UK trade debates HBG/Amazon dispute

UK trade debates HBG/Amazon dispute

Hachette US’s decision to go public on its dispute with Amazon is “brave, but only time will tell if it is wise”, according to UK industry figures.

The publisher and the online retailer are currently in a stand-off over terms, which has manifested itself in Amazon’s decision to remove pre-order buttons from a number of key forthcoming Hachette US titles and to hold smaller levels of stock in the publisher’s titles. Both parties have spoken publicly about the dispute.

In the UK, the industry has been watching developments carefully, with mixed views expressed.

Agent Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates said: “The mood is shifting against Amazon, and this is bullying, and it’s not the first time. It is not only that this will harm authors. It will annoy consumers, book buyers, as well, who are already reading about Amazon not paying tax.

“I imagine Hachette will have taken the decision to be more public. It is brave, but time will tell if that is wise. If your child is being bullied at school, the best thing is to make it public.”

Alexander saw Amazon’s statement on the dispute, in which it offered to help fund a compensation pool for affected authors, as “passive aggressive”.

“I think Amazon have understood they’re making authors their enemy but they have tried to get authors on side by saying they will compensate,” she said. “I don’t think authors want compensation, I think they want to be bought and read. I think it is a monetary transactional idea of what it’s all about. They’re a retailer and they think like a retailer. Their relationship with authors is second hand.”

Another agent, who preferred to speak anonymously, said he “backed any publisher fighting for better terms on behalf of authors”, but was “surprised” the dispute had been made public. The general public may not care, he suggested, saying that supermarkets squeeze farmers much harder than Amazon squeezes publishers, and asking whether people are interested in two corporations squabbling?

Meanwhile agent Peter Cox, speaking to the Mail on Sunday, described Amazon’s behaviour as being “very predatory”, and added: “This is all about control of the e-book market and it’s a battle I think Amazon is going to win. Its profits are wafer thin, but it will need to make a profit at some point."

Alessandro Gallenzi, publisher and m.d. of Alma Books, said either Amazon or Hachette US would “have to backtrack”.

“Amazon is an excellent company and it has created an efficient company, but if Hachette is suffering so is Amazon,” he continued. “If Amazon starts not to fulfil their obligations on top of other things [like stories about tax] they could be in danger because people could turn their backs on them.” A second independent UK publisher said: "I think people are very glad that Hachette is pushing back. Somebody has to. The discounts Amazon asks for get bigger and bigger – something has to give."

Although the HGB dispute has so far been confined to the US, some publishers observed that Amazon in the UK appears in general to be discounting less on physical books in favour of Kindle editions. Gallenzi said that in the last 12 months it looks as though Amazon has had “a definite strategy to emphasise sales of e-books” by discounting more on e-book and less on physical books. “It could be to consolidate their position [with the Kindle], to show e sales are not plateauing, and because they get better margins,” he continued.

Another member of staff at an independent UK publisher said Amazon was asking for the same discounts on e-books that publishers offer on print books. She added that Amazon was now only offering discoverability on cheap prices, with publishers not being able to rely on them to push authors or break books.

Amazon has yet to respond to a request for comment.