The Amazon-Hachette nightmare is over: Why its resolution is great news for authors

The book publisher and the retail giant have finally come to terms, although we may never know who "won"

Published November 13, 2014 6:35PM (EST)

  (AP/Mark Lennihan)
(AP/Mark Lennihan)

Six months of wrangling, some of it very public and painful, between Amazon and the Hachette Book Group over the terms of Amazon's contract to retail Hachette's titles has finally come to an end, both parties announced today.

In an attempt to force Hachette to submit to its demands, Amazon had hampered its customers' efforts to buy many Hachette titles. This interference mostly took the form of applying a smaller than average discount to those titles or slowing down delivery periods to as long as three weeks. Amazon also occasionally recommended that its customers purchase "similar books at a lower price." These tactics prompted much outrage, including a series of anti-Amazon petitions from Authors United, a group of well-known authors, and a counter-petition Amazon organized among authors who self-publish with them.

The terms of the original dispute have never been made public, although each side has made statements alluding to them. Amazon portrayed the clash as one over the price of e-books, with Hachette insisting on prices the retailer regarded as too high. Hachette pointed out that the contract applied to both print and e-books and insisted that the sticking point was Amazon's demand to receive a much larger cut of the revenue from every book.

Again, we don't know what terms each side originally sought and we don't know what terms both have now agreed to. According to statements issued by both sides, Hachette has secured the right to price its titles as it wishes, but Amazon claims to have put in place "incentives" that will encourage Hachette to keep e-book prices low. In one respect, this indicates that publishers have achieved a long-standing goal: replacing their one-time wholesale arrangement with Amazon for what's called "agency pricing," which enables them to control the retail prices of their books.

On the other hand, if Amazon's "incentives" are draconian enough, that control may not mean much. Then again, Amazon's reference to these incentives could be a form of face-saving designed to make it seem that they have not conceded too much to the publisher. We can't know that now, and we may never know just what powers the mega-retailer reserves to pressure publishers to keep e-book prices low. Observers will no doubt be watching the pricing of Hachette titles on Amazon very closely to see how much effect those powers have. Meanwhile, one other large publisher (Simon & Schuster) recently came to terms with the retailer and the contracts of two more (Macmillan and the gigantic Penguin Random House) come up for renewal in December.

In fact, the only thing we really can know right now is that people who want to buy Hachette books will now be able to do so as easily as they can any other titles. This, I hardly need say, is a great relief to the authors of those books, some of whom have seen their sales seriously harmed by the standoff. And that, to be sure, is nothing but good news.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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