Our View: Amazon holds books hostage at its own peril

05/13/2014 5:13 PM

05/13/2014 6:51 PM

Too bad gargantuan online merchandiser Amazon has decided to make life miserable for those who want to read the works of certain authors – authors who are published by companies Amazon doesn’t own.

For weeks now, Amazon customers ordering books by Stephen Colbert, David Baldacci, Malcolm Gladwell, Robin Roberts, James Patterson and many others have encountered waits as long as a month for titles that ordinarily would ship within a couple of days.

Amazon, which has a huge shipping installation in Patterson, had no comment. But Hachette Book Group, with which Amazon recently has been deadlocked in contract negotiations, says the Internet megastore has intentionally slowed shipments of its products.

Because Amazon now controls a third of the book business, the impression is that Amazon is strong-arming a rival major book supplier. Meanwhile, Hachette’s authors – most of whom are far less famous and successful than Gladwell and Colbert – are suffering. So are millions of readers and Amazon customers.

Perhaps Amazon has sound reasons for this kind of hardball. The company’s stock has struggled. An upcoming IPO by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is expected to generate new competition for Amazon in the U.S. market. And, just as a matter of course, squeezing suppliers is what retailers do.

But books aren’t just any product, and publishers aren’t just any supplier. The market for books is, in ways large and small, a market for ideas – a market so crucial, it has constitutional protections.

Great power over this market comes with great responsibility, and this isn’t the first time Amazon has let its virtual boot linger creepily on the neck of the First Amendment. Four years ago, during a dispute over e-book sales, it pulled the “buy” buttons from nearly every page featuring titles by the publishing company Macmillan.

The pennies that tactic might have saved consumers paled against the impression that “good guy” Amazon might actually be a bully, interested only in its bottom line.

That kind of impression doesn’t play well with the public: Last year, Time Warner Cable tried pulling one of its “suppliers,” CBS, off the air in several cities during a dispute over how much the company should pay for the right to transmit that network’s programming. Time Warner lost more than 300,000 customers.

We want Amazon to be successful. It provides jobs and millions of people depend on it for all sorts of merchandise. As much as consumers, authors need the company to sell their books and other wares.

But any corporation that gets too big in any specific field will try to dominate that field, bending the rules to its advantage. When you do that with the flow of ideas, people become unsettled. Unsettle enough people enough of the time, and successful companies become less successful. Cable companies are finding that out, as millions of customers switch to other means of receiving programming.

The phenomenon is called the “tipping point.” Amazon executives can read all about it in a book by Gladwell. If they don’t mind waiting two to three weeks for it to arrive.

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