Amazon Taunting Antitrust Regulators By Screwing Over Customers Who Want Books From Hachette

from the this-may-not-end-well dept

Amazon, it seems, would like to call regulator attention to potentially anti-competitive practices, while at the same time, screwing over its customers. In a move that seems short-sighted and dangerous on multiple levels, Amazon is apparently trying to punish publishing giant Hachette by pissing off Amazon customers who want any Hachette book. Amazon is apparently unhappy with its current negotiations over a new deal with Hachette, and has decided to passive aggressively take it out on both Hachette and Amazon customers:

Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.

In general, we tend to be quite wary of overaggressive antitrust regulation — which too often appears to target “big” rather than “abusive in a way that harms consumers.” However, this seems like a pretty clear case in which Amazon is using its market power to be abusive in a manner that harms customers, for no reason other than to abuse its market position. I tend to like Amazon, and frequently distrust the big NY publishers, which regularly react poorly to useful innovations like those from Amazon. But in this case, Amazon appears to go way too far, in not just punishing Hachette, but also Amazon’s users, delaying delivering for no reason at all or pushing them towards books they don’t want, just based on who published each book.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Hachette’s demands in the contract negotiations were also unreasonable, but even if that’s true, Amazon should not respond by punishing both authors and consumers for the contractual dispute. As one analyst notes in the NY Times article above, “This could seem like they’re being spiteful and petty…. That’s typically not Amazon’s playbook.” Indeed. It’s also the kind of thing that might attract the attention of the FTC, which is often on the lookout for companies behaving badly towards consumers.

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Companies: amazon, hachette

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Comments on “Amazon Taunting Antitrust Regulators By Screwing Over Customers Who Want Books From Hachette”

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27 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Regarding anti-trust laws

“Regarding the merger (I think this is worth posting again).

When Comcast and the FCC claim that the merger won’t affect consumers because the two companies hardly compete in the same areas they are basically admitting that the system is rigged to prevent consumers from benefiting from competition. Since the system is already rigged to provide consumers with a cartel (which is equivalent to a monopoly in terms of the prices provided), they claim, they might as well just merge and make their monopolistic position official. Why have all these companies informally act as a single monopoly when we can just skip the formalities altogether and make the lack of competition official. It won’t matter to consumers, they’re already paying monopolistic prices either way. That seems to be the extent of their argument.

So how is the the argument being made by supporters of this merger supposed to reassure me that this merger is a good thing.

and if our anti-trust laws meant anything then they would be used to stop this nonsense where ISPs conspire to avoid competing in the same areas (something even Comcast and the government seem to indirectly admit to). But no, instead our anti-trust laws get used against Google for doing nothing wrong.”

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140507/16114227154/over-100-internet-companies-call-fcc-to-protect-open-internet.shtml#c208

Our anti-trust laws are a joke, going after those that aren’t really doing anything wrong while ignoring those that are.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

You just made my point for me. Properly applied, they would be used to break up monopolies and iron out kinks in the market to ensure fair and free competition, giving nobody an unfair advantage. Please note, being pretty damn good at what you do is not an unfair advantage, it’s competition. If this then gives you a larger market share, good for you.

What Amazon is doing may well cause their users to vote with their feet; other online retailers exist, and authors – and indeed, publishers – have other distribution options.

Michael (profile) says:

I’m not entirely sure on this one – Amazon’s response to the accusations is important.

The shipping times are because the books are going out of stock – should we be blaming Amazon for not restocking their warehouses during a dispute with the publisher?

The pricing – the article has authors complaining that the Amazon discount is only 10%. Well, if the publisher priced it correctly from the beginning, wouldn’t a 10% discount be good?

And then there is the complaints about Amazon recommending similar books that are lower priced – this may simply be a result of them not discounting them as much which could be a result of the publisher demanding more money. Amazon has had lower priced alternative ads for awhile now.

So, at least some of this is reasonably likely to be the fault of the publishers just as much as Amazon. I think we need to watch more to find out.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It isn’t. It’s not even exclusive to their book sales. I think it feels ramped up for this publisher because their book prices have gone up because of the negotiations – and I am not sure that it because Amazon decided to just jack up the prices as leverage or if it is because they are currently contractually obligated to pay the publisher more.

benthic (profile) says:

Please Explain to me . . .

How this HARMS customers. They are given the price of the book, a suggestion is made that they purchase something else instead and then BEFORE the order is complete, they are told to expect long shipping times.

Maybe I’m blind but no where in there is the customer “Harmed”.

Is any of this keeping the customer from say, going over to the Barnes and Noble website and buying the same book?

Nope.

Is it keeping them from going to a local bookstore and buying said book?

Nope.

Are they stating a price on the book web page and then charging a different price during check out?

Nope.

Are they letting the customer purchase the book first and THEN telling them of the shipping delay?

Nope.

Are they being a bit petulant?

Sure.

Violating anti-trust laws . . . .

Not so much.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Please Explain to me . . .

a suggestion is made that they purchase something else instead

This right here is a place where harm to the consumer comes in. If the consumer trusts Amazon’s recommendation system and decides to purchase another book instead, they may very well end up with that doesn’t meet their needs as well as the one from Hachette. Consumer harmed. Even if the consumer is stupid to trust the recommendation system, it doesn’t change the fact that they have been harmed when they wouldn’t otherwise have been.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Please Explain to me . . .

Yeah, that’s really stretching it.

‘So, I see you are interested in Product A. Based upon that, here’s a few other products you might be interested in checking out as well.’

That’s pretty much it, that is the ‘harmful’ suggestion system they’ve got in place.

‘… they may very well end up with that doesn’t meet their needs as well as the one from Hachette.’

Turning that around, what if the Hachette product wouldn’t have meet the customers needs, but the recommendation(s) would? Claiming that customers would be ‘harmed’ by alternative suggestions assumes that the Hachette products are the best possible choice for everyone, something that isn’t even close to true.

Having more choices is always better for the customer, the only ones ‘harmed’ by the customer being presented with multiple options regarding what to purchase are the company/companies that don’t end up making a sale due to the numerous options, and that’s not the sort of ‘harm’ that needs reigning in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Please Explain to me . . .

Most people trust the expected shipping times Amazon lists to be an accurate portrayal of the general availability of a product, so what Amazon lists will not be substantially different elsewhere. They do not expect it to be artificially inflated by Amazon, either via them slowing the restocking process, or flat out having plenty in stock but simply delaying shipment.

So people likely take the shipping times at face value, go ahead and order from Amazon because they assume it’s no better elsewhere, and wait weeks or months for new items readily available elsewhere if only they hadn’t trusted Amazon.

All told it’s a pretty low thing to do in comparison to their other options of letting it go out of stock entirely, or simply stop selling it themselves as they have done in the past. Doing one of those things would be more likely to prompt people to check other options.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Please Explain to me . . .

I think the more likely reason for the shipping times is that Amazon is not maintaining an inventory of the items and is instead purchasing inventory from the publisher(or other wholesaler) in small amounts to fullfill the orders. This probably accounts for the extra cost.

Why wouldn’t the shipping time estimates reflect Amazons inventory and material sourcing situation. The idea that it should reflect some general availability of an item in the world seems absurd to me and counter to the purpose of telling people when the item can be expected to be delivered when ordered from Amazon.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not siding with either side on this, it can be very well either side who is at fault here.

For one amazon for all the reasons above,

BUT the publisher can very well be causing this. I can see them trying to exert pressure on amazon by reducing the amount of books they ship and the pricing can very much be a result of their policies as well and then spin this in the media as amazons doing.

That is just as likely as amazon being dicks and knowing what the copyright industries do the criminal energy to pull something like that is very likely there.

It is impossible to tell what is going on just from this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Disapointed to see such a poorly put together hatchet job parroted on Techdirt

The entire linked article just read like a poorly put together hatchet job out to smear Amazon, and I’m sadly disapointed to see it parroted so quickly and without critical anaysis on Techdirt.

So: Amazon is in a contract negotiation/dispute with Hachette. During this time it is logical and reasonable for them to stop buying large stockpiles from Hachette, as if they’re anticipating a better deal coming in the new contract. This has implications on the stock (and therefore availibility) of the books, as well as their price (not getting large bulk discounts). The article even tries to make the 10% under MSRP sound like they’re overpricing!

Amazon has always had other item recommendations. On everything.

I don’t see anything here except Hachette trying to use it’s authors to smear Amazon during a contract negotiation.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Amazon is Simply Carrying Out the Enlightened Customer's Wishes.

Amazon’s decision is very much one I make myself, all the time. I consume books in tremendous quantity, and I simply cannot pay anything approaching list price on a sustained basis. I glance at a book, and say that there is no urgent need to read it this year, and I have plenty to do, and I might look at it in a year or two, when it is selling on the used market for a dollar or so. I have so many books that, for mere leisure reading, I can always go to my shelves and find something I have not read for years, or something I bought and never read. I honestly don’t think that customers are materially deprived by a six-month embargo, especially as they can always buy a book by other channels.

A thinking man’s have-to-read book is by definition a fairly old book, old enough to be available on the used market, if not actually in the public domain. The classic definition of a classic work is a work which has stood the test of time. People who say that there is only one worthwhile book, and that a just-published book, are generally the kind of people who read Harry Potter books.

The single biggest critique I make of Amazon, in respect of books, is that they have not yet opened up a market for realistically priced optional used books, that is, ten used books for ten dollars, inclusive of shipping. This would involve setting up a robotic warehouse, efficient enough that it could handle books for a penny apiece, having Amazon-sellers catalog books, print off control tickets, and ship books to Amazon in big boxes of fifty pounds or so. The warehouse could then file these books away, and dig them out to make up orders. Again, the orders would be big enough to make economic shipments. When I used to visit physical used bookstores, I bought an armload of books, loaded them into my backpack, and went on about my business. The used-bookseller was not trying to make a business out of selling single books. What we need to do is to replicate, on the internet, the backpack full of one-dollar used books.

Mark Noo (profile) says:

This is no good. I love Amazon. It is a pretty awesome service and they do it at margins that are barely qualify as profits. Amazon just sort of “skims” the money that comes rolling in.

Nevertheless, I don’t bullies. They need to tell us what is going on. People order from Amazon because we trust them (and because Amazon has a “the customer is always right” attitude.

I would hate for people to start talking about Amazon the way they talk about Comcast or Google.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I would hate for people to start talking about Amazon the way they talk about Comcast or Google.”

To start? Amazon has been in the same class of misbehaving corporate entities as Comcast and Google for years now. The precise nature of their misbehavior differs, but it’s equally misbehaving.

Amazon is not a good guy, and hasn’t been one for a long, long time.

(None of this is a comment on the Hachette issue one way or another. It’s just a general comment on Amazon’s corporate behavior.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Smear Article

It does read like a one sided smear article against Amazon. Authors complaining about Amazon recommending a different book, a ‘mere’ 10% discount etc.

In this case, customers have a choice, and they can always check out others like B&N, Book depository (I know Amazon owns them, but sometimes books are cheaper here) etc.

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