after-lightsEven though the Justice Department has kiboshed “most favored nation” deals in the arrangement with the three agency publishers who settled, those deals are only binding on those publishers. Amazon is still using it in its arrangements with smaller publishers, and will probably continue to do so until and unless the DoJ turns its gimlet eye on them.

The New York Times and PaidContent, among others, are reporting on the case of Buzz Bissinger’s 12,000-word essay “After Friday Night Lights,” a sort of afterword to his book Friday Night Lights whose normal list price is $2.99. However, this week Starbucks and Apple featured the work as a promotional giveaway to Starbucks customers, who get an access code to download it for free. (The Times and PaidContent differ on whether Bissinger gets royalties for the Starbucks giveaways; the Times says he gets $1.50 per download and PaidContent says Starbucks said giveaway authors waive royalties in return for publicity.)

The problem is that Amazon’s pricebots noticed the giveaway, and marked the book down to $0 on (meaning that Bissinger wouldn’t get any royalties from it) and Bissinger’s publisher, Byliner, promptly pulled the e-book from Amazon for the duration of the giveaway “to protect our authors’ interest.” The book will return at normal price after the promotion is over.

Perhaps the funny thing in all this is how careful both the authors and the publisher were being in talking about Amazon despite Amazon essentially screwing them out of a week’s worth of sales in response to a promotion that only some people would be able to use. Bissinger calls it “a shame” and Byliner is “disappointed,” but both were careful to mention what a “crucial outlet” or “great partner” Amazon is in general. It reminds me of those comedy beats where someone drops an anvil on his foot but has to censor his swearing because a small child is nearby.

So what can we take away from all this? As the biggest single sales outlet for e-books, and with its price-matching bots, Amazon can significantly penalize anyone who has the temerity to give his books away or run a sale anywhere else. This seriously limits the kind of promotions an author or publisher can do—giving something away anywhere has to become giving it away everywhere. And they pretty much have to grin and take it since Amazon is where the majority of their sales come from—pulling the book will hurt them far more than Amazon. They don’t even feel like they can complain lest they risk Amazon dropping their other books.

And there’s absolutely nothing to keep Amazon from doing it to any publisher not barred from taking that kind of contract by the Justice Department. (Just as nothing forced them to implement agency pricing for the non-Agency Five/Big Six publishers it also serves.) Perhaps this is a way the enforced settlement could be a good thing for the publishers who have to abide by it.


  1. Byliner had conversations with Amazon prior to the promotion and were told this could happen. Byliner chose to go forward, hoping “it wouldn’t happen.” This is in the KDP ToS publishers agree to when they sign up. How is Amazon punishing anyone here?

  2. It hasn’t happened to me, yet, but I know a couple other KDP authors who have had their books discounted by Amazon (to $0.99 or to free) even when they didn’t have any current promotions going on – apparently Amazon interprets the KDP ToS to mean that, if you’ve ever discounted your book (or promotionally given it away for free) on a competitor’s site, Amazon is free to discount your book down to that price any time they want, from then on.

    Months later, without warning or recourse, for any eBook which has ever been free on any site, Amazon can just start giving it away and paying the author/publisher zero royalties, for as long as they like. “Most favored nation”, indeed.

  3. I’d hate to have to check every day for to make sure robbery like this isn’t going on. There are already services that track sales on Amazon. Sounds like there might be a place for a service that monitors for these author-cheating price cuts and informs the author, who can then yank the title. Some minor promotion, perhaps to support a local charity, shouldn’t deprive an author of all royalties from a major outlet such as Amazon.

    This sort of behavior is why I not only support agency pricing, I support an author’s right to different agency-dictated prices for different outlets. I’d love to have one price for ePub versions and another, perhaps $2 higher, for those who insist on their proprietary formats. That’d compensate for the hassle of creating an ebook in those formats.

    Ebook publishing is suffering from the same ills as cellular phone billing. In cellular, the major providers have a tacit agreement that certain types of hideous overcharging (i.e IMs) aren’t to dealt with competitively–I kind of unspoken ‘if we all do this, we can all get rich’ scheme. The only exception, and it’s still only a partial one, is T-Mobile. That’s why AT&T was willing to pay such an outlandish price for it. They wanted to get rid of the industry only spoiler of significant size.

    I’d hoped Apple would prove to be a T-Mobile-like spoiler in the ebook market, but that’s not happened. Apple wants to play many of the same nasty, control-freak games as Amazon. Now I’m waiting to see what develops from this agreement between B&N and Microsoft.

    If the Microsoft/B&N model would evolve into a simple ‘you give us the price, we sell it for that’ model without unauthorized royalty slashing and demands for exclusivity, I’d be delighted. I’d also be delighted if this Microsoft/B&N combination would offer a 80/20 split at any price level and with the only requirement being that the ebook is sold DRM-free. Until DRM is eliminated, ebooks aren’t being sold, they’re just being rented for the life of some particular encoding scheme.

    At its core. the problem is simple. We live in an unhealthy market dominated by a few retailers, particularly Amazon, who want to control every aspect of ebook publishing. And that’s why I’m ticked off at a few clueless (or worse) federal lawyers who want to go after everyone but the main culprit, Amazon.