February 8, 2010

Amazon sort of admits defeat … in the dead of night

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Well, at long last the war between Amazon and Macmillan is kind of sorta for the most part just about pretty much over. While some sort of agreement seems to have been reached, once again it occurred in the low visibility of the weekend hours (and as per MobyLives‘ Friday night report). Still, as is their wont, Amazon can’t seem to keep from — there’s no other word for it, really — fucking with Macmillan. For example, while all the buy buttons have been replaced for Hilary Mantel‘s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, the print version of the book is being discounted an extraordinary 50%, and the ebook version is for sale at $9.99 … whereas, wasn’t this whole thing basically a hissy fit about the difference between $9.99 and $14.99? (Of all the angry ridicule circulating the web attempting to describe Amazon’s behavior, a post from Quill & Quire put it best: “It’s not difficult to imagine Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos fluttering his fingertips together and ordering Smithers to remove the buy buttons on book pages that don’t please him.”)

But the Wall Street Journal‘s Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Geoffrey A. Fowler say it’s so, and so it must be true. As per their report, “the two sides have settled their differences and books by Macmillan authors went back on sale on Amazon’s Web site over the weekend…. Specific terms of the Macmillan agreement couldn’t be learned. However, they are expected to include higher prices for e-books, mirroring those offered by Apple on its coming iPad device.”

What’s more, “The pact between Amazon and Macmillan will likely serve as a template for other publishers during their coming discussions with Amazon. Last Thursday, Lagardère SCA’s Hachette Book Group sent a letter to book agents stating that it is adopting the Apple e-book pricing model for the sale of its e-titles. Others publishers, large and small, are expected to follow.”

So who won? Well, Apple, of course. As the WSJ report astutely observes, “By agreeing to accept a new pricing model, Amazon has publicly acknowledged the sudden emergence of a rival that may not only threaten its highly popular Kindle franchise but also its total domination of e-books.” And then there’s the coming Google ebook store …. In short, “The settlement sets the stage for what will almost certainly be a transformative year in publishing ….” And the implications loom large not just in the U.S., as indicated by this report from The Bookseller, which notes that one “senior UK publishing executive” says the eight-day war was a “very significant week and genuinely a very good week for book publishers, authors and readers.”

At the end of it all, both parties remained true to form, giving perhaps some notion of how Amazon is going to confront change: the WSJ report says Macmillan CEO John Sargent issued a classy statement saying he was “delighted to be back in business with Amazon.”

Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, who hasn’t said a word to explain his company’s behavior since the fracas started, maintained his petulant silence: Amazon refused to comment.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives

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