Hachette joins Macmillan in e-book pricing war

Authors caught in the crossfire wonder, "How long can this last?"

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"We want the agency model" seems to be the message publishers are sending to Amazon as the e-book pricing war intensifies. All week the battle between Macmillan and Amazon as to how the e-tailing giant will price digital books has been raging. And now Hachette has joined the fray, with HarperCollins calling for negotiations as well.

That means that Amazon is now butting heads with three of the five biggest US publishers. It would seem that something's got to give – quickly.

Up until now, the Amazon model has been to sell many popular e-books at the subsidized price of $9.99. (The publisher is paid $15 and Amazon sells the high-profile books as loss leaders.) But publishers like Macmillan prefer the agency model proposed by Apple during the unveiling of its iPad last week. This would allow publishers to set their own prices, with a 30 percent commission going to the seller.

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Early this week, Amazon announced that they would back down. But as negotiations between Amazon and Macmillan drag on, most Macmillan books are still not being sold by Amazon. And meanwhile some authors are wondering how many sales they will lose before a truce is declared.

"It’s scary," writes debut author Randy Susan Meyers in a blog post titled "Nightmare on Amazon Street." Her novel "The Murderer's Daughters" was published by St. Martin's Press (a Macmillan imprint) on Jan. 19. It's due for a big review any day now. But what happens if the review comes out and all those potential readers/buyers log on to Amazon only to discover that they can't get the book? Do they try Barnes & Noble? Do they check out their neighborhood bookstore?

Or do they forget and move on to something else?

According to Meyers, having your new book abandoned by Amazon is about like "having [your baby] thrown out of one of the major daycare facilities in the nation."

So what is she doing? Apart from sobbing, Meyers says she spends her time monitoring the situation in cyberspace. "I’ve been reading the tweets pinging back and forth in the virtual world, along with the few articles that have surfaced so far. There are pro-Amazon factions. There are pro-Macmillan factions. Pro-reader. Pro-consumer. Pro-frugalistas."

But, she wonders, how about the writers who simply want to see their books selling? "The helpless writers have no weapons (except words)," she points out, "despite having quite a dog in this fight."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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