Amazon Ate My Hamster

This column has occasionally been rude about, but only in a spirit of fair comment, free speech, and friendly give-and-take. Beneath our rugged, sardonic exteriors, Amazon and I were buddies ... until one day they pulled my book from sale.

It wasn't just me: believes in overkill. In late January they removed their Buy buttons for virtually every book published by Macmillan companies, including the major SF/fantasy imprint Tor Books (and thus me). Adding to the pain, Amazon kept the Buy links in place for used copies: they didn't mind selling the book and taking their cut, so long as Tor and starving author Langford got nothing.

What happened? Macmillan was negotiating a new deal with Amazon. They demanded an "agency model" giving them more control over pricing, particularly of cheap ebooks which (Macmillan thought, though maybe wrongly) could sabotage the first sales rush of a hardback bestseller – a vital earner for publishers. The idea was that cheaper ebooks could come later, like cheap paperback releases, but not immediately. Amazon, to maybe oversimplify, wanted those ebooks heavily discounted from the outset as loss-leaders for their famous Kindle reader.

The complex rights and wrongs could be debated at vast length, but Amazon soon tired of mere negotiation. They threw a hissy fit and went nuclear by delisting Macmillan's titles – yanking a significant percentage of the total stock on their virtual shelves. The idea was to terrify Macmillan into surrendering quickly, as Hachette (Orion/Gollancz, Orbit, etc) did when Amazon hit them with this tactic in 2008. This time it didn't work as well.

This time, the online SF world reacted like a wasps' nest poked with a stick. Authors who check their Amazon sales ranking hourly felt it wasn't Macmillan that was being targeted but them. Us. Worst hit were writers with new books just launched or just beginning to take off – until merrily crippled their chances. It's an amazingly efficient way to lose goodwill.

In this publicity war, Macmillan scored by quickly releasing a calm-seeming official statement from the CEO. Amazon's top management stayed quiet. Two days after the uproar began, though, the Amazon Kindle team explained on their web forum that they'd kicked all those authors in the groin to express "strong disagreement" with Macmillan. They grumbled that "we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles". So it was all over?

Despite talk of capitulation, Macmillan authors continued to suffer for further long days. The Buy buttons didn't return until a full week after their removal. Meanwhile that whiny remark about Macmillan's monopoly was much mocked. Authors were fascinated to realize they too are evil monopolists. I myself, for example, have a brutal monopoly on prose by David Langford, and hadn't previously understood just how disgraceful this was. Conversely, of course, Amazon's monopoly of the Kindle ebook reader must be a Good Thing.

The bottom line for what was nicknamed Amazonfail is that influential SF authors/bloggers acquired a deep dark grudge against Amazon and its bully-boy tactics. Many SF websites removed Amazon affiliate links, including the mighty web presences of the SF Writers of America and even (agreeing with SFWA for once in a blue moon) me.

And is the publishing world on its knees? Far from it. Two other biggies, Hachette and HarperCollins, have since joined Macmillan in demanding "agency model" terms. Maybe one day we'll wake up to find that – a few small presses excepted – Amazon is petulantly refusing to sell any books at all.

David Langford switched his links to The Book Depository, who haven't been evil yet.

Later: Trying to be principled is usually bad for the bank balance, but I seem to be making a somewhat larger pittance from The Book Depository's affiliate fees than I did from Amazon. The rewards of virtue ...