Amazon’s Power Play with Publisher Hachette Prompts Both Crowing and Caution

Given the news that an apparent dispute over terms is leading Amazon to punish book publisher Hachette, delaying shipping of the publishers’ books and reducing discounts, some booksellers are jumping on the rare opportunity to point out that they offer what the world’s largest online retailer will not.

“We sell Hachette titles! No line, no waiting, as they say at the Supermarket,” Chicago’s Unabridged bookstore tweeted today.

Books-A-Million, which operates more than 250 stores around the country as well as online, went so far as to issue a press release this afternoon announcing that it “proudly” sells Hachette books.

“Hachette Book Group’s titles are in stock and ready to ship,” Mary Gallagher, a Books-A-Million vice-president noted in the press release, implicitly alluding to Amazon’s foot-dragging of up to several weeks on Hachette books. Also in contrast to Amazon’s pricing maneuvers, Books-A-Million said that customers save up to 40 percent on Hachette titles, penned by such luminaries as Stephen Colbert, Malcom Gladwell and David Sedaris.

Such announcements seem to follow the “template last time this happened,” says John Mutter, editor-in-chief of Shelf Awareness, a newsletter covering the book industry. Speaking to SW from Australia, where he was attending a book conference, Mutter was referring to a 2010 spat with Macmillan that led Amazon to remove the “buy” button from the publisher’s books. Independent bookstores put up displays featuring their Macmillan titles. Within a week, Amazon announced that it had settled with Macmillan.

Yet, while individual booksellers can do what they please, their trade associations are wary of jumping into the fray. “We are extremely restricted in what we can do and say,” remarks Thom Chambliss, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. The concern, he says, is that any group action would be interpreted as promoting a boycott of Amazon, and that would be a violation of anti-trust laws. Under the Sherman Act, two or more parties cannot collude to eliminate a competitor.

For a small organization like his, which has an annual budget of $300,0000, even something that is misconstrued could rack up devastating legal costs. “We will not go there,” Chambliss says.

The irony, of course, is that if anyone is being monopolistic in the book industry these days, it’s the all-powerful Amazon. The reputation of the self-dubbed “Everything Store” is reminiscent of Microsoft’s back in the day when it was the 800-pound gorilla viewed as trying to stomp out its competitors. Trade groups may be too fearful to say it, but Seattle author Sherman Alexie isn’t. Tweeting in response to the Hachette flap, he said: “Like all repressive regimes, Amazon wants to completely control your access to books.”

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