Books pulled from Amazon.com in pricing dispute

Jan 30, 2010 By HILLEL ITALIE , AP National Writer
In this Feb. 9, 2009 file photo, the Kindle 2 electronic reader is shown at an Amazon.com news conference in New York. Macmillan CEO John Sargent said he was told Friday, Jan. 29, 2010, that its books would be removed from Amazon.com, as would e-books for Amazon's Kindle e-reader. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)

(AP) -- New copies of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," Andrew Young's "The Politician" and other books published by Macmillan were unavailable Saturday on Amazon.com, a drastic step in the ongoing dispute over e-book prices.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent said he was told Friday that its books would be removed from Amazon.com, as would e-books for Amazon's Kindle e-reader. Books will be available on Amazon.com through private sellers and other third parties, Sargent said.

Sargent met with Amazon officials Thursday to discuss the publisher's new pricing model for e-books. He wrote in a letter to Macmillan authors and literary agents Saturday that the plan would allow Amazon to make more money selling Macmillan books and that Macmillan would make less. He characterized the dispute as a disagreement over "the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market."

Macmillan and other publishers have criticized Amazon for charging just $9.99 for best-selling e-books on its Kindle e-reader, a price publishers say is too low and could hurt hardcover sales, which generally carry a list price of more than $24.

Macmillan is one of the world's largest English-language publishers. Its divisions include St. Martin's Press, itself one of the largest publishers in the U.S.; Henry Holt & Co., one of the oldest publishers in America; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and Tor, the leading science-fiction publisher.

Sargent credited Amazon in his letter, calling the company a "valuable customer" and a "great innovator in our industry."

But, he wrote, the digital book industry needs to create a business model that provides equal opportunities for retailers. Under Macmillan's model, to be put in place in March, e-books will be priced from $12.99 to $14.99 when first released and prices will change over time.

For its part, Amazon wants to keep a lid on prices as competitors line up to challenge its dominant position in a rapidly expanding market. The company did not immediately return messages seeking comment Saturday.

Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony Corp.'s e-book readers are already on sale. But the latest and most talked about challenger is Apple Inc., which just introduced the long-awaited iPad tablet computer and a new online book store modeled on iTunes. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, suggested publishers may offer some e-titles to Apple before they are allowed to go on sale at Amazon.com

The e-book market is an increasingly important one for Amazon. The company hasn't given specific sales figures on the Kindle, but CEO Jeff Bezos said Thursday that "millions" own the device. The company now sells six digital copies to every 10 physical ones of books available in either format.

To preserve the more lucrative hardcover business, publishers including Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Hachette Book Group USA have said they will impose delays on the release of digital copies.

It's not the first time that books have disappeared from Amazon's virtual shelves. Last summer, Kindle users were surprised and unsettled to receive notice that George Orwell works they had purchased, including "1984" and "Animal Farm," had been removed and their money refunded. It was a deletion of pirated copies that had been posted to the Kindle store, but the ordeal highlighted a concern - that a book already paid for and acquired can be revoked by an e-tailer. The Kindle operates on a wireless connection that Amazon ultimately controls.

Bezos later apologized, and Amazon offered affected customers free books or $30.

Late Friday, author Cory Doctorow, who is published by Tor, the Macmillan division, called readers and writers "the civilian casualties" of the dispute in a post on his popular Web site, boingboing.net. It's a "case of two corporate giants illustrating neatly exactly why market concentration is bad for the arts," he wrote.

Another Tor writer, John Scalzi, speculated that Amazon's move would have "a long-term effect on Amazon's relationship with publishers, and not the one Amazon is likely to want," he wrote on his Web site.

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