Amazon-Bonnier battle goes public with protest by European authors

More than 1,000 writers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have signed a letter to Amazon saying that the company has made Bonnier-published books less available and manipulated Amazon's recommended reading lists.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
Amazon is currently involved in disputes with publishers Hachette and Bonnier Group.

While personalities ranging from Stephen King to Stephen Colbert have weighed in on Amazon’s very public e-book pricing battle with publisher Hachette in the US, it turns out Amazon is engaged in another pricing dispute across the Atlantic with Swedish publisher Bonnier Group

That standoff has remained private – until now. 

More than 1,000 writers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have signed an open letter to Amazon protesting the company’s tactics in its pricing war with Bonnier, reports the Bookseller. The letter accuses Amazon of manipulating its recommended reading lists and making Bonnier-published books less available as a negotiating tactic in its e-book pricing dispute with the Swedish publisher.

“In the past few months, Bonnier authors are being boycotted and their books no longer held in stock," said the letter, which was signed by, among others, Austrian Nobel literature prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek and the head of the German PEN writers' association Regula Venske.

“The delivery of the books is being subjected to a go-slow; false information is given about their availability; and the authors' names no longer appear on Amazon's recommended lists," the letter continued. “Amazon has no right to take hostage authors who are not directly involved in the conflict.”

Echoing a similar letter signed by nearly 1,000 writers in the US against Amazon, the German letter encouraged readers to write directly to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, as well as head of Amazon Germany Ralf Kleber, to urge the company to “stop using books and authors as hostages…”

The e-book pricing standoff between Amazon and Bonnier mirrors the continuing fight between Amazon and Hachette in the US in which Amazon is pushing for lower e-book prices, among other things. 

As the New York Times pointed out, the decision to publish the letter was made weeks before the annual book fair in Frankfurt, which starts a new season of price negotiations. 

Amazon has responded to German authors’ complaints. 

Amazon pointed its finger at publishers, saying their terms were unfair. Bonnier “offers most of its titles under conditions that make it significantly more expensive for us to sell a digital version, as compared to a printed edition,” Amazon told the New York Times. “E-books can and should be offered cheaper than printed books, and this should also go for the prices at which booksellers buy from publishers." 

Germany is Amazon’s largest market outside the United States, accounting for 14.2 percent of Amazon's total sales last year, according to reports.

However, as the Times pointed out, “The literary culture in Germany and Austria differs profoundly from that in the United States or Britain, in that pricing is protected by laws that forbid deep discounting, or other purely commercial practices. Many authors fear Amazon will use its dominant position to seek to overturn these laws.”

There may be more at stake than e-book pricing terms, then, in Bonnier’s battle with Amazon.

Across many European countries, price protections such as laws forbidding deep discounting protect many smaller specialty and boutique publishers – publishers that are endangered or simply driven out from the US publishing landscape. In its fight with Amazon, Bonnier and its supporters may be fighting to keep European price protections that protect its publishing industry.

As such, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association submitted a complaint to the country’s antitrust authority in June, claiming Amazon’s dominant position in the e-book market violates competition law. The European Commission has opened preliminary investigations into the complaint. 

The Amazon-Bonnier battle illustrates “German anxiety over Amazon’s unbridled position in the domestic book market,” reports the Times.

“It shows the public and politicians around the world that this is about more than a dispute over price conditions,” Alexander Skipis, president of the publishers’ association, told the Times. “This is about maintaining a book culture that requires a certain protection and cannot be regarded from a purely commercial point of view.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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