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Stephen Colbert and the Amazon Takedown: Cocky Conglomerates and Bad Press

Jun 11, 2014

If you haven’t already seen the Colbert Report episode where host Stephen Colbert voices a tirade over Amazon’s intentional shipping delay on his books, you might be missing out on one of the most epic brand battles of 2014. The lesson? Too much testosterone makes for some wonderful reality TV. But more importantly, that the internet book sales conglomerate defies e-commerce with one astonishing statistic: Amazon controls 50% of book sales.

Starting with a dispute over e-book pricing at both the retail and wholesale level, Amazon continued the cat fight brand war by going so far as to encourage users not to buy, and in some cases, even entirely reject requests to buy books from Colbert’s publisher, Hachette Group. Taking it one step further, Amazon asserted its dominance over the industry by intentionally delaying shipping on Hachette books for weeks at a time, hiding book titles in relevant searches and eliminating the availability of books published by Hachette for pre-order – including the next J.K. Rowling mystery and future bestseller, The Silkworm. For Colbert fans everywhere, the obvious goal was to stifle book sales (and by default, his bottom line) – but a more curious question deserves answering: Is it really all that simple?

First and foremost a natural-born entertainer, Stephen Colbert is renowned for putting together massive media campaigns that garner international fame (i.e., his 2008 “presidential campaign”). And with his late-night comedic news broadcast, his notorious competitions with fellow late-night hosts Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien, and his recent appointment as host of CBS’ The Late Show in 2015, Stephen Colbert is the perfect person for Amazon to target to raise awareness on the public stage. Where Amazon backfired, however, was undermining his potential – and unlike his presidential campaign, Colbert has since garnered tremendous support for his cause; even spreading the popular hashtag #CutDownTheAmazon across social media platforms nationwide.

From an industrial perspective, this conflict demonstrates how e-commerce platforms have become critical modern distribution channels. The struggle of Colbert and Hachette represents the constant plight of indie retailers whose profit margin is impacted by Amazon’s lower pricing. And ironically enough, given that these low-budget publishers are forced to push to sell their books elsewhere, Amazon’s move will likely lead to more fragmentation in the world of e-commerce – and no single platform will benefit from all the redirected traffic.

The takeaway?  While striving to establish dominance in the public eye, a household name as popular as Amazon did the opposite: facilitating a decreased market share, a full-fledged anti-self campaign, and confusion among potential business partners as to whether or not Amazon’s pricing model was a good fit for them after all.

Did they get the publicity they may have so desperately sought? Yes. But given that Amazon executives approved the restocking of Hachette books in their online inventory just last week, a greater truth prevails: Regardless of fame, sometimes even an industry giant like Amazon can become prey to bad press.

Don’t you agree?

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