Maine writers lead campaign for federal investigation of Amazon

Posted Dec. 14, 2014, at 5:44 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 15, 2014, at 10:37 a.m.

ROUND POND, Maine — Best-selling author Douglas Preston sat in his home looking out over Penobscot Bay this summer and stared at his computer screen, watching online sales of his book with co-author Lincoln Child, “Blue Labyrinth,” plummet as a contract dispute between Amazon.com and Preston’s publisher, Hachette, grew nastier and more destructive.

Amazon, which was demanding a larger share of the cost of ebooks and control over setting prices — began sanctions last spring against the publisher’s thousands of authors — many of whom Preston said helped build Amazon from a struggling start-up.

The online retail giant removed a “Pre-order” button from the books pages on Amazon, eliminated the standard Amazon discount and, as reported by the New Yorker, delayed shipping for what Preston said was up to four weeks — even for Amazon Prime subscribers who qualify for free two-day shipping.

“They ‘disappeared’ them,’” Preston said Wednesday from his winter home in New Mexico. “People couldn’t find them. When you put my name in as an author, my books wouldn’t show up, just like they didn’t exist.”

Perhaps even worse, Preston said, when a customer clicked on the page for “Blue Labyrinth” and other Hachette titles, a pop-up window appeared, obscuring the Hachette book and redirecting the customer to another, similar book— not published by Hachette or its affiliates — and sold at the standard Amazon discount.

Hachette authors watched sales at Amazon — which accounts for 41 percent of all new books that are sold in the U.S., according to the Los Angeles Times — decline between 50 percent and 90 percent, Preston said.

Hachette and Amazon agreed to a settlement last month, but Preston and other authors continue to press for a federal investigation of what they believe to be antitrust violations by the online giant.

The sanctions were “really devastating, financially,” he said. “I’m a best-selling author, so I’m OK. The real tragedy is what it did to the many hundreds of struggling young authors who saw their books vanish without a trace, without finding the audience they needed — which means they’re not going to get another chance … What Amazon did was absolutely crushing to their career hopes.”

In May, New York Times reporter David Streitfeld broke the Amazon-Hachette story, revealing details of “Amazon’s secret campaign to discourage customers from buying books by Hachette” — and Preston penned a letter to Amazon’s board of directors protesting Amazon’s tactics. Then he began looking for other writers to co-sign, and found early support from Maine authors Stephen King of Bangor and Richard Russo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who lives in Portland.

In an email Wednesday to the Bangor Daily News, Russo wrote, “I believe Amazon’s ambitions are monopolistic, and not in the best interests of the larger publishing ecosystem, and certainly not in the interest of a diverse literature.”

He added that his daughter is an independent bookseller, “and, as such, is in Amazon’s crosshairs, so for me it’s very personal.”

Authors United

By early July, about 900 authors — “everything from cookbook authors to literary authors — had added their names to the protest letter, Preston said, adding, “I’ve never seen such a diversity of authors come together for any reason.”

The group took form as Authors United and in September wrote to the company’s board, appealing to them to remove the “sanctions.”

“Several thousand Hachette authors have watched their readership decline, or, in the case of new authors, have seen their books sink out of sight without finding an adequate readership,” the letter stated. “These men and women are deeply concerned about what this means for their future careers.”

The letter ran as a double-page ad in the New York Times — a “six-figure” expenditure financed by a number of writers including Preston, King, John Grisham and Nora Roberts. That ad, Preston said, caught the attention of media around the world.

Some called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Amazon for allegedly violating antitrust laws. Nobel Prize-winning columnist Paul Krugman wrote that Amazon is “a monopsonist, a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down.”

Even comedian and author Stephen Colbert took aim at the online retailer, encouraging people to download and print stickers to put on books that say “I didn’t buy it on Amazon.”

Amazon executives also took note of the ad, and Preston said several called him directly. Russell Grandinetti, vice president for Kindle at Amazon.com, made what Preston described as “a threatening call. He called me a rich, entitled author. Another called me an opportunist. There was a lot of nastiness.”

The war of words continued, now in public, and in late October the New York Times reported that Amazon’s third-quarter sales dropped 18.5 percent — or $250 million below what the company had anticipated. Preston believes Authors Unlimited influenced those numbers by encouraging customers to boycott Amazon.

On Nov. 13, Amazon and Hachette settled the dispute. According to a joint release from the two companies, Hachette would continue to set the prices for its ebooks. Streitfield reported that Amazon would continue to collect 30 percent of the profits of ebooks.

“In both those issues, Amazon lost,” Preston said Wednesday. However, he said the contract does allow Amazon to offer incentives to Hachette to reduce the retail price, among other concessions.

Hachette did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

On Friday, Amazon spokeswoman Sophie Cottrell declined to comment but forwarded the joint statement and a letter from Hachette to authors and agents in which the company wrote that its authors’ books “will be restored as soon as possible to normal avaiilability on Amazon, will be available for pre-order, and will be included in promotions on the site.”

‘Not going away’

While the immediate dispute has been settled, Preston said, “The basic problem hasn’t gone away, and we’re not going away.”

Authors United has consulted with antitrust lawyers, Preston said, and plans to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice early next year.

“They believe there is a case to be made that Amazon is abusing its market power,” Preston said. “We authors were subject to eight months of sanctions, and many careers were permanently damaged — even ruined. I know authors who had to go back to bartending or waiting tables because their first book at Hachette failed because of Amazon.”

New York Times best-selling author Meryl Gordon’s second book, “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark,” was published May 27, 2014, just as the sanctions geared up. The timing, she said Thursday, could not have been worse.

Two days before the book was published, Amazon removed the “Buy” button, Gordon said. A week later, Amazon increased the shipping time of the book to two to four weeks and removed its discount.

Gordon, whose first book, “Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach” was a New York Times best seller, said she’s not sure of exact figures, but estimates she lost 12 percent of her sales during the sanctions. Gordon said she was “either lucky or smart” that Hachette already had accepted her proposal for a third book before the declining sales figures were available.

Author Daniel Shulman’s “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty,” was published a week before Gordon’s. The book landed on the New York Times best seller list the first week, according to Shulman.

“You go on a media blitz right after the book comes out, and people see you on TV or hear you on the radio and say, ‘This book sounds interesting,’” Shulman said Thursday by phone. “Then they go to Amazon and basically it says you have to wait three to five weeks and it’s not being discounted. Some people might say, ‘Never mind.’”

Gordon said she and other established authors felt compelled to speak out on behalf of the newer authors, who are reluctant to protest because they fear retaliation and “because Amazon has a long reach.”

In addition to advocating for less-established writers, Preston said Wednesday that Authors United will continue to press for a federal investigation into whether Amazon is violating antitrust laws.

“Amazon has made it quite clear that they have no respect for authors or their careers and will do anything to get what they want,” he said. “The level of outrage and resentment among the literary community in this country is astonishing, and it’s not going away. And we’re not going away.”

 

CORRECTION:

Author Meryl Gordon’s second book was “The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark, published in May 2014. Her first book, “Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach,” appeared on a New York Times best-seller list in December 2008. Also, Richard Russo lives in Portland, not Camden.

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