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Amazon growth, outage rattle industry cages


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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Amazon, already the 800-pound gorilla of online sales of print and e-books and e-reading devices, continues to expand its market share in key areas — and concerns competing retailers and publishers so much that a recent glitch on its website fueled suspicions that more than just a glitch was going on.

New data from Bowker Market Research, which conducts studies for publishers, shows Amazon's still growing at others' expense, Publishers Weekly reports.

As of 2012's second quarter, 55 percent of e-book buyers were using Amazon Kindles to read their purchases — up from 45 percent in 2010's second quarter and 48 percent in 2011's second quarter. That 55 percent is Amazon's highest share ever of the e-reader market, with the Kindle Fire model, introduced for the 2011 Christmas season, used by 18 percent of e-book readers.

As for competitors' second-quarter 2012 shares of the e-reader market, Apple's iPads claimed 15 percent, up from 13 percent in June 2011, and Barnes & Noble's Nooks claimed 14 percent, down from their 22-percent peak in 2010's third quarter.

Amazon's share of all consumer book spending also rose from second-quarter 2011 to second-quarter 2012, opening an 11-percentage-point lead over Barnes & Noble, whose share fell by 2 points. Of that book spending, 22 percent was on e-books, up from 14 percent a year earlier.

Competing e-book and e-reader retailers want to gain market share. Publishers want to control retail e-book prices, not have them be set by Amazon. So, when something happens like what occurred on Amazon's website on the night of Nov. 8, suspicions arise.

For several hours that evening, the Amazon site's “buy” buttons for certain Kindle e-books disappeared. The buttons were back and working in short order, with Amazon attributing their disappearance to “a technical issue.”

But the fact that the only titles that were affected are all published by the “Big Six” — HarperCollins, Hachette, Random House, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin — seemed odd to many.

“(G)iven Amazon's propensity to punish publishers that don't bend to its will with disabled buy buttons, this brief black-out set off a minor panic in publishing land,” The Atlantic Wire reported.

The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that “this isn't the first time Amazon has experienced this particular technical issue,” citing an early 2010 incident in which “Amazon removed buy buttons for all Macmillan titles to protest the publisher's adoption of the agency model for e-books, which allowed Macmillan, rather than Amazon, to set e-book prices.”

Amazon eventually did restore Macmillan titles' “buy” buttons back then. But for publishers, Amazon remains a critical sales conduit whose interests often conflict with their own. And that's one reason why many in the industry couldn't take for granted — at least initially — that this latest, brief “buy”-button outage was merely a “technical issue.”

Jefferson, politician and slave owner

Appealing to Americans' apparently inexhaustible fascination with the nation's third president are two new books that paint contrasting portraits of him: “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” (Random House) by Jon Meacham, and “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Henry Wiencek.

Meacham, former Newsweek editor and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his previous book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” tackles the whole of Jefferson's life. He portrays “Jefferson's world as Jefferson himself saw it” and how Jefferson “found the means to endure and win in the face of rife partisan division, economic uncertainty, and external threat,” says Random House, where Meacham's now executive editor. In short, “The Art of Power” is an argument for Jefferson as perhaps the greatest U.S. president to date.

Wiencek's focus is tighter: the great hypocrisy of a youthful emancipationist who went on to write about all men being created equal in the Declaration of Independence, yet owned slaves and sought neither to free them — not even in his will, as George Washington did — nor to end slavery itself. Detailed examination of Jefferson's business records reveals him as a coldly calculating businessman reliant financially on slavery at Monticello. There, he calculated that black children's births brought him a 4-percent annual return, countenanced the whipping of young slave boys in a nail factory that paid the grocery bills and deliberately presented visitors an artificially rosy image of his slave's lives.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or

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