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Amazon's price war

Novelist is caught in the middle in a feud between online retailer and Macmillan over what to charge for books.

February 10, 2010|By Amy Goldman Koss

As a novelist, I am used to having complete control over the world on my computer screen. Life, death, sin, redemption: My characters' lives are in my hands. But last week, I got yet another reminder of my utter powerlessness once the book leaves home. Amazon.com took away my "buy" button.

I'm not the only author I know who obsessively checks her Amazon rankings. It's not that I have any real idea what they mean: how they translate into how many books have sold or what kind of royalties I can expect. Nevertheless, I compare my numbers with those of my friends and enemies, charting the ups and downs and drinking accordingly.

I have several books listed on Amazon, so I flick from one to another, looking to see if perhaps, while I was sleeping, one of my titles suddenly became wildly, breathtakingly popular and sold a gazillion copies.

Then, last week, something strange happened. Some of my Amazon pages looked normal, but others looked skimpy and weird. It took a minute to figure out what was missing, but then it hit me: There was no way to "Add to Shopping Cart."

You could still click on the button to buy battered copies from germy strangers for pennies. But there was no way to purchase a brand-new, shiny clean book in the good old royalty-accruing, fresh-from-the-publisher way.

Ouch!

I suppose I should have seen this coming. E-books have everyone crazed and running in circles. Is it the death of the book? The death of tactile reading and textured illustration? The end of book signings and collectors' editions? The end of life as we know it?

There is shrill panic about no longer being able to "cuddle up with books," as if they are plush toys. And there is angst about whether authors are becoming mere "content providers," and whether "providing content" will pay the bills.

And then this. The publisher of some of my books, Macmillan, took a stand recently, telling Amazon that it would no longer agree to Amazon's selling its e-books at a default price of $9.99. It not only intended to raise prices on Macmillan e-books, but it was no longer willing to split the revenues generated by them 50/50 with Amazon.

Amazon did not take the ultimatum well.

The bookseller insisted it was fighting on behalf of the people, who want cheap books. Macmillan held firm, saying it wanted to raise the price of its e-books to as much as $15. The dispute grew more bitter over a period of months, with each side refusing to back down.

Finally, Amazon reared up and, with one mighty swipe of its terrible claw, cut the power to every "buy" button of every book published by Macmillan, and not just on e-books but on hard cover and soft too. Even on audio books.

An eerie silence fell.

The giants lumbered off to seethe.

We authors waited meekly, wondering about paying the gas bill. Shoppers went elsewhere, or bought other books.

Then, POOF! Just as suddenly as they disappeared, the "buy" buttons were back, and authors could resume gazing uncomprehendingly at their inexplicably changing rankings online.

There was a story, perhaps apocryphal, that made the rounds when I was a teenager about how an overzealous art director airbrushed out the bellybutton of a Playboy centerfold.

I know how that playmate must have felt. A girl gets used to her buttons.

Amy Goldman Koss is the author, most recently, of the teen novel "Side Effects."

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