No longtime observer of the power struggle between Amazon and traditional book publishing could be surprised by the news, delivered by the New York Times last week: Amazon is playing hardball with the Hachette Book Group while the two companies renegotiate the terms of their contract. As David Streitfeld reported, Amazon has been delaying shipments and raising prices on Hachette's titles while emblazoning the Amazon pages for books like Jeffery Deaver’s thriller “The Skin Collector,” with banner ads across the top touting "similar items at a lower price" from more compliant publishers.
Such tactics -- an inconvenience to consumers and a hardship for the targeted authors -- are not new. When Macmillan Publishers attempted to wrest control of the prices of their e-books from Amazon in 2010, the retailer removed the buy buttons for all Macmillan titles (print as well as e-books) for a few days. Brad Stone's "The Everything Store" documents Amazon's view of itself as a proud predator, a "cheetah" that aims to take down the "gazelle" of book publishing.
But even cheetahs have their weaknesses, and a little poking around on Amazon's site revealed that the retailer is not hobbling every Hachette title in its online store. Specifically, Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch," a bestseller since it was released last fall and the recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, can still be purchased, in hardcover, at a handsome 45 percent discount and without its buyers being subjected to pitches for substitutes.
This may not comfort Sherman Alexie -- an outspoken Amazon critic -- much; would-be purchasers of Alexie's acclaimed 2007 novel "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" will still have to wait a ridiculous two to three weeks for the paperback to ship from Amazon. Nevertheless, the exception made for "The Goldfinch" is telling.
Maybe a Jeffery Deaver reader will readily accept another grisly serial killer yarn by a different author, but the people who want to read "The Goldfinch" want to read "The Goldfinch." There are a lot of them. And they are unlikely to change their minds and pick some other book upon learning that they'll have to wait weeks to get "The Goldfinch" from Amazon.
Amazon's business model -- for bookselling, at least -- rests on the impression that you can buy any title you want from them and get it pronto; no need to shop around, compare prices or open an account at another retailer. With services like Amazon Prime, the company encourages its customers to think of Amazon as the friction-free answer to all their shopping needs. Once you buy into this idea, you end up buying everything from Amazon. I know, because I used to be an Amazon Prime member myself.
About three years ago, I let my Prime membership lapse. There are still a few items I buy from Amazon because they're not easily available elsewhere, but I stopped buying any books, print or digital, from the company. What I knew of the predatory, proto-monopolistic practices of Amazon caused concern. I believe no single corporation should have as much control over the book market as Amazon clearly aims to seize. Books aren't generic, interchangeable products like toothpaste or flatscreen TVs, and in the long run readers, authors and publishers all benefit most from a genuinely diverse marketplace.
The surprising thing about the change I made is that it wasn't that difficult. I once more patronize local book stores, which are far more enjoyable to browse. I've bought e-books for my iPad from four different non-Amazon vendors (Apple, Google, Barnes and Noble and Kobo), easy as pie, and I buy used print books from AbeBooks and Powells.com. I subscribe to Oyster, a new Netflix-for-books service. I also belong to Paperbackswap.com, a site that, for a small fee, enables its members to trade in their used books for credits that can be redeemed for the used books of other members. In fact, books have been the easiest thing to shop for since I made it my policy to avoid Amazon. (Finding the ideal replacement for my defunct immersion blender was such challenge I ended up caving on that one.)
This, I suspect, is why Amazon can't afford to interfere with its customers' access to a title like "The Goldfinch." That would send too many readers back to their Google search results, to the scroll-down button and the revelation that Amazon is not the only game in town. Later, they'd remember that barnesandnoble.com, not Amazon, was able send them the novel everyone was talking about, and right away. They'd be that much more likely to consider an alternative retailer in the future. The whole M.O. of Amazon is to make it so easy to shop with them that you forget it's possible to shop elsewhere.
Occasionally I've asked book publishers if they've ever considered a turnabout: withholding their books from Amazon until Amazon makes some concessions. They always insist that they couldn't withstand the short-term financial hit such a move would entail. They surely know the reality of their own bottom lines far better than I do, and they certainly haven't gotten the same free pass from Wall Street that Amazon has enjoyed over the past couple of years. (Amazon made a tiny profit at the end of last year, but mostly it has lost money as its stock price soared; long-overdue outside pressure to perform better is likely behind these recent shenanigans.)
On the other hand, publishers have always had a tendency to freeze in the headlights. Only a decade ago, it was the chain booksellers who seemed to have them perpetually over a barrel and whose tyranny they toothlessly protested. The moaning didn't accomplish much then, and it's even less likely to work now. The more they let Amazon push them around, the more emboldened it will be to push them around some more. Meanwhile, traditional book publishers still control the titles that most readers desire most. If you want to read "The Goldfinch" or "Gone Girl" or the new Stephen King, then you're unlikely to be satisfied with a self-published troll romance or generic detective novel. If you can't buy the books you want at the everything store, then it's not really the everything store anymore, is it?