Ross D. Franklin / AP

An Amazon.com employee stocks products along one of the many miles of aisles at an Amazon.com Fulfillment Center on the busiest online shopping day of the holiday season, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Phoenix.

Editorial: When Amazon picks on suppliers, consumers pay the price

Published: Wednesday, May. 14, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 14, 2014 - 12:48 am

Success isn’t as mysterious as we imagine. Little things make a big difference.

These are interesting concepts, provocatively explored by the author Malcolm Gladwell. Too bad Amazon appears to have decided that its success as a corporation should trump a little thing like your access to those ideas.

For weeks now, Amazon customers ordering Gladwell’s books, along with works by Stephen Colbert, David Baldacci, Robin Roberts, James Patterson and many others, have encountered waits as long as a month for titles that ordinarily would be available for shipment within a couple of days.

The reason? Amazon has no comment. But Hachette Book Group, with which Amazon recently has been deadlocked in contract negotiations, says the Internet megastore has intentionally slowed shipments of its products.

Because it now controls a third of the book business, the impression is that Amazon is strong-arming a major book supplier. Meanwhile, Hachette’s authors – most of whom are far less famous and successful than Gladwell and Colbert – are suffering. So are millions of readers and Amazon customers.

Perhaps Amazon has sound reasons for this kind of hardball. The company’s stock has struggled. An upcoming IPO by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is expected to generate new competition for Amazon in the U.S. market. And, just as a matter of principle, squeezing suppliers is what retailers do.

But books aren’t just any product, and publishers aren’t just any supplier. The market for books is, in ways large and small, a market for ideas – a market so crucial that it has constitutional protections.

Great power over it comes with great responsibility, and this isn’t the first time Amazon has let its virtual boot linger creepily on the neck of the First Amendment. Four years ago, during a dispute over e-book sales, it pulled the “buy” buttons from nearly every page featuring titles by the publishing company Macmillan.

The pennies that tactic might have saved consumers paled against the impression that “good guy” Amazon might actually be a bully, interested only in its bottom line.

That kind of impression doesn’t play well with the public: Last year, Time Warner Cable tried pulling one of its “suppliers,” CBS, off the air in several cities during a dispute over how much the company should pay for the right to transmit that network’s programming. Time Warner lost more than 300,000 customers.

No one wants Amazon to be unsuccessful. Authors need the company, as do consumers.

But when big corporations toy with the flow of ideas, people become unsettled. Unsettle enough people enough of the time, and successful companies become less successful.

The phenomenon is called the “tipping point.” Amazon executives can read all about it in a book by Gladwell – in two to three weeks.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board



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