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Is Amazon Pulling Dirty Tricks with Hachette’s Books? (Edited: Probably)

Amazon, amazon frownthat most nefarious of booksellers, is reportedly up to dirty tricks again.

According to David Streitfeld (writing in the NYTimes), Amazon is having fun at the moment with making it difficult to buy books published by Hachette:

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 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.


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David fiander May 9, 2014 um 10:19 am

Of course, the question is not, "is it available or not", but "is Amazon restricting access to it?" There are people who won’t buy from marketplace sellers, but only from Amazon, so those prices are irrelevant (and also indicate that yes, the book is available through other channels; just not from Amazon directly).

And as extra evidence that something dodgy is going on, Amazon Canada seems to be having no problem with fast delivery of the titles that you use as examples. So, if the books are all available at Amazon Canada, why aren’t they available at Amazon US?

Nate Hoffelder May 9, 2014 um 10:24 am

"There are people who won’t buy from marketplace sellers, but only from Amazon"

The next person I meet who won’t buy from marketplace sellers will be the first, and that goes double when you consider the 1 cent books.

"So, if the books are all available at Amazon Canada, why aren’t they available at Amazon US?"

Possibly because the US warehouses got more orders than they were expecting. These things happen.

Please note that I didn’t say he was wrong, just that there are equally plausible alternate explanations.

fjtorres May 9, 2014 um 2:31 pm

1- Canada is a separate market with separate contracts.
2- retailers holding back publisher titles when contracts expire is pretty much mandatory–doing so during negotiations is routine by now. Just ask S&S.

Retailers aren’t common carriers, in FCC parlance, and they aren’t required to carry all (or any) of a publisher’s books. And if Hachette is giving other retailers terms that let them sell at a 1 cent price, why should they bother to carry those titles?

Not sure there is anything unusual going on. Just business as usual…

Paul May 9, 2014 um 1:35 pm

Paid Content says its happening on all titles, and has some feedback from a author with Hachette who said that Amazon pulled most of their discounts back in March.

Nate Hoffelder May 9, 2014 um 5:24 pm

I looked and Laura said _not_ all titles are affected.

flyingtoastr May 9, 2014 um 7:30 pm

"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."

You can’t get it both ways, kiddo. If Marketplace sellers are a part of Amazon, Amazon is illegally avoiding collecting sales taxes and needs to be brought up on charges of tax evasion. If, as you insisted previously, Amazon’s marketplace sellers aren’t nexuses and thus don’t count for tax purposes, then these books are indeed unavailable from Amazon.

Doublethink is bad for you.

Nate Hoffelder May 9, 2014 um 7:40 pm

There are so many things wrong with this comment that I don’t know where to begin.

For one thing, I’m pretty sure that I have never discussed whether marketplace sellers were nexuses. Affiliates, yes, but I don’t believe that marketplace sellers came up at any point.

For another, I don’t know of any state govt that regards marketplace sellers as being a nexus for Amazon. I can’t recall reading that in any of the coverage. Where did you get this idea?

Amazon Stalls Hachette Shipments | Digital Book World May 12, 2014 um 8:04 am

[…] The move could be a hardball negotiating tactic of the kind imputed to Amazon in the past. Not everyone is convinced that’s the explanation this time around, though (The Digital Reader). […]

Marla Heller May 19, 2014 um 3:34 pm

Amazon is playing dirty. With my bestselling book, they raised the price by $8 on March 19. Then they ran a banner on top recommending other less expensive books. Then on Aprin 19, they let the book go out of stock. In the section that shows other books that buyers of my book usually buy, they have buried my other books, even though they are selling much better than the books listed, which historically had been the criteria.

And Hachette doesn’t "ship" to Amazon, Amazon trucks pick up shipments, based on the numbers of books that Amazon orders. and Hachette can’t place more books on the trucks than Amazon orders. Amazon rules.

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