Amazon's Pricing Dispute Sets Book Expo Buzzing

The dispute between retail giant Amazon and publisher Hachette was big news at Book Expo America. Writers, publishers and agents are wondering what the rift could mean for the future of books.

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Getting a buzz going is what the publishing industry's Book Expo is all about. The annual conference took place over the weekend. It is the premier event in the publishing world. And every year publishers hope it gets people excited about their upcoming offers. Well, this year, the biggest buzz wasn't about books. It was about the ongoing dispute of e-book pricing - the dispute between Amazon and one of the big five publishing houses Hachette. NPR's Lynn Neary was there.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Pretty much everyone was talking about Amazon and Hachette in the hallways of the vast convention center, on the panels of experts discussing the latest trends in publishing and at the many private events that were taking place in various corners of the building. At a luncheon for authors published by Little Brown, an imprint of Hachette, book seller Pam Cady made it crystal clear that she wants Hachette to prevail in its negotiations with Amazon over the price of e-books.

PAM CADY: They're our heroes. They are the heroes right now. And we're hoping that they are able to stay the course so that all publishers will be free of the tyranny - literally, the tyranny - of Amazon.

NEARY: Cady is a manager at the University Book Store in Seattle, Amazon's hometown. Independent booksellers like Cady have been trying to offset the competition from Amazon for years. So Cady says they're thrilled that Hachette is standing up to Amazon, even though the online retailer is slowing down deliveries of Hachette books and making it difficult to buy upcoming titles from the publisher.

CADY: They're losing money daily. Daily they're losing money. And their decision to stand firm while losing all of this money in a capitalist society is heroic.

NEARY: Booksellers didn't mind making their opinions known, but writers were more reluctant to go on the record. A few very successful writers like James Patterson have publicly criticized Amazon, but many authors feel caught in the crossfire between these two powerhouses. Literary agent Steven Axelrod says there's a lot at stake for both authors and agents.

STEVEN AXELROD: I think people are very, very concerned.

NEARY: Everyone is watching this negotiation so closely, Axelrod says, because whatever terms Hachette agrees on will set the stage for future negotiations between other publishers and Amazon. Axelrod says it will be difficult for everyone if Amazon prevails and gets the price it wants.

AXELROD: One assumes that every other publisher will be forced to accept those terms or close to those terms. And I think it will take the profit that publishers have been, you know, showing, which are allowing them to invest in authors and just turning it over to Amazon.

NEARY: So how does that hurt your specific corner of the industry?

AXELROD: There will be less money for advances.

NEARY: In an area set aside for independent publishers, Dennis Johnson of Melville House, an outspoken critic of Amazon, said he's curious to see what happens when the other big publishers' contracts come up for re-negotiation.

DENNIS JOHNSON: I think you're going to see the other publishers forced to do exactly what Hachette is doing right now, and that's going to be interesting. Is Amazon really not going to carry 50 percent of the books being published in this country, which is the books being published by the five biggest publishers? I don't think so.

NEARY: But writers milling around the Kindle Direct publishing booth had a different take on the controversy.

BOB MAYER: I think a lot of the people from Hachette's side are steeped in traditional publishing and want things just to stay absolutely the same and they're not going to stay the same.

NEARY: Bob Mayer is an author and CEO of Cool Gus Publishing. He uses a lot of different publishing platforms including Kindle Direct.

MAYER: I can set my own store. Every author could set up their own store. You know, James Patterson's complaining, but he could start his own website, sell his books to his fans and not need Amazon or Hachette. As long as the Internet's free, they're not going to have a monopoly.

NEARY: But Hachette and Amazon have indicated they don't expect to reach an agreement anytime soon. Lynn Neary, NPR News.

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