A group of more than 500 prominent authors says Amazon.com 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.
It is the latest headache for chief Jeff Bezos who last week strongly defended a New York Times article critical of the compay's work practices, said to reduce some employees to tears.
This week the Authors United group submitted a formal request to the DOJ’s top antitrust official. The group was 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 wrote to the DOJ saying Amazon had 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 a letter, quoted 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 eventually settled with Amazon. During their seven-month battle, Amazon had removed preorder buttons for some Hachette titles and delayed shipment for others.
The two sides agreed to allow Hachette to set the consumer prices of its titles. Amazon wanted Hachette to set e-book prices at $9.99 each. 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 a 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 theNew York Times.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of “The Left Hand of Darkness” and other best sellers, said 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 said th WSJ.
Amazon is the largest single bookseller in the US, controlling about 40% of the new book market and nearly two-thirds of the e-book market, according to some estimates, said the Journal. 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.
Defenders of Amazon 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. 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.