WASHINGTON May 29 The U.S. government's
unwillingness to stop Amazon.com from using hardball
tactics in fights with book publishers has angered book lovers
but antitrust experts say regulators are unlikely to intervene
in what appear to be business disputes.
Amazon has delayed the delivery of some Hachette Book Group
titles and even removed an option to pre-order "The Silkworm,"
by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith.
Hachette, the fourth largest U.S. book publisher, is owned by
France's Lagadere SCA.
The companies have not detailed the dispute but several
media reports indicate it is over the pricing of e-books.
Neither immediately responded to requests for
Some Amazon customers have gone public about their decision
to buy books elsewhere. Advocates for authors and publishers use
words like "bullying" and "thuggish," and pine for government
But the Hachette dispute as currently understood is a fairly
typical fight between a retailer and a supplier, antitrust
In fact, Amazon removed Macmillan Publishers from its book
lists in 2010 during a similar spat. Advocates for publishers
and authors had meetings with the U.S. Justice Department in
2011, which examined their complaints.
"The department did not take lightly the concerns expressed
about Amazon (but) they didn't find an antitrust violation,"
said a person who was at the department then and who spoke on
background to protect business relationships.
"The publishers squeeze the authors as much as they can for
as big of a take as possible. And Amazon squeezes publishers as
much as they can for as big of a take as possible," the person
Attorney Allen Grunes, veteran of the Justice Department now
at Geyer Gorey LLP, said the Amazon-Hachette fight is a
standard-issue business battle.
"Yes, they're (Amazon) big but this sort of thing is not the
basis for a monopolization investigation," he said.
There are ways that Amazon could run into antitrust trouble
- for example, if it conspired with publishers to set prices, as
the Justice Department accused Apple and five major
publishers, including Hachette, of doing in 2012.
Or it could push down the prices it pays suppliers so far to
be accused of monopsony, said Chris Sagers, law professor at the
Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
A monopsony is a dynamic where many sellers have only one
buyer, who can beat the sellers down on price.
"But to show monopsony, you have to show that the suppliers
are forced to sell their products at such a loss that we see a
reduction in the supply of books for consumers," Sagers said,
noting the high markup on hardcover books indicated that
monopsony was likely not occurring.
Hardcover fiction best-sellers typically sell for at least
$15 on Amazon.com. It has competition from other online sellers
as well as brick-and-mortar bookstores.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz, editing by Ros Krasny and Andrew