Stephen Colbert Throws Punches at Amazon
For Stephen Colbert to joust with Jeff Bezos is a bit like Don Quixote taking on the windmills.
All the same, the Comedy Central host, who is soon to take over for David Letterman on CBS’s The Late Show, has enough pop culture relevance to at least move the needle on public perception of the ecommerce giant’s tactics.
This week, Colbert railed against Amazon for raising prices and delaying shipments for books published by select publishing houses -- in particular, Hachette, which publishes Colbert’s own books. “Now, I am not just mad at Amazon. I am mad Prime, because I have just found out they are deterring customers from buying books by Stephen Colbert,” Colbert said. “Amazon is playing hardcover.”
Related: Report: As Negotiations Falter, Amazon Takes Aim at Publishing Giant Hachette
When Amazon decides to play games with the sales of certain books, that has a big impact on the profitability of a book. “This is a big blow to my bottom line because Amazon controls up to 50 percent of all book sales,” Colbert said in his rant against Amazon and Jeff Bezos, the e-commerce giant’s founder and CEO. Watch Colbert’s bit in the video embedded below.
The pinnacle of Colbert’s comedy routine was when Colbert opened a box mailed from himself -- and, allegedly, the other authors miffed at Hachette -- to Amazon and “inside” there were two middle fingers, gesturing profanity towards the ecommerce platform. “Watch out Bezos, because this means war.”
In addition to messing with the delivery of Hachette books, Amazon has taken away the ability of Hachette authors to be pre-ordered. Colbert brought on Sherman Alexie, the successful and popular author of several works of fiction that explore the Native American experience, to talk about why that hurts new book releases. “Pre-publicity is everything. The fortunes of a movie are determined before it ever screens in a theater. And the fortunes of a book are determined before it ever hits the shelves. Pre-publicity and presales determine the success of a book,” Alexie says.
Amazon has said that the reason it has eliminated pre-ordering as an option is due to the contractual terms and negotiations between Amazon and Hachette. “Suppliers get to decide the terms under which they are willing to sell to a retailer. It's reciprocally the right of a retailer to determine whether the terms on offer are acceptable and to stock items accordingly,” Amazon said in a statement. “A retailer can feature a supplier's items in its advertising and promotional circulars, ‘stack it high’ in the front of the store, keep small quantities on hand in the back aisle, or not carry the item at all, and bookstores and other retailers do these every day.”
Amazon said that its priority was the experience of the customer. The Seattle-based e-commerce giant also said it would fund half of a pool of money to go to authors who feel their royalties have been disrupted by the change in ordering and stocking books if Hachette would fund the other half. “We hope Hachette takes us up on it,” Amazon said.
In the meantime, Colbert has put a California, a debut novel by author Edan Lepucki, up for sale on the Colbert Nation website. Alexie praises the post-apocalyptic novel, but, due to recent rule changes by Amazon, the book is not available for pre-order on Amazon. “We are going to prove that I can sell more books than Amazon,” Colbert said. Colbert also released a downloadable page of stickers that say, “I didn’t buy it on Amazon,” which he appeals to shoppers to affix to their purchases made through the Colbert website.
Related: Take a Tip from Bezos: Customers Always Need a Seat at the Table
Catherine Clifford is senior entrepreneurship writer at CNBC. She was formerly a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com, the small business reporter at CNNMoney and an assistant in the New York bureau for CNN. Clifford attended Columbia University where she earned a bachelor's degree. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @CatClifford.