Authors to call for Amazon antitrust inquiry

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A group of more than 1,000 authors lobbying Amazon to drop its tactics in a dispute with publisher Hachette will call for an antitrust inquiry into the ecommerce company by the US Department of Justice.

Authors United, which counts bestselling writers including Malcolm Gladwell, Donna Tartt and Stephen King among its supporters, is soliciting signatures for a letter to William J. Baer, assistant US attorney-general for antitrust, according to Douglas Preston, the Hachette writer who started the group.

The letter will ask the justice department’s antitrust division to “examine Amazon’s business practices”, Mr Preston wrote in an appeal to authors seen by the Financial Times. The appeal was circulated by the literary agent Andrew Wylie, who has criticised the retailer.

“It’s not an emotional or a populist appeal, it’s simply citing points of law,” Mr Preston said. He said he had been in touch with the justice department. “They are expecting this letter and they have told me that they welcome any information we can provide.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Amazon and Hachette are at loggerheads over terms of ebook pricing and marketing payments. The online bookseller, which sells two in five physical books in the US and nearly two-thirds of ebooks, has made it difficult for consumers to get some of the French publisher’s titles by delaying delivery of some books and making others unavailable for pre-ordering.

Authors United has been escalating its case since this summer, running an advertisement in the New York Times in August and lobbying Amazon’s board this month. Mr Preston and his co-signers say they are not taking Hachette’s side in the dispute but object to the impact of Amazon’s negotiating tactics on writers.

“These sanctions have driven down Hachette authors’ sales at Amazon.com by at least 50 per cent and in some cases as much as 90 per cent,” the group wrote in an open letter to Amazon’s board. It calculates that 2,500 authors and more than 7,000 titles have been affected.

Once the text of the Department of Justice letter has been finalised, it will be sent to Authors United members for their signatures.

“If it’s like past efforts, maybe a dozen people will decline and 300 more will sign on,” Mr Preston said.

Barry Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a left-leaning think-tank, who is advising Authors United on the letter, said the fundamental argument against Amazon is its dominance in the marketplace, which he believes gives it too much power over publishers.

“In a democracy of 300m people, it seems unwise to allow a single private company to be allowed to dictate terms to the largest companies that publish books in your country,” he said. “They’re combining unprecedented amount of power with this license that they have to manipulate what is presented to the reader.”

In the last big antitrust case that gripped the book industry, the justice department and US courts sided with Amazon over publishers. Five big publishing houses, including Penguin, then controlled by Pearson, owner of the Financial Times, paid $166m in fines after they were found to have conspired with Apple to raise ebook prices.

Publishers in the UK have called for a competition inquiry into Amazon’s market dominance. The company is also facing a complaint in Germany from local publishers and booksellers who claim Amazon unfairly penalises publishers in pricing disputes.

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