CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Christmas Gift Guide
Digital Media

The Amazon Circus: All the world's a stage in today's media disputes

Here's a snapshot of the high-profile hubbub between those who make art and the online firms that sell it.

Amazon's dispute with French publisher Hachette dragged on for months, drawing thousands of authors, e-book proponents and Amazon detractors into the fray. Sarah Tew/CNET

When comedian Stephen Colbert heard Amazon was delaying shipments of books published by Hachette by up to four weeks because of a dispute over e-book pricing, he took to the airwaves.

"That is just cruel," he said in June. "If you ordered Hachette's '21-day Weight Loss,' by the time it arrives, you're still fat."

He was so incensed, he recommended that readers slap stickers on their Hachette books, boasting they didn't buy them on Amazon.

On his Comedy Central television show, comedian Stephen Colbert compared Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter infamy. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

He may be self-interested, but Colbert is not alone.

The battle between Amazon and Hachette became a circus after it went public in May. Since then, not only have Amazon and Hachette spoken publicly but authors have too.

The battle came down to the question of who had the power to set e-book pricing, and how low those prices could go. But it also exemplified the effects the Internet age has had on these types of standoffs between corporate titans.

You need not look far for another pitched battle. Last week, Taylor Swift pulled her entire catalog of music from Spotify, telling Yahoo: "I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free." She's been duking it out in the press ever since.

amazon-sticker.jpg
Colbert urged interested parties to advertise their book sales with this defiant sticker. Hudson Booksellers did just that, slapping the image next to an online Hachette book sale. The Colbert Report

The Amazon-Hachette feud was particularly nasty. Amazon, the biggest online retailer in the US, began removing preorder buttons from upcoming Hachette titles in May and refusing to restock its books. It also stopped stocking Hachette's titles, leading to longer shipping times for US customers.

The company tried to curry favor with the public and authors, at one point publishing a message on its site that noted its proposal to have 100 percent of e-book revenue for Hachette's titles go directly to authors. Hachette turned down the offer, according to the message.

The book writers didn't follow along, though, rallying instead with the publishers as the drama played out in headlines, on television and in newspapers around the world.

For example, best-selling writers Philip Roth, Stephen King and Salman Rushdie joined with 1,100 authors who sent a scathing letter to Amazon's board. "We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes," it read. "But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual."

everythingstore.jpg
Brad Stone's chronicle of Amazon's hardball negotiations with publishers was published by Hachette and was hit with shipment delays. Hachette

There was also no shortage of columns analyzing the greater tug-of-war. Headlines like "Amazon's Tactics Confirm Its Critics' Worst Suspicions" and "Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers" became a common sight over the past few months.

With negotiations private -- both Amazon and Hachette say they're pleased with the results of Thursday's deal -- it's unclear who came out on top.

That's because not all negotiations have become such a spectacle. Amazon was able to strike a deal with publisher Simon and Schuster last month over e-book pricing without so much public posturing, said David P. Vandagriff, a contract lawyer who has been following the dispute but wasn't involved in the negotiations.

Hachette executives may not end up feeling as victorious with this outcome if authors consider the dispute to have done more harm than necessary, he said.

Authors with upcoming work may look at the dispute and decide to be published elsewhere, he said, because they perceive that "these guys don't get along with Amazon."