According to a New York Times blog post, this was a deliberate act on Amazon's part in response to an overture by Macmillan over Kindle e-books. Macmillan had offered a two-choice blanket option for their Kindle editions:
- either sell them on an "agency" model, similar to the new model for Apple's iPad, in which the publisher sets the retail price and Amazon gets 30% of that price for each unit sold
- or continue on the current, standard book-industry terms, in which Amazon buys books at their current discount rates (likely in the 50-60% range, depending on quantities), but has the right to price at any level they choose -- though, in this case, Macmillan would delay all Kindle editions seven months after the print edition.
I haven't seen anyone yet note that this is the second time that Amazon has applied the big hammer of delisting an entire publisher; they tried the same thing to Hachette in the UK almost two years ago. In that case, Amazon was the aggressor -- they were attempting to demand higher discounts from Hachette (and their other suppliers) and pursued the delisting to get the publishers to agree to its new, and much more favorable to Amazon, terms. As I recall, Amazon was not particularly successful in that case, and I don't expect they'll see much luck this time, either.
Consumers react badly to choices being taken away from them, and resent the actors who do that. In the Scripps/Cablevision dispute, both sides could semi-reasonably claim the other side had caused the problem, but, in this case, it's clearly and entirely Amazon's action. That won't go over well with engaged bookbuyers...but then, of course, the real question will be what percent of the market are engaged bookbuyers. (Amazon is betting that they are relatively few, and that their memories are short. And they might be right -- how many people actually stopped buying from Amazon entirely after the search issue with gay and sexually-themed books in mid 2009, or Amazon's 1984 clawback fiasco?)
I'm sure Amazon will be looking at their sales closely, and if sales on other publisher's print books -- particularly those in the areas where Macmillan authors are loudly complaining across the 'Net -- they may make a quiet step backward. I wouldn't be surprised if, in that case, they claim that this was some sort of accident or mishap, and that they never intended to stop selling the books of an entire publisher.
And -- who knows? -- it might even be the truth.
But Amazon almost certainly has a large inventory of Macmillan books in its warehouses -- unless it had been planning this action for much longer than appears to be the case, and unless Macmillan got a wave of returns earlier this week -- which they will have to do something with as the days go on. Those books will likely go back on sale before too long, but the real question is: who will blink first?
Update: Macmillan's plan was not as crude and one-size-fits-all as I first thought -- this story has been reported badly everywhere but the e-newsletter Publishers Lunch -- but it's still clearly aimed at reducing Amazon's power in this market. See my later post for further ruminations.
Listening to: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - The False Husband