Gone Baby Gone

Paul Boutin at Venture Beat:

Go to Amazon.com. Search for any publication by Macmillan, one of the world’s largest publishing firms. The Prince of Silicon Valley, perhaps, or Sarah’s Key. Or last year’s huge #1 bestseller The Gathering Storm.

Gone, mysteriously gone. We found Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, but his new novel Makers and his popular debut, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, have been removed. Robert Jordan’s entire Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels is gone, except for 2005’s The Knife of Dreams.

You get links to other sellers. But Amazon has stopped carrying them.

Brad Stone at NYT:

I’ve talked to a person in the industry with knowledge of the dispute who says the disappearance is the result of a disagreement between Amazon.com and book publishers that has been brewing for the last year. Macmillan, like other publishers, has asked Amazon to raise the price of electronic books from $9.99 to around $15. Amazon is expressing its strong disagreement by temporarily removing Macmillan books, said this person, who did not want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Macmillan is one of the publishers signed on to offer books to Apple, as part of its new iBooks store. Its imprints include Farrar, Straus & Giroux, St. Martins Press and Henry Holt. The publisher’s books can still be bought from third parties on the Amazon site.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

* If true, Amazon draping itself in the consumer-rights flag in demanding a fair price is even more farcical. Though Amazon’s physical-goods sales business is the best in the world when it comes to giving buyers a fair shake, this is materially untrue when it comes to electronic book sales, a sector that it dominates. As mentioned above, Amazon’s DRM and license terms on its Kindle (as well as on its Audible audiobooks division, which controls the major share of the world’s audiobook sales) are markedly unfair to readers. Amazon’s ebooks are locked (by contract and by DRM) to the Kindle (this is even true of the “DRM-free” Kindle books, which still have license terms that prohibit moving the books). This is not due to rightsholder-demands, either: as I discovered when I approached Amazon about selling my books without DRM and without a bad license agreement for Kindle and Audible, they will not allow copyright owners to modify their terms, nor to include text in the body of the work releasing readers from those terms.

Concentration in media is nothing new — as far back as the eighties, activists have been sounding the alarm about mergers and acquisitions in publishing and bookselling (and, of course, in film we have the antitrust decisions of the 1940s). In the eighties, we worried that mergers would create corporate giants that would dictate unfair terms in distribution, sales, contracts with writers, pricing, and so on.

But today, we have a deeper worry. For no matter that a giant distributor or a massively agglomerated publisher could distort the market to the detriment of readers and writers — we could bounce back, through competition and new technology and innovative marketing and sales (and we did, by and large).

Jim Henley:

Of the links above, I think Doctorow makes the most sense. Some reactions of my own follow:

1. There’s a lot we ordinary readers don’t know about the sequence of events here. The NYT’s Bits blog says Macmillan “asked” to increase the price of some of their Kindle books to as much as $15. Other sites say Macmillan “demanded.” Apple’s courting of Macmillan for their planned iPad bookstore plays in somehow. (Apple is luring publishers partly with the promise of higher price points.) For the cheap seats out here in reader and business-observer land, sorta-yanking Macmillan’s books seems pretty extreme for an “ask,” less so for a threat.

2. People are rightly passionate about books, which can obscure the fact that this is fundamentally standard corporate hardball, likely to be revised one way or another fairly quickly. That’s not guaranteed – corporate honchos are people mammals eukaryotes too. Their emotions can get the better of them and get into a downward spiral of pride and vindictiveness. But the truth is that from time to time producers and distributors get into arguments that lead to the producer temporarily withholding or the distributor temporarily deleting a set of products.

3. Amazon hasn’t stopped direct sales of all Macmillan titles. (You can get Pirate Freedom as of Saturday morning.) In particular, they haven’t taken down third-party sources of Macmillan titles, which they could surely do. This is a slap in the face, not a murder attempt.

4. It’s also a negative-sum game. In the short term, Macmillan and Amazon are both losing sales because of the move. Both have an incentive to settle.

Ben Parr at Mashable:

Amazon’s clearly worried, which is why it’s launching an app store and used its earnings report to remind us that the Kindle is far from dead. But if publishers decide to abandon the Kindle, then Apple will have won the war by default.

That’s why Amazon decided to use its biggest weapon, Amazon.com itself, against Macmillan to send a message to every publisher: If you don’t play by its rules, then you can’t be in its store. While a publisher can likely survive without the Kindle, the same cannot be said for Amazon.com. Publishers simply cannot afford to leave the world’s largest online retailer.

The Kindle and the iPad offer different experiences. The Kindle’s battery life and e-ink are strong selling points for the device as a reader, but the iPad offers so much more. Apple’s banking on those extra features and its undeniable reach to turn the Kindle into an endangered species.

Publishers now have to either choose a side or walk the tightrope between the two companies. The end result will be a long, drawn out war that will both help and hurt consumers. How it will end is anybody’s guess.

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