discussion. You’ll never get a 7-figure advance for your next ghost-written novel that you outsourced to a starving writer in a garret in Shenzhen if you keep that up.

Juli Monroe September 24, 2014 um 3:56 pm

You can be completely opposed to everything Authors United is doing and not be "defending Amazon."

I don’t agree with everything Amazon is doing. I’m completely opposed to the exclusivity requirement for Kindle Unlimited/KOLL, and I’m pissed that my sales have dropped off to virtually nothing since KU’s inception. (Okay, I can’t prove cause and effect, but it’s strongly suggestive.)

However, every time someone from Author’s United opens his or her mouth, it’s painfully obvious that they are on an entirely different plane of existence than an author like me. They don’t speak for me or my issues. Plus their arguments are just silly. So much for "United."

Yes, I’m unhappy about my current sales, but I’m not calling for an investigation of Amazon. Instead, I’m looking at my sales strategy and figuring out what I can do to live and thrive with the current environment. When things change, and they will, I’ll re-evaluate my situation and flex again. The government doesn’t owe me anything as an author. I’m the only one responsible for my success (or lack thereof).

Nate Hoffelder September 24, 2014 um 5:54 pm

And it’s not just that they don’t understand the viewpoint of many authors; so many of Amazon’s detractors in the book industry also don’t understand the interest and priorities of readers. It’s shocking, I know, but that’s the truth.

Thomas September 26, 2014 um 9:13 pm

It’s not surprising at all that the publishers don’t understand what their readers want. They’ve spent decades trying to put as much distance between them and the customer as possible. They even use imprint names to disguise who is publishing the book in the first place. None of the big publishers were quick to catch on to using the internet to connect with customers the way Baen and some other small outfits did.

Until recently, there were never public disputes between publishers and retailers to begin with, because distributors were in the middle. No one cares when two companies they never heard of are negotiating. People know who Amazon is and what they do. Hachette is a name most of the public had never heard of a year ago.

J. R. Tomlin September 24, 2014 um 4:18 pm

So much for that 'we aren’t taking sides' stuff from AU.

fjtorres September 24, 2014 um 5:08 pm

Hey, they also say they are important.

puzzled September 24, 2014 um 5:54 pm

I wonder if AU could be considered an illegal collusion of a group of businesses, attempting to negatively affect another business.

After all, each of the authors has contracts with publishers, which makes them businesses. I’m sure they are all deducting authoring expenses from their taxes.

They are colluding to negatively impact Amazon, a company that their contract partners are having a prolonged contract dispute with, and due to the nature of the positions in the dispute, they are colluding to keep prices high.

Nate Hoffelder September 24, 2014 um 5:57 pm

Considering that the biggest names earn a million dollars or more each year, and most have organized themselves as companies for business and tax purposes, yes.

We actually have an unknown number of companies colluding to pressure Amazon. Good catch!

SpringfieldMH September 24, 2014 um 5:57 pm

Perhaps Preston can name even one thing that Amazon could pursue in negotiations that wouldn’t affect authors…

Frankly, why isn’t Preston instead contacting the DOJ about Hachette’s exploitation of authors?

fjtorres September 24, 2014 um 7:39 pm

Bookholm syndrome.
(Google it. Great read.)

Mike September 25, 2014 um 4:05 am

Amazon has everything to fear especially as it has no fear itself.
YTD stock down 17.7% and yet still P/E 862.

Double Double price in trouble
Amazon burns, and stock burst its bubble.

Hayden September 25, 2014 um 9:29 am

Mike, You may be right about Amazon’s share price and value. However, this has nothing to do with the thread and it does not change the fact that the guys at Authors United are clueless.

Argue something relevant next time and start your own blog where people can write any unrelated matters they feel like.

Mike September 25, 2014 um 9:35 am

Purposeful assaults on Amazon will eventually kill the stock price and affect its operations and even its solvency.

Dan Meadows September 25, 2014 um 10:34 am

I think the stock price issue has more to do with Amazon behaving like a business should, reinvesting in future growth rather than Wall Street’s preferred method of maximizing short term shareholder value without regard to the long view or even the company’s eventual survival. I tend to think Amazon should be commended for behaving this way and Wall Street badly needs to be reformed to disincentivize the get rich quick stock valuation nonsense. If more companies behaved like Amazon and reinvested in growth rather than hoarding cash, our economy would be in much better shape and the predatory exploitation of the financial sector put in check.

Paul September 25, 2014 um 10:38 am

I would agree with you if Wall St treated everyone the same way, but with the insane P/E ration Amazon is on, and the general belief that shareholders will collect after Amazon has annihilated all other retailers, it seems a bit disingenuous.

Dan Meadows September 25, 2014 um 10:49 am

Amazon is not the one pushing those beliefs though. The shareholders may be assuming it’s the case but Amazon has never said their goal was to destroy all competition. There may well be a shareholder reckoning down the line but that’ll only happen if Amazon doesn’t do what so many seem to be assuming they’re going to. I used to be virulently anti Walmart for the same reasons; they were going to wipe out all competition and jack up prices, so I thought, but that has never materialized. They’re tough on suppliers, certainly, but they are extraordinarily profitable on thin margins with low prices.

Nate Hoffelder September 25, 2014 um 12:22 pm

Also, no one who really understands retail thinks Amazon is going to kill all their competitors. Amaozn will never kill Walmart, which is 6 or 7 times the size.

Mike September 25, 2014 um 10:37 am

Like I said here several times already, investments don’t create losses as they are depreciated not expensed.

IMO we could look at this as a pyramid scheme which takes time to unravel but when it does tears all around.

Attacking the business model like in an antitrust inquiry, is one way of contributing to the unravelling.

Nirmala September 25, 2014 um 11:28 am

I found this article which suggests that Amazon does not have much to worry about:

From the above link:
“There lies Amazon’s advantage – it need not form a cartel to squeeze its suppliers because it is already large. With a 30 per cent share of the physical book market in the US and more than 60 per cent of ebooks, it clearly has market power in the antitrust sense. But there has never been a case in US competition law of a single company being declared an illegal monopsonist.

“In the US, the simple use by one company of monopsony power to extract lower prices from suppliers is not illegal. There is general intuition that buyer power means lower prices and lower prices are good,” says Jonathan Jacobson, an antitrust lawyer at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati in New York.”

Nate Hoffelder September 25, 2014 um 12:14 pm

Interesting read, but I don’t think growing bigger is going to help. Amazon will still be more ruthless, and that is where I think publishers need to focus.

UK Publishers Association Calls for Antitrust Inquiry into Amazon – The Digital Reader September 25, 2014 um 12:12 pm

[…] I deleted my link to the press release, so when Authors United announced a similar effort here in the US (and made the UK story newsworthy) I was forced to go find the story posted by the Financial […]

Jen Rasmussen September 28, 2014 um 9:39 am

If it’s "It’s not an emotional or a populist appeal" I’m curious as to why we’re all reading about it. Presuming all or most of us do not actually work for the DoJ. Going public to talk about the letters you intend to send rather than just quietly sending them to the people you’re pretending they’re intended for is kind of the definition of emotional and populist appeal?

WSJ: The Authors Guild Met With DOJ in August – The Digital Reader October 1, 2014 um 10:55 pm

[…] is also the head of Authors United, which as you might recall recently announced that it was going to be sending a letter to the DOJ, asking that Amazon be investigated for antitrust […]

Book Geek Bulletin: Kicking Off the Fall Rush September 1, 2015 um 1:01 pm

[…] group Authors United has made an official request with the Department of Justice, in the works for some time, asking for an investigation of Amazon for what the group says is a monopoly. You can read the full […]

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