Amazon vs. Macmillan: The latest round in the book wars

A big publisher fights back, Amazon gives in, and e-book prices go up. But what does it mean in the long run?

Mark Lennihn/AP/File

Wow, book headlines are beginning to resemble the sports pages. Every day someone's declaring a new winner and a new loser. This morning the loser is purported to be Amazon, because the company backed down in an e-book pricing battle with Macmillan (one of the US's six largest publishers) and agreed to sell Macmillan e-books on its Kindle e-reader for $12.99-14.99, instead of the $9.99 price that Amazon favors.

But did Amazon really lose? In the short run, yes. This weekend Amazon and Macmillan faced down in a contest that, as The New York Times put it, had "the already anxious publishing industry on edge." Macmillan refused to agree to Amazon's $9.99 prices on bestsellers and many new hardcover releases, and Amazon responded by – temporarily – halting sales of Macmillan titles on its Kindle.

It was a dramatic move. After all, Macmillan includes some of the more successful imprints in US publishing, including Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martins Press, and Tor Books. Take those off somebody's Kindle and they would notice the difference pretty quickly. Sloan Harris, codirector of the literary department at International Creative Management told the Times, “I think everyone thought they were witnessing a knife fight. And it looks like we’ve gone to the nukes.”

But now Amazon has – almost immediately, albeit reluctantly – backed down, telling its customers that "we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books."

However, is that really such bad news for Amazon? Maybe, maybe not. There will be some unhappy readers, that's for sure. (Just check out some of the 7,259 comments posted so far this year at "Boycott anything over $9.99" on a Kindle discussion forum.)

But I'm more inclined to agree with Kindle forum poster Scott Nicholson who, in a discussion titled "Macmillan aftermath: Good news for almost everybody (for now)," pointed out that everybody gets something out of this one. Macmillan gets the prices it wants even as Amazon gets credit for having made a stand for lower prices.

As for readers, $12.99-14.99 is still a very good price for a bestseller and/or new release. And those to whom such a range seems excessive will only have to wait. It's not that the prices on these books will never come down – it just won't happen immediately.

And anyone promoting e-books has got to be thrilled about the way that all this fighting is keeping them in the headlines. As Nicholson puts it, "ebooks win, because this has been the single most-talked-about book news of the past few years, and brought ebooks to the mainstream. They undeniably exist now, and are important enough for corporations to war over. That is good news for readers everywhere, whether they go paper or plastic. More books, more diversity, more literacy, more stories, more education, and more joy."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at

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