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Why did Amazon turn off buy buttons on Big 6 ebooks last night?

Amazon mysteriously turned off the buy buttons on big-six publishers’ Kindle books for several hours on Thursday night, in what the company later said was a glitch.

The problem began around 10:30 p.m. ET and seemed to affect only ebooks published by Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette. Publishers Marketplace’s Sarah Weinman tweeted:

Digital Book World has a statement from Amazon: “The Kindle Store is experiencing a technical issue. We’re working to correct it.” According to some reports on the MobileRead forum, users were also unable to download Kindle titles that they’d already bought and titles that they’d added to their wishlists disappeared.

As of Friday morning, the buy buttons were restored.

It is odd that, apparently, only big-six titles were affected. Some wondered if the problem was associated with agency pricing — were only publishers who set their own ebook prices affected? But that doesn’t make sense for a couple of reasons: HarperCollins reached new agreements with Amazon (and other ebook retailers) in September, following the approval of the DOJ’s settlement with HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. Amazon has been discounting HarperCollins titles since then. And self-published authors set their own ebook prices through Amazon’s KDP, but those books weren’t affected, either.

It is also possible, as Nate of the Digital Reader points out in the comments, that non-big-6 titles were affected as well and nobody noticed. I have been searching Twitter and haven’t found reports of non-big-6 titles affected — and with the discussion around this topic, it seems as if those would have turned up, especially from individual authors — but it’s a possibility.

The most notorious case of Amazon purposely turning off a publisher’s ebook buy buttons happened in January 2010, when the company turned off Macmillan’s Kindle buy buttons to protest the publisher’s implementation of agency pricing. More recently, in February 2012, Amazon turned off buy buttons on nearly 5,000 Kindle titles from distributor Independent Publishers Group after IPG refused to capitulate to Amazon’s demand for better terms.

This time around, though, if the problem was indeed unintentional, we are unlikely to get more answers from Amazon about what happened.

15 Responses to “Why did Amazon turn off buy buttons on Big 6 ebooks last night?”

  1. While it is certainly something that Amazon has done and would do on purpose, their internal systems are also simply not robust enough for the task they have at hand. I would be equally willing to believe that this was incompetance (rather than a “glitch”). Either way, it shows the danger of having too many of the industry’s eggs in a vindictive and systematically overwhelmed party’s basket.

    • David Thomas

      Given that Amazon hasn’t had a profitable quarter in — I don’t know, five or six years? — and their major investors seem to go along with their plans of completely captivating their customers at the expense of profit, I don’t think they view such behavior as self-destructive.

  2. john holdcroft

    Amazon is fastidious about its devotion to the customer, so screwing the customer over (even for a day) by not allowing the books to be bought would have to be an extreme act. not saying it could not, or did not happen on purpose, but without a pattern or trend of the titles taken down, this is wild speculation. Are the twitterati and digital princes and princesses out there just immediately skeptical of any act from Amazon to prove our biasesof the Big Father from Seattle?

    • David Thomas

      I’d say publishers who experience the wrath of Amazon where it really hurts — the profit margin — are the skittish ones. Insofar as the action was out of character — not really, they’ve done things like this and worse in the recent past. Nothing is too foul a gesture when there is producer surplus to be had.

  3. That sucks!
    I was just given a hand-me-down kindle (never owned an ebook reader before) and after hours of searching for the just-right book to take on vacation, I was a little shocked that it wasn’t available on kindle (and being a recent best seller). So I chose something else.

  4. Nate the great

    I’m not sure you can accurately say this only affected Big 6 ebooks. You’d need to check all or at least most of the other titles and given how many there it’s just not possible.

    • David Thomas

      While that’s generally good reasoning, it is sort of a tree-falling-in-the-woods argument. Given the breadth of the titles and publishers known to be affected, its more than likely that someone with a relationship to a book produced by Sourcebooks, Chronicle, or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would have been alert to the no-buy button condition and squawked about it. Agents, in particular, watch titles like hawks to mice. If 100% of the chatter is devoted to big 6, the Amazon action likely was disproportionally devoted to big 6. Intentional or not, what this event should remind all is that e-book ownership is the issue the dealers, vendors, and consumers are dancing around.