Caught in the Middle of Amazon's Spat With Hachette

An employee stocks books at a Fulfillment Center in Phoenix on Dec. 2, 2013 Photograph by Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

Earlier today, as has been widely reported elsewhere, Amazon ratcheted up the pressure in its ongoing negotiations with the book publishing conglomerate Hachette Livre, pulling book-buying pages on for some of the publisher’s forthcoming releases. Among the casualties is the The Silkworm, the new novel by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and the paperback edition of my book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which just so happens to be in large part about the hardball negotiation tactics of Amazon itself.

It’s not clear what the sticking point is in the discussions between Hachette and Amazon. Neither party is talking. Recent skirmishes between Amazon and book publishers have centered on the price of digital books and the reluctance of publishers to replace physical copies of their older, backlist books with a print-on-demand capability. Earlier today Michael Pietsch, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, sent a letter to Hachette authors, apologizing and yet indirectly pointing the finger at Amazon’s obstinacy. “Please know that we are doing everything in our power to find a solution to this difficult situation, one that best serves our authors and their work, and that preserves our ability to survive and thrive as a strong and author-centric publishing company,” he wrote.

The paperback version of my book isn’t out until the fall, and the hardcover and digital versions remain available. So I’m not as seriously affected as authors whose forthcoming books have now largely disappeared from the virtual shelves of the world’s most popular bookstore. Yet it’s difficult to avoid such rich irony. A book detailing Amazon’s heavy-handed tactics in business negotiations has become, at least in a small way, a victim of those tactics.

The more serious impact may be to Amazon itself. Jeff Bezos and crew have built 20 years’ worth of customer trust and established a record of being a uniquely customer-focused company, willing to forgo potential revenue when it jeopardizes the user experience. By making some books harder to find and harder to buy, it’s damaging its reputation and alienating the broader community of authors.

Amazon watches these public-relations tide winds carefully. A few years ago it relaxed its stance over collecting sales tax when it started to lose the PR war, particularly in California, where it was getting clobbered by a negative television ad campaign paid for by physical retailers. At the time Amazon was trying to establish its tablet, the Kindle Fire. Now Amazon has a new set-top box in the market and, perhaps, a coming smartphone. This bad publicity is the last thing it needs.

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