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As competition wanes, Amazon slashes discounts

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SummaryWriters, publishers miffed as online retailer cuts back on deals for scholarly & small-press books, leaving customers in the lurch

July 5

Jim Hollock’s first book, a true-crime tale set in Pennsylvania, got strong reviews and decent sales when it appeared in 2011. Now Born to Lose is losing momentum — yet Amazon, to the writer’s intense frustration, has increased the price by nearly a third. “At this point, people need an inducement,” said Hollock, a retired corrections official. “But instead of lowering the price, Amazon is raising it.”

Other writers and publishers have the same complaint. They say Amazon, which became the biggest force in bookselling by discounting so heavily it often lost money, has been cutting back its deals for scholarly and small-press books. That creates the uneasy prospect of a two-tier system where some books are priced beyond an audience’s reach.

It is difficult to comprehensively track the movement of prices on Amazon, so the evidence is anecdotal and fragmentary. But books are one of the few consumer items that still have a price printed on them. Any Amazon customer who uses the retailer’s “Saved for Later” basket has noticed its prices have all the permanence of plane fares. No explanation is ever given for why a price has changed.

Bruce Joshua Miller, president of Miller Trade Book Marketing, a Chicago firm representing university and independent presses, said he recently surveyed 18 publishers. “Fourteen responded and said that Amazon had over the last few years either lowered discounts on scholarly books or, in the case of older or slow-selling titles, completely eliminated them,” he said.

Amazon says it is not belatedly trying to improve its anaemic profit margins.

“We are actually lowering prices,” said Sarah Gelman, an Amazon spokeswoman. “We pay for these price decreases with relentless focus on improving our execution — and this commitment to low prices is one of the reasons our print books business continues to grow.”

Offered a list of random titles whose discounts had dropped, she said she would not talk about specific books. They included David Foster Wallace’s essay on John McCain, which went from 20% off to 10%. Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making went from 32% off to 24%. Jim Harrison’s Songs of Unreason dropped from 32% off to 16%.

Higher prices have implications beyond annoyed authors. For all the hoopla around e-books, old-fashioned printed volumes are still a bigger business. Amazon sells about one in four printed books, according to industry estimates, a level of market domination with little precedent in the book trade.

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