Amazon versus Hachette: No Good Guys in This Fight

Posted Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 11:08
Classic-style boxing gloves. Photo by Ralf Berger CC BY-SA 3.0

Lately, there has been a lot of press about the conflict between Amazon and Hachette.

Let’s examine the facts.

  1. Hachette is one of the Big Five publishers sued by the U.S. Justice Department for collusion in price fixing with Apple.
  2. Following the resulting settlement, Amazon began negotiating with Hachette for the lowest possible price for Hachette’s titles. Amazon has been known to sell items at a cost lower than what it pays, and it is an aggressive negotiator.
  3. Amazon stopped displaying a preorder icon for upcoming Hachette titles, which it routinely makes available for other publishers’ forthcoming books.
  4. The time it took to receive an order from Hachette through Amazon has expanded from three or four days to three or four weeks.

There are at least three ways to look at the conflict between these firms, for conflict it certainly is.

  1. Amazon is the bad guy for applying pressure against a supplier to drive down its own costs. Amazon is using its platform to stress its value-add: “We help people find and buy things.” Clearly, Amazon does. But is it pushing so hard that poor, already-beleaguered publishers can’t survive?
  2. Hachette is the bad guy. Indisputably, it is launching a worldwide publicity campaign against Amazon, the distributor trying to drive down Hachette’s profits. It’s possible that the shipping delay isn’t—at least not solely—Amazon’s fault. It could be Hachette’s deliberate slow-down. And as blogger David Gaughram pointed out May 26, Amazon shuns most contact with the press; Hachette is a sophisticated global communications company. Is it any wonder that most of the PR has been favoring Hachette?
  3. This is an old world versus new world conflict: one publishing paradigm struggling against the other. That’s fun and interesting, but I want to underscore a key issue: At the end, someone in this struggle will make more money, or hold onto a profit margin. However, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the victory of either party will be of any benefit to either libraries or consumers. Let’s be blunt: Amazon won’t sell ebooks to public libraries at all (other than through OverDrive), and Hachette currently charges libraries three times the consumer cost for its new ebooks.

Libraries were doing better with legacy publishers and print than we’re doing in the world of ebooks with either those same publishers or the ascendant Amazon. But rather than try to restore the past, it’s clear that libraries need to find a path to the future. Right now, neither Hachette nor Amazon is a library friend. Let them fight.

JAMES LARUE is a writer, speaker, and consultant on the future of libraries. He can be reached at jlarue[at]jlarue.com.