Friday, 23 May 2014

Amazon vs Hachette

You may have heard of the ongoing ruckus between Amazon and Hachette. It's been rumbling on for a couple of years now, and Amazon has recently escalated things by removing the ability for readers to buy and pre-order some Hachette titles.

The dispute seems to be that Amazon wants to be able to price e-books as low as they wish, in many cases taking a financial hit in order to drive customers through their online store. Hachette is against this, despite both author and publisher receiving full-price royalties even if Amazon essentially gives the e-book away for nothing.

Why, you may ask, is Hachette so against this? Probably because they’d rather not have a huge differential between the price of e-books and that of physical copies—effectively trying to stifle the e-book market so they can still shift loads of dead trees.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. Who has the moral high ground here? On one hand, Amazon appears to be bullying the publishing industry, whilst grinding their book-selling competitors into the dust. On the other, many readers feel that the price of e-books should be lower than that of physical copies, so you could say that Amazon is just trying to serve the needs of its customers. Also, it's difficult to feel too much sympathy for Hachette due to some of their dubious business practices.

There's no doubt that Amazon has become a bit of a monster, a terrible beast that the publishing industry fears might one day devour them. Yet it strikes me that the publishers have only got themselves to blame for this. Like the recorded music industry before them, they have failed to properly react to the dawning of the internet age, and are still clinging to their outdated business models, whilst failing to recognise that DRM does more harm than good.

Like millions of e-reader owners, I love my Kindle. But, due to their aversion to paying Corporation Tax, I don’t particularly relish doing business with Amazon. If there was an alternative, a quick, convenient way of buying e-books that I could read on my device, I would use it. You would have thought that, by now, the Big Four publishers would have pulled their heads from their arses, and realised that the easier you make it for consumers to buy your product, the more product you will sell.

Perhaps this dustup with Amazon will help. Perhaps not. Perhaps the publishing industry will wake up and smell the coffee that the record industry has been drinking since 2009, when the major labels allowed iTunes to remove DRM from the vast majority of their music catalogue. Since then, research suggests that sales of recorded music have increased, by as much as 40%.

I realise that the DRM issue is not necessarily what is driving this dispute. But it’s clear that, for whatever reason, Hachette prefers physical sales over digital. Otherwise, why would they object so strongly to Amazon’s heavy discounting of e-books?  

I guess the real losers here are the authors caught up in the middle of this. Things are hard enough for some of these guys. For their sake, as well as ours, as readers, I hope it gets sorted out soon.


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