In the latest in a series of disputes over the division of revenue from online sales, Amazon has disabled the "buy now with 1 click" icon on its British Web site for hundreds of books published by the British unit of Hachette Livre, from back-list Stephen King novels to, naturally, The Hachette Guide to French Wine.
The button allows registered users to purchase titles instantly, with free shipping. Customers can still buy the affected books, but they have to navigate to an open marketplace that links them to third-party sellers of new or used books. And they have to pay for shipping.
The struggle comes at a time that Amazon's power as a bookseller is increasing, with sales growing online in an otherwise tepid global book market. Some publishers fear that with the introduction of
"The buy button is their weapon of choice and that's how they impose market discipline," said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, an American trade group that also briefly lost the buy icon, for titles sold from BackinPrint.com, a print-on-demand service for infrequently purchased works. "This is such a clear indication that once they have the clout they are willing to use it to the full extent that they can. It's ugly with Amazon and will probably get uglier."
Amazon is saying little about its tactics. But bloggers have been organizing letter-writing campaigns and petition drives accusing Amazon, which bills itself as "Earth's most customer-centric company," of transforming itself into the bully of the publishing industry.
Damien Peachey, an Amazon spokesman in Britain, declined to comment on the dispute with Hachette Livre, a subsidiary of the French media company Lagardere. It is the second-biggest English-language trade publisher in the world, after the Random House division of Bertelsmann.
"We wouldn't discuss publicly our relationship with publishers," Peachey said.
He also refused to discuss the strategy of disabling "buy" icons, offering the same reason.
Amazon's communications office in its Seattle headquarters did not respond to repeated telephone calls.
In Britain, where Amazon opened a digital store in 1998 and where it now commands about 16 percent of the overall book market, publishers participate in tough annual negotiation sessions with Amazon about their cut. In markets where it does not have such a commanding position, like France or Germany, negotiations are much less demanding, according to publishers.
The first to spar with Amazon this year in Britain was Bloomsbury, the British publisher of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Before they reached a compromise on undisclosed terms, hundreds of Bloomsbury's older, back-list titles lost buy buttons on the Amazon site in Britain.
Bloomsbury best sellers like A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner, which are big earners for Amazon, were spared the same treatment.
Then the struggle with Hachette broke into public view this month when the publisher's chief executive, Tim Hely Hutchinson, sent a defiant letter to many of his authors explaining the "oddities" of vanishing buy buttons. The online retailer, he said, was demanding a bigger slice. Publishers traditionally sell books to retailers at a discount off the recommended retail price, but Amazon was demanding more than its existing 50 percent.
"Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another, making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours," Hutchinson said in the letter. "If this continued, it would not be long before Amazon got virtually all of the revenue that is presently shared between author, publisher, retailer, printer and other parties."
Hutchinson declined, through a spokeswoman, to comment further, and Amazon has not specified how much more it is demanding.
Claire Alexander, a literary agent in London and former president of the British Association of Authors' Agents, said authors were reluctant to speak out about the issue because of the "power of Amazon."
"This is about profit and who gets the profit and what we're beginning to see is that Amazon can be very ruthless in negotiations," she said.
For now, the dispute is unresolved. So the buy buttons are missing from older titles like Labyrinth by Kate Mosse or Duma Key by Stephen King, who still managed to get favored treatment for titles in his "Dark Tower" series. Many Hachette titles have also been dropped from Amazon promotions suggesting other titles for customers in their favorite genres.
The dispute with Hachette is not the first in which Amazon has resorted to removing the "buy now" buttons for certain books. In the spring it started disabling the icons for some small publishers in the United States that resisted Amazon's demand that they use an, for print-on-demand services. Amazon is the dominant seller of such titles.
As a result, some smaller publishers in the United States have signed service agreements with Amazon. But a few refused Amazon's demand to shift the instant printing of their books to BookSurge, which they say has been demanding a discount of as much as 52 percent on the retail price.
"They're still threatening us and other publishers, but they haven't flipped the switch yet," said Angela Hoy, the co-owner of Booklocker.com, a print-on-demand publisher in Bangor, Maine., which filed a lawsuit in May seeking an injunction to keep Amazon from imposing BookSurge's services on publishers.
Publish America, a print-on-demand book publisher in Frederick, Md., has not been so lucky, with the buy button vanishing on thousands of its titles, from Drugstore Jesus to Demon Passing. The company's spokesman, Shawn Street, takes an optimistic view of the situation.
"There are plenty of other purchase icons," Street said in an e-mail message, referring to the alternative of purchasing books through third-party booksellers on Amazon's open marketplace. "In the wake of the controversy, we have discovered that our sales through Amazon.com have actually increased."