Is Amazon delaying Hachette books?

Is Amazon delaying Hachette books?

This story is all over the blogosphere. Here’s a Google search with several big name results (CNNMoney, Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, Slate, New York Times…):

Google news search for “Hachette”

The source of it appears to have been this

New York Times article by David Streitfeld

The article, which seems to uncritically accept what one party in the situation says, starts with:

“Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.”

Are you sure you don’t want to throw an “allegedly” or “reportedly” in there?

I mean, this is the New York Times, right? Not some anonymous book blog?

Well, I’m sure they verified Amazon’s actions and motivations before running the article…or not.

The gist of the story is that Amazon is REPORTEDLY deliberately keeping low stock on some Hachette p-books (paperbooks), which results in waits of two weeks or more for customers to get them.

Before I start commenting on this, let me say that my background might paint me as prejudiced…on one side or the other.😉 I was a brick-and-mortar bookstore manager, so that might put me in Amazon’s camp (since they are, in this instance a book retailer). I am also not an Amazon employee, but I have gotten money from them (royalties, for one thing).

On the other hand, I am (in a very small way) a publisher. I’ve published my own titles to the Kindle store…and Amazon could certainly mess me up if it chose to do that.

Okay, with that out of the way…

My first question is…is it true?

First, I did a search for Grand Central (one of Hachette’s imprints…and one suggested by the article) print books at Amazon.com:

Grand Central print books at Amazon.com (at AmazonSmile)

Looking at the “New and Popular” sort, I see

  1. No delay
  2. No delay
  3. No delay
  4. Pre-order
  5. Usually ships in 1 to 3 weeks (this is Robin Roberts’ Everybody’s Got Something)
  6. Pre-order
  7. No delay
  8. Pre-order
  9. No delay
  10. No delay
  11. No delay
  12. Usually ships in 3 to 4 weeks (The Hit by David Baldacci)
  13. No delay
  14. Usually ships in 3 to 4 weeks (Gone by James Patterson)
  15. No delay
  16. Usually ships in 2 to 5 weeks (Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food by Jody Williams and Mario Batali)
  17. No delay
  18. Pre-order
  19. No delay
  20. No delay

Well, there are some books there with a significant delay.

My next question: are the books delayed at Amazon also delayed at Barnes & Noble?

Assuming that “usually ships within 24 hours” means that they don’t expect a delay, the answer was no…for all four of these.

Next, I’ll try some Random House titles, to see if they also have significant delays. I checked the top twenty Random House books, using the same technique I did for Grand Central: no delays.

So, tentatively at this point, I’ll say the evidence supports Hachette’s reported contention…Amazon may in fact be understocking Hachette’s books.

“Understocking?”

By that I mean that they aren’t keeping enough in stock to meet customer demand and get them delivered in a c0uple of days.

Why would that be the case?

It could be a deliberate bargaining tactic, as the stories suggest. The idea is that by delaying delivery, they are hurting Hachette.

However, wouldn’t that also hurt Amazon? The way they would be hurting the publisher is by reducing the sales…which also hurts Amazon.

I never think it’s a good tactic to annoy your customers to get back at your suppliers…I didn’t like it when stores did it to Amazon by not carrying Amazon’s traditionally published books, for example.

I think there might be a couple of other possible explanations.

One is that Amazon just blew it on the ordering. Certainly, that happened sometimes in my store. We way over-ordered on a Suzanne Summers book…because she lived in the area and we thought there would be a lot of interest. Maybe Robin Roberts got more publicity than they expected?

I don’t really think that’s likely. I think Amazon is generally good at ordering…and it would be pretty fluky if they just happened to be one publisher’s books (unless that publisher did something unexpected in terms of publicity).

Another one is that Amazon is experimenting…maybe trying to drive customers to e-books instead. In a case like that, they might pick one publisher’s books, or books that fit a certain profile (which might, coincidentally, align with a publisher’s content choices).

I would consider that…possible. Amazon has more (and I would guess increasingly) control in the e-book market than they do in the p-book market (although they are a major player there too, of course…and perhaps, becoming even more powerful as B&N wobbles on the edge of a cliff).

This might also simply be a way to try to cut costs and up profits…Roger Knights, one of my regular readers and commenters, had a strongly correct prediction about e-book prices rising at Amazon.

It costs money to store books. Every day a book sits in your warehouse (or back room, in a bookstore the size of the one I ran), you lose money on the sale. Maybe that’s making Amazon take more chances with low stock…and if Hachette’s return policies aren’t as friendly as other publishers, that could make them more likely to be hit by it…that’s just speculation, though.

Let’s sum this up:

Books unavailable? That’s a bad thing.

Is Amazon at fault here? I think that’s the most likely scenario.

What’s the plus side (there is always a plus side)? I suppose it might accelerate the shift to e-books, which I do see generally as a good thing (they are more accessible, less expensive for the most part, and as I understand it, more ecologically friendly).

If Hachette decides it needs to go more directly to readers, that’s very much more likely to be with e-books than p-books. Amazon is a behemoth in delivery, and does it for a lot of other companies. It would be very hard for a publisher to start doing D2R (Direct To Readers) with p-books…but a snap (logistically…marketing is a different question) with e-books.

Update: this additional

New York Times article, again by David Streitfeld

has two additional accusations against Amazon…claiming two more tactics against Hachette use by the e-tailer.

One is higher prices.

The other one, more intriguing, is running banner ads on a book’s Amazon product page…recommending similar, less expensive books.

That latter one, if true (and my intuition, without additional evidence, is that the story wouldn’t include this if it wasn’t), changes the math.

It would mean that Amazon could actually profit by reducing the sales of the Hachette books. Readers could be directed to books with more favorable terms..perhaps ones published by Amazon itself.

Nothing illegal about that…I wouldn’t even say it is unethical.

But it is sneaky.😉

This second article focuses on how authors are hurt in these sorts of “spats”…certainly, that’s a motivation for them to publish independently in the future. Is that good for Amazon? Sure, that’s where most of them would indie publish!

Is that the real goal? Get authors out of publishers completely, and into controlling their own destinies…but using Amazon’s distribution platform?

Hmmmmmm….

Customers, of course, are also hurt by this…that’s where I would advise Amazon to be careful, if they are doing this at all. Even if a customer can get a cheaper (perhaps even better) alternative, most of them won’t get that emotionally. They’ll just get that Amazon doesn’t have the book they wanted it, when they wanted it, at the price they wanted.

That’s the sort of mistake Amazon hasn’t tended to make in the past…I hope they don’t let pressure for greater profits make them change their three core values: price; service; and selection.

What do you think? How bad is this? If this is Amazon’s fault, would that surprise you? Do you see it as part of a general trend? If the move towards popular reading being done with e-books rather than p-books accelerates, do you think that’s a good thing? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

2 Responses to “Is Amazon delaying Hachette books?”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    Thanks for the analysis (especially for checking availability). I read the original NYT article. My first reaction was how quick the mainstream media is to pick up on anything with negative connotations vis a vis Amazon.😉

    My take is about where the NYT came down: Amazon is attempting to negotiate more favorable terms (of some sort — not sure what they might be — not sure it’s necessarily those posited by the NYT).

    I’m not familiar with any of the titles/authors being delayed — so I can’t judge how much “pressure” is being applied.

    IMO there’s still far too much lack of transparency in the true costs of production of both pBooks and eBooks — so I have no idea how pricing & logistics issues relate to those costs — I do suspect that publishers costs are inflated because (again IMO) they are carrying a lot of deadwood extraneous headcount — they haven’t adjusted to the eBook world yet.

  2. What’s happening to Amazon’s core principles? | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Is Amazon delaying Hachette books? […]

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