"It's ugly with Amazon and will probably get uglier." So we said to the New York Times in June 2008 in the months after we first learned of Amazon's tactic of removing buy buttons to gain control over U.K. publishers that Amazon found unruly. Amazon's market share in the U.K. had just reached 16% and was growing fast. With its new clout, Amazon wasted no time in testing its strength against those publishers.
What was most striking to us was Amazon's indifference to authors (and, equally, its customers). No notice, just a few silent computer operations, and the buy buttons were gone. Publishers tell us -- in confidence, always in confidence -- that Amazon gives them no warning, either. The buy buttons are removed, then Amazon calls the publisher and suggests it's time to talk terms.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Amazon was busy in 2008 as well. Amazon struck where its market share was strongest: on-demand books. These are the books that largely comprise publishing's "long tail," the enormous number of titles that sell in low volumes but which, in aggregate, make a lot of money for the aggregator. It's a market all its own, and in the U.S., Amazon all but owns it.
In 2010, we have Amazon seeking to use its clout in the physical book market to dictate terms in the nascent e-book market. In the process, it's removed nearly all buy buttons from Macmillan, one of the largest trade publishers in the U.S. That campaign spurred us to launch this website.
Our goal is to allow authors to become immediately aware of when their buy buttons are removed. Publishers are often too fearful of antagonizing Amazon to say anything publicly about such incidents. Authors needn't have that fear (we can keep your identity anonymous), however, and publicity is probably our best collective defense.
The fact is, we don't know of all of the instances of Amazon's use of this harsh tactic. We know that it goes unreported -- there are episodes we know of that we don't have clearance to repeat in our chronology below. Amazon often chooses to instill fear in a publisher by selectively removing only a portion of a publisher's list from its online market. It can do this silently, changing the titles that are unavailable on a regular basis, so that only the publisher notices. Both Amazon and the publisher have solid reasons to keep the unpleasantness quiet: Amazon doesn't really want to be seen as a bully, and the publisher doesn't want to betray weakness as it succumbs to the pressure.
So please keep track of a few of your books. Sound the alarm if you find Amazon's removed your buy buttons (but make sure your book isn't just out of stock: review Buy-Buttonology: A Field Guide to Amazon's Book Pages). We'll do our part -- we'll monitor thousands of titles from many publishers.
Here's a brief history we've pieced together.
The Battle of Britain, Part One
The first reported use of the buy button weapon was in the United Kingdom. Early in 2008, Amazon removed the buy buttons from hundreds of Bloomsbury titles. Bloomsbury is a major British publisher, publishing authors such as William Boyd, Khaled Hosseini, and J.K. Rowling. Amazon and Bloomsbury resolved their differences on undisclosed terms, and the lights went back on for all of Bloomsbury's books.
The Battle of Britain, Part Two
The second use of the buy button weapon in the U.K. that we know of came later that year, when one of the world's largest publishers, Hachette Livre UK, took the hit. The publisher's CEO, Tim Hely Hutchinson, wrote in a letter to authors, "Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours."
He added, "If this continued, it would not be long before Amazon got virtually all of the revenue that is presently shared between author, publisher, retailer, printer and other parties." Bestselling authors were affected, including Stephen King and James Patterson, along with hundreds of less commercially successful authors.
Striking a Blow for Vertical Integration, Part One
Amazon's 2005 acquisition of BookSurge, an on-demand printing company, had apparently not brought as much business as Amazon had hoped. Amazon's hold on the market for on-demand books is particularly tight. Amazon is the market: the overwhelming majority of U.S. sales of on-demand books are believed to go through Amazon. In early 2008, Amazon notified many print-on-demand publishers that if their printing wasn't done by Amazon, buy buttons would disappear. The first to get hit that we know of was Author Solutions, which suffered a brief but total blackout of titles. Author Solutions got the point, and agreed to avail themselves of the pricey services of BookSurge. (Buy button removal knows no politics: Victor Navasky and the late William F. Buckley, Jr., both lost access to Amazon's customers during the outage.)
Striking a Blow for Vertical Integration, Parts Two, Three and Four
Amazon reportedly removed buy buttons from Whiskey Creek Press, a small publisher that publishes in traditional print and on-demand, and PublishAmerica, an on-demand publisher. Booklocker, an e-book and on-demand publisher in Bangor, Maine, files an antitrust suit against Amazon over its BookSurge tactics.
Battle of Britain Concludes, So Far As We Know
In April, we checked to see how things were going with Hachette UK. The lights were still out for apparently hundreds of Hachette titles at Amazon's British website. It was impossible to buy one of Hachette's wine guides at Amazon.co.uk., but there were plenty at Waterstone's website. We also looked for Chris Manby's "Seven Sunny Days." No buy button -- but there were 301 used copies available, starting at a couple pence. Chris has done nothing to offend Amazon that we know of: she's merely another casualty of Amazon's tactics.
Finally, on June 1, Hachette and Amazon come to undisclosed terms. All of Hachette's authors can again reach Amazon's customers.
Vertical Integration: A Setback
In August, Amazon loses a critical round in the Booklocker lawsuit in federal court in Bangor, Maine, as Chief Judge John Woodcock denied Amazon's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Vertical Integration: A Settlement
On January 20, Amazon and Booklocker announce a settlement. Amazon agrees to pay $300,000 in attorneys' fees and costs to Booklocker, but admits no wrongdoing.
The Big One
Amazon makes its first known use of its buy button weapon to use its heft in the physical book industry to exert control over a new format: e-books. Macmillan CEO John Sargent flies to Seattle to inform Amazon on January 28 that, beginning in March, it would offer Amazon access to a full range of e-book titles only if Amazon were willing to sell books on an "agency model." Amazon doesn't wait for March, and pre-emptively and comprehensively strikes back, removing buy buttons from nearly all Macmillan titles, not just from e-books, but from physical books, a far larger market. Although Amazon promises to "capitulate," that still hasn't happened. More details here.