A startling announcement came out of Brussels last week. The European Commission suddenly issued a statement that they’d “initiated unannounced inspections at the premises of companies that are active in the e-book publishing sector in several [European] Member States.” They’re “searching for evidence that they had acted illegally to keep prices high in the nascent electronic-book market,” the Wall Street Journal explains — and it’s not the only such investigation.
In both Texas and Connecticut, state officials have been investigating e-book pricing, and there’s also a new investigation that began in England earlier this year. “The U.K and the Connecticut investigations center on pricing arrangements between publishers and the retailers who sell electronic books,” the Journal reported earlier, adding that Connecticut “has said it is looking at Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc.” In Europe, the commission’s officials inspected the publishing premises accompanied by “competition authorities” from the appropriate nation, according to their press release. And they made a point of adding that “The Commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices…”
Of course, it’s important to remember that this is just an investigation, and “The fact that the Commission carries out such inspections does not mean that the companies are guilty of anti-competitive behaviour,” they warned in their press release, “nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself.” But there’s still been a lot of activity and excitement. The investigators “descended like cowboys,” according to one publishing company’s president. Another Journal article quotes his interview with a French technology site, where he also reportedly alleged that “This operation is masterminded by Amazon.” (That seems unlikely, but the investigation is definitely making some big headlines in the European business press.) And when the stakes are this high, maybe there’s enough pressure to go around.
So who’s being investigated? Not Random House (according to the Wall Street Journal.) Their reporter actually contacted the top publishing houses in Europe, and a Random House spokesman indicate that they had not been approached by the commission. Several other publishing houses declined to comment (Flammarion and Albin Michel) or didn’t return the call (Gallimard SA). But interestingly, one company did confirm that they’d been contacted by investigators: Hachette Livre. What’s fascinating is that Hachette Livre is a publishing house that goes all the way back to 1826.
They’ve published everything from Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” to Catcher in the Rye, according to their web site, and even Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books (which have now sold 85 million copies in 40 countries). They’ve also publish Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and even the famous children’s picture book, Babar the Elephant. “In more than 170 years, the publishing houses that now make up Hachette Livre have produced many a masterpiece…” their site brags.
“They have entered Hachette Livre’s ‘hall of fame’ and serve as a constant reminder of the standards Hachette Livre publishers are expected to live up to, today and in the future.”