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Did IPG chuck Amazon's tea into the bay?

Bostonteaparty

Independent book distributor IPG is hardly of a size to rival Amazon.com, making its drastic action this week a little bold, or a little crazy. Could its refusal to accept Amazon's new e-book sales terms amount to the publishing industry version of the Boston Tea Party?

Let me back up. Since late last year, Amazon has been asking book suppliers to change some of the terms of their contracts, Publishers Weekly has reported. Although those exact terms have not been revealed, they are, in IPG's view, "unacceptable." That's what IPG's president, Mark Suchomel, wrote in a memo to clients this week.

Industry watcher Publishers Lunch, which was first with the story, notes that IPG is the second-largest independent distributor; it distributes books from more than 400 clients. On Monday, Amazon had removed more than 4,000 e-books from IPG-represented publishers from its site. Amazon was typically reticent to discuss business matters and did not respond to our request for comment.

According to Suchomel's memo, as IPG's contract with Amazon regarding e-book sales was coming to a close, the online retailer presented new, "unacceptable" terms to IPG. After consulting with clients, IPG rejected those terms. Amazon continues to sell IPG clients' print books, but not its e-books.

IPG noted, "This book is available in print or electronic edition at your local independent bookshop, www.BarnesandNoble.com, www.indiebound.org, iTunes, Kobo, and elsewhere. It is not currently available in a Kindle edition."

Like the 1773 Boston Tea Party, this may be the first act of open rebellion -- in this case, of the publishing industry against Amazon's policies.

It's not the first time books have disappeared from Amazon's site, of course. In 2009, hundreds of books, most with gay themes or characters, vanished from the site -- Amazon later attributed this to a "glitch." Then in a 2010 skirmish, Amazon pulled MacMillan's e-book titles from its site as the publisher advocated for the agency model -- something that's now been implemented across the board.

IPG's action is different in that it seems to be a deliberate choice, not as a tactic but to draw a clear line between what distributors will and won't agree to. “We’re not going to go back to them and say we changed our mind,” Suchomel told the New York Times.

Amazon has become a bigger and bigger force in the world of publishing, recently emerging as a deep-pocketed publisher as well as being a major bookseller. With the dissolution of bankrupt Borders last year, Amazon's role as a retailer has become even more important. Concomitantly with that, Amazon has made several moves around e-books -- particularly its members-only lending library with pooled payments -- that show it is willing to disrupt traditional publishing models.

Even if IPG is just a David to Amazon's Goliath, PaidContent explains that its move "may be a harbinger of things to come." The site points to the analysis from publishing veteran Don Linn, who writes that in the past Amazon was eager to do business with distributors, who efficiently managed the supply chain for hundreds of clients. Now Amazon has built greater capacity to work with many, many small publishers -- individuals, even, can now publish directly with Amazon's self-publishing arm, CreateSpace. The hypothesis is that Amazon may be looking at places along the publishing food chain where it can maximize profits -- by, in this case, squeezing a middleman.

For all the moves that Amazon may have made that rankle publishers, rarely does anyone voice displeasure at business matters that have remained largely under wraps. IPG's widely-circulated stance may herald a new willingness not just to establish boundaries with the Internet retailer, but to share them publicly.

If this is something like dumping tea into Boston Harbor, history would teach us that the worst possible next move would be for the authorities to clamp down. That way lies conflict.

RELATED:

Kindle lending program causes stir

Amazon responds to queries, blames 'glitch'

Amazon pulls MacMillan titles in e-book skirmish

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor," an 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier.

 
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