Over the past several months, what started as a quiet trade dispute has intensified and become public as the largest bookseller in the world, Amazon, and one of the biggest publishers, Hachette, battle over their next contract.
You may have noticed little things, like that book you wanted from Amazon was going to take weeks to reach you—rare for a retailer that puts service to customers above all. Or perhaps you wanted to pre-order the latest J.K. Rowling title The Silkworm on Amazon so it arrives at your doorstep the day it comes out, but can't for some reason. Instead of being able to buy it with one click, a patented Amazon innovation, you are offered the option of signing up to receive an email update when it does become available.
Or maybe you noticed the dozens of articles published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Guardian and practically every local paper from New York to Seattle. What was for a short while a private contract negotiation, both sides digging in, has become a public matter, with recriminations and finger pointing in the publisher, author, and literary agent communities and a solitary, somewhat even-handed statement from Amazon, in which it admitted that it anticipated a long, protracted dispute. (Amazon had previously declined all requests for comment on the matter, including one for this article; Hachette has provided a handful of written statements, including one most recently in direct response to Amazon's statement.)
Why? A contract negotiation between a supplier and a retailer rarely makes it into the press, and the specifics of this one—e-book discounting and Hachette's profit margin—are no more interesting or significant than many others that garner far less attention. But in this case, it's not the price of flat-screen televisions or how they're displayed in stores that's at stake—it's the future of ideas in America.
Let me explain.
By some estimates, today Amazon controls around 50 percent of all book sales—physical and electronic—in the U.S. In the past decade, the company has steadily grown that market share, taking it from Barnes & Noble (shrinking), Borders (bankrupt since 2011), and independent bookstores (around 2,000 remain today out of the nearly 7,000 there were in the mid-1990s). It also built most of the e-book business in the U.S. following the successful launch of the Kindle e-reader in 2007. It wasn't the first e-reader on the market, but by allowing customers to download e-books over a private, customized network built for the purpose, as opposed to making them connect their e-readers to a desktop or laptop computer connected to the Internet, it quickly became the most popular. In 2010, Amazon was estimated to control 90 percent of the growing e-book business. That's when Apple, with the support of five of the world's six largest publishers, launched iBooks, a main feature on its brand new iPad. Within two years, Amazon's market share in the now much larger e-book business was thought to dip to around 65 percent, with Apple at around 10 percent and Barnes & Noble's Nook business, launched in 2009, at about 25 percent.
How Apple and Barnes & Noble were able to loosen Amazon's stranglehold on e-books is now a matter of public record. The five publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster—were found by a federal court to have colluded with Apple to fix the prices of e-books across retailers, meaning that popular, best-selling titles, most of which were published by these five companies, would cost the same at every e-book retailer (Random House was the only one among the world's biggest publishers not to participate). Aside from fines, part of the remedy to the harm to the free market caused by the publishers' crime was that each publisher had to renegotiate its contracts with its retailers—primarily Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple—and, importantly, they were forbidden from hewing to the terms of their old contracts, that they and not the retailers would set the prices of e-books and that those prices would be the same no matter where you purchased them.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Hachette's contract with Amazon is up again. It's been nearly two years since Amazon regained control of the prices of many of the e-books it sells, and prices for best-selling e-books have plummeted, with Amazon leading the way when it comes to discounting; the consequences to its competitors have been predictable. Sony, one of the first companies to sell e-books in the U.S., has abandoned the business completely, except in Japan, to a former competitor, Canadian e-book upstart Kobo. Meanwhile, Kobo is rumored to have all but given up on growing its business in the U.S. and has closed its office here. Barnes & Noble has reported mounting quarterly losses for its e-book operation over the past several quarters. Apple does not publicly report its e-book sales; neither does Google, which also sells e-books, but its market share in the U.S. is thought to be vanishingly small.
Hachette is the first among the world's five largest publishers (Penguin merged with Random House last year) to sign another contract with Amazon since its court-mandated contract in 2012—and likely the most important. In the coming two years, Amazon and its competitors will renegotiate contracts with all of the world's largest publishers and in 2015 they will be again allowed by law to negotiate contracts where they determine the prices of e-books. Amazon likely doesn't want this and, by the looks of it, is even willing to inconvenience its own customers in the short term to ensure this long-term outcome.