| Benoit Toussaint |
FRANKFURT (AFP) – US online retail giant Amazon may be absent from the stands at the world’s biggest book fair but it has still been at the heart of a heated debate.
Amazon threw a shadow over Germany’s book industry on the inaugural day of the Frankfurt Book Fair Tuesday by announcing the launch of a monthly flat-rate offer for unlimited access to e-book titles.
“We fear unfair competition on prices as well as authors’ fees through this Service,” Austrian author Gerhard Ruiss told a discussion by a panel of authors at the book fair this week.
“Amazon doesn’t have the market it would like to have in Europe. That’s the reason for this new step,” he complained.
Ruiss is one of about 2,000 German-language writers to have signed a petition protesting against the methods used by Amazon in its e-book price battle with Scandinavian publishing house Bonnier, a major player in German publishing.
The authors have accused Amazon of delaying the release of books and boycotting authors signed to publishing houses in dispute with the US company.
They had taken their cue from US writers involved in a similar protest over Amazon’s e-book dispute with Hachette which represents “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling among others.
Germany is Amazon’s biggest market outside the United States but the company has been hit by repeated strikes in a long-running wage dispute and a scathing TV documentary broadcast last year.
Despite it not having a stand among the thousands of exhibitors filling the sprawling halls of the book fair in the western German city, which opens to the public Saturday, the Seattle-based company is at the heart of many of the discussions.
A conference during the five-day book fair brought in to sharp focus the depth of feeling on both sides of the argument.
While one audience member stated they had “boycotted” Amazon for 20 years, another argued that the US company enabled new authors “to be published and find their readers” and pointed the finger at big publishing houses.
Online business is estimated to account for about 16 per cent of the German book market, of which 50 to 70 per cent are Amazon sales, according to figures by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.
“In the last years we have invested a lot and we have learnt, even from Amazon… It’s a competitor, of whom we are not scared,” the associations Chief executive Alexander Skipis said.
But he accused Amazon of using “its dominant position to blackmail” publishers.
The European Union said this week that anti-trust regulators would examine whether Amazon’s tax arrangements with Luxembourg amount to illegal state aid, giving the company an unfair advantage.
Amazon has said it “received no special tax treatment from Luxembourg – we are subject to the same tax laws as other companies” operating there.
“I don’t rule out Amazon ending up boosting cultural diversity,” journalist Dieter Schnaas, from Germany’s economic Wirtschaftswoche magazine, said.
“It doesn’t penalise consumers, quite the contrary,” he said, adding that he believed in the need to be cautious over calls for action against Amazon.
Martin Shepard, co-publisher at US publishers The Permanent Press, which puts out about 12 titles every year, said he strongly supported Amazon.
“It is very easy when you are a famous author backed by a big publisher to attack Amazon,” he said.
“I always have a lingering suspicion that when one of the large publishing cartels complains they are being treated unfairly by Amazon, it’s probably good for most all of the smaller, independent presses.”