Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, at Front Lines of Battle With Amazon Over E-Books

Michael Pietsch, chief executive of Hachette. Publishers know that whatever terms Hachette ends up with, they will all get. (Credit: Keith Hayes)
Michael Pietsch, chief executive of Hachette. Publishers know that whatever terms Hachette ends up with, they will all get. (Credit: Keith Hayes)

As a young book editor at Little, Brown & Company in 1992, Michael Pietsch paid $80,000 — $45,000 more than the next-highest bidder — for a postmodern novel by a little-known writer named David Foster Wallace.

He spent years urging Mr. Wallace to cut hundreds of pages from the sprawling manuscript and impose at least some structure on the disparate plot strands. The book, “Infinite Jest,” was finally published in 1996 and became an instant literary sensation.

Mr. Pietsch has since become chief executive of Little, Brown’s parent company, the Hachette Book Group, and is now engaged in a very different sort of battle — not with a fragile author, but with one of the most powerful corporations in the United States: Amazon.

As the first chief executive of a major publishing house to negotiate new terms with Amazon since the Justice Department sued five publishers in 2012 for conspiring to raise e-book prices, Mr. Pietsch finds himself fighting not just for the future of Hachette, but for that of every publisher who works with Amazon.

“In a sense, Michael Pietsch is like ‘Horatius at the Bridge,’ ” says the literary agent and former Amazon executive Laurence J. Kirshbaum, referring to the soldier of legend who single-handedly saved ancient Rome by fighting off an invading army. “He is carrying the rest of the industry on his back.”

Because Hachette and Amazon have signed confidentiality agreements as part of their negotiations, the particulars of their dispute have been kept secret. But inside the publishing world, the consensus is that Amazon wants to offer deep discounts on Hachette’s electronic books, and that the negotiations are not going well.

The proudly customer-friendly Amazon is delaying shipments and preventing pre-orders of certain Hachette books, suggesting to potentially frustrated shoppers that they buy such titles elsewhere. Mr. Pietsch, ordinarily easygoing and accessible, is refusing to talk to the news media and has instructed employees to do the same.

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SOURCE: JONATHAN MAHLER 
The New York Times

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