Bully Me Not: A Second Take on Amazon, Hachette & The Rest of Us


Today’s blog at The New York Times mentions that Stephen Colbert has joined the dog pile of voices condemning Amazon.  The dispute started when – during negotiations to give Hachette Book Group a bigger percentage of ebook revenue – Amazon started to intentionally limit the availability and sale of books published by Hachette.

The other day, I posted about this, remarking that the bigger problem isn’t how Amazon is addressing Hachette, but how book publishers in general take too big a slice of the profits from ebooks, much of which I believe should go to authors.

I’ll admit, I have an overdeveloped sense of fairness.  And I back that up with a considerable amount of professional experience in determining the flow of business value.  So when Amazon and Hachette started pummeling each other – one with slow book sales and the other with a publicity campaign – I felt bad for the forgotten little guys (authors and readers).

Now, I’m starting to feel (a little) bad for Amazon.  As I said in my original post, Amazon is making it possible for authors to keep more of the revenue from their books.  It’s still not where I think the value-split should be, but it’s a big step in the right direction.  Now that the villagers are clamouring for justice, I worry that this fuss will undo some of the positive change Amazon has begun to introduce in this business.

We’ve seen this story before.  Not very long ago, someone had the bright idea to close lanes on a bridge, to restrict the flow of traffic from New Jersey into New York.  We were outraged by the petty unfairness of that action.  We want our public officials (and corporate leaders) to act with a little more maturity.

Years ago, I talked briefly to Jeff Bezos by phone.  I was leading a team in developing a first-ever web presence for the Super Bowl, and he had just founded a little operation selling books online.  We didn’t come up with a good partnership idea, but from our short conversation, I liked him.  He seemed smart and focused on making a wider variety of books available to a wider variety of people.

I think it’s time for him to apologize.  Like so many other corporate leaders, this problem wasn’t strictly his fault.  As many of us know, what happens in corporations is that someone says, “what if we…,” and then the snowball starts rolling downhill.  “What if we stopped selling their books?  That’d show ’em!”  Or, “What if we just stocked limited quantities and made their customers wait?”

Retribution always sounds like a good idea when you’re all riled up.  But it’s never is a good idea.

Apologize, Jeff.  You’re the guy in charge.  You need to say, “It was a bad idea to limit the flow of books to Hachette’s customers, because those people are Amazon customers too.  Our mission is to streamline the flow of books, not restrict it.  We should never have taken a business negotiation to the public stage, should never have aired that dirty laundry.  It’s our intention to make the world of publishing even MORE accessible to writers and readers and we briefly forgot that goal.  We’re sorry and we won’t do it again.”

Or something like that.  The point is, Amazon behaved badly by limiting book sales.  Then Hachette behaved badly by implying that Amazon is a bully.  Now the rest of us are behaving badly by jumping on the escalating dog pile to “crush the evil corporation(s)”.

Let’s stop.  Amazon can shorten the life of this story by apologizing to its customers.  Then they can go back to focusing on how to make the publishing, distribution, and logistics industries more and more efficient.  That efficiency is the remarkable part of this corporate behemoth, not their momentary and petty “we’ll show them!” actions.


photo credit:  personal photo archives of Amy Roffmann New

4 thoughts on “Bully Me Not: A Second Take on Amazon, Hachette & The Rest of Us”

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