friday, 21 august of 2015

Authors Group Seeks DOJ Probe of Amazon

A group of prominent authors says Inc. has “unprecedented power” over the book publishing market and wants the U.S. Department of Justice to begin an investigation of what it claims is a monopoly.

On Thursday, the Authors United group submitted a formal request to the DOJ’s top antitrust official. The group formed last year in response to Amazon’s bruising negotiations with publisher Hachette Book Group, primarily over pricing.

Led by author Douglas Preston, the group sent a letter to the DOJ that said Amazon has repeatedly blocked or limited the sale of thousands of books on its website, sold some books below cost to gain market share, and attempted to compel customers to buy books from its own imprints rather than from other companies.

“We respectfully request that the Antitrust Division investigate Amazon’s power over the book market, and the ways in which that corporation exercises its power,” Authors United said in its letter, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Authors United had been working on its formal appeal to the agency since at least September.

A Justice Department spokesman said the agency will review the group’s materials.

An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment.

Hachette, a unit of Lagardère SCA, settled with Amazon. During their seven-month battle, Amazon removed preorder buttons for some Hachette titles and delayed shipment for others, moves that were criticized by some authors.

The two sides agreed to allow Hachette to set the consumer prices of its titles. Amazon had sought to get Hachette to set e-book prices at $9.99 each, which the retailer said was ideal to spur the most sales, based on its data. For its part, Hachette said a single price for all of its titles didn’t take into account editing, marketing and other costs.

After reaching its deal with Hachette in November, Amazon also reached terms with other publishers.

Authors United gathered 575 signatures for the letter, which is addressed to Assistant Attorney William Baer, who oversees the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. The list includes prominent authors such as Scott Turow, Nelson DeMille and Nora Roberts. Amid the height of the backlash against Amazon last year, Authors United collected about 1,000 signatures for a letter directed at Amazon and published as a full-page ad in the New York Times.

Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of “The Left Hand of Darkness” and other best sellers, said she endorsed the letter because she feared Amazon amassing too much influence over publishers and authors. “It does not seem wise to let one entity control such a big part of our emotional and cultural core,” she said in an interview.

Amazon is the nation’s largest single bookseller, controlling about 40% of the new book market and nearly two-thirds of the e-book market, according to some estimates. That also makes it a crucial avenue for publishers to sell older titles that would otherwise not get shelf space as the ranks of the largest bookstores have diminished.

Amazon, too, has many defenders who say its self-publishing arm allows otherwise unknown authors to get wide exposure.

Other writers who signed the Authors United letter, such as Daniel Menaker, author of the memoir “My Mistake,” said they feared Amazon had too much influence over book pricing, which could damage publishers’ profits in the long run. Mr. Menaker also has written an Amazon Kindle title.

Franklin Foer, former editor of the New Republic magazine, said in an interview that Amazon deserved more scrutiny from regulators. “Amazon could use its ever-greater power to extract more profits from publishers, which then limits authors’ profits,” he said.

This isn’t the first time a literary group has asked the Justice Department to look into Amazon’s business practices.

The Authors Guild, which represents about 9,000 authors, met with Justice Department officials last summer, raised antitrust concerns regarding the online retailer, and asked for an investigation. Jan Constantine, general counsel, said the Guild is unaware whether the DOJ launched an investigation.

In July, the Authors Guild posted on its website a preamble to Mr. Preston’s letter signed by Roxana Robinson, its president. Ms. Robinson wrote that the Guild was concerned by what it characterized as the “dominance that Amazon—through its artificially depressed book prices—wields over the book ecosystem, and the potential repercussions on the free flow of information and free expression.”

Ms. Robinson wrote that the Authors Guild supports the request by Authors United.

(Published by The Wall Street Journal - August 20, 2015)

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