German authors join protest over Amazon’s tactics in e-book dispute
More than 1,000 European writers have united to vent their frustration over the tactics Amazon is using against the Bonnier Group and the authors who are published under its name. Their protest echoes a continuing fight between Amazon and publisher Hachette in the U.S.
The New York Times
BERLIN — Taking a page from their colleagues across the Atlantic, more than 1,000 writers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have united to vent their frustration over the tactics Amazon is using against the Bonnier Group and the authors who are published under its name.
The writers, supported by several hundred artists and readers, have signed an open letter to Amazon, the online retailing giant, accusing it of manipulating its recommended reading lists and lying to customers about the availability of books as retaliation in a dispute over e-book prices.
“Amazon’s customers have, until now, had the impression that these lists are not manipulated and they could trust Amazon. Apparently that is not the case,” read the letter, which was to be sent to Amazon and was to appear in leading publications in Austria, Germany and Switzerland on Monday. “Amazon manipulates recommendation lists. Amazon uses authors and their books as a bargaining chip to exact deeper discounts.”
Signed by leading German-language authors like Elfriede Jelinek, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, and the popular crime novelists Ingrid Noll and Nele Neuhaus, the letter accused Amazon of taking longer to deliver books published by Bonnier, making false statements about whether the books were available and pulling the authors of those books from recommended reading lists.
“Unfortunately, the American company refuses to accept our traditional cultural values, because it only thinks in purely economic terms,” Noll said. “We have to stand together and defend our values.”
Amazon’s dispute with Bonnier, based in Sweden, over e-book prices echoes a continuing fight between Amazon and the publisher Hachette in the United States. But unlike in Amazon’s dispute with Hachette, which has attracted comments by late-night television hosts and rants on social media, German authors have largely kept silent at the urging of publishers, many of whom did not wish to complicate already strained negotiations.
The decision to publish the letter was made weeks before the annual book fair in Frankfurt, which starts a new season of price negotiations. Gerhard Ruiss, of the IG Authors Austrian, the Interest Group of Austrian Authors, which also signed the open letter, said that the action was only the first step to raise readers’ awareness about the issue. Other steps will include discussions and demonstrations at the fair in October.
In response to the authors’ complaint, Amazon pointed at publishers, contending that their terms were unfair. Bonnier “offers most of its titles under conditions that make it significantly more expensive for us to sell a digital version, as compared to a printed edition,” Amazon said by email. “E-books can and should be offered cheaper than printed books, and this should also go for the prices at which booksellers buy from publishers.”
The authors released a digital version of the letter on Friday, posting it at a site created for the protest, fairer-buchmarkt.de. By late Saturday, more than 1,000 authors had signed, said Nina George, one of the organizers.
George said the organizers rushed to put up the site after some German publications leaked the story, resulting in an overwhelming response.
Regula Venske, secretary general of the German chapter of PEN International, an association of writers, helped spread the word. “We wanted to give it enough time for more authors to voice their support, but it has taken on a life of its own,” she said.
Many points included in the German letter echoed those raised by more than 900 writers in the United States as part of Authors United, such as encouraging readers to write directly to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and founder. The German-language authors also suggested sending a note to Ralf Kleber, head of Amazon Germany, to urge the retailer to “stop using books and authors as hostages and instead ensure a lively and honest book culture.”
The literary culture in Germany and Austria differs profoundly from that in the United States or Britain, in that pricing is protected by laws that forbid deep discounting, or other purely commercial practices. Many authors fear that Amazon will use its dominant position to seek to overturn these laws.
Ruiss said authors and publishers in Austria had long been uneasy with the methods Amazon uses to gain customers. The most recent dispute over e-book pricing has only exacerbated a strained relationship.
“We have had difficulties with Amazon like with no other retailer,” Ruiss said. “From the beginning, they have always demanded special conditions that squeezed the publishers.”
Unlike the situation in the American market, which is dominated by the big five publishing houses — HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, Hachette and Simon & Schuster — the legal protection of book prices in many German-speaking countries means that many smaller, specialty and boutique publishers continue to thrive.
That diversity is reflected in the 1,001 signatories, which include first-time authors, writers of best-sellers, science writers, poets and even some writers who publish directly through Amazon’s electronic publishing platforms.
George, a novelist and columnist, said that when she read the letter from the American authors she decided that German authors needed to take similar action. She and three other writers organized a German letter under the banner, “Authors for a Fair Book Market.”
She emphasized the neutral approach by the group, which does not aim to attack Amazon, but seeks to raise awareness of the effect of the price wars on authors, many of whom fear a loss of Germany’s special protections if books become simply a commodity.
“We are not against Amazon, but for a fair book market, which means that Amazon is not our main enemy, but their methods are really bad and unfair,” George said.
The German Publishers and Booksellers Association submitted a complaint to the German antitrust authority in June, claiming that Amazon’s monopolylike position in the e-book market violates competition law. The European Commission has opened a preliminary investigation into the complaint, the association said.
In the meantime, Amazon has continued to expand within Germany, its largest market outside the United States. The company plans to open two logistics centers across the border in Poland next month, stoking fears that it will later force distributors to deliver books to the Polish centers, only to have them sent back to customers in Germany. Such moves do little to calm German anxiety over Amazon’s unbridled position in the domestic book market. Alexander Skipis, president of the publishers’ association, said he hoped the letter would increase awareness of what was at stake.
“It shows the public and politicians around the world that this is about more than a dispute over price conditions,” Skipis said of the letter. “This is about maintaining a book culture that requires a certain protection and cannot be regarded from a purely commercial point of view.”