Chicago-area independent bookstore sues Amazon, book publishers for unfair business practices

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CHICAGO — The owner of an independent bookstore in suburban Evanston is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Amazon and the five biggest book publishing companies over what she says are unfair business practices.

The lawsuit alleges that Amazon and the publishing companies engage in price fixing by intentionally inflating prices and controlling book sales to discourage bookstores competing with Amazon.

Attorneys representing Bookends & Beginnings filed the suit March 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, according to the complaint. Defendants include Amazon.com, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, Macmillan Publishing Group, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

The filing was a class-action suit, and Bookends & Beginnings owner Nina Barrett is encouraging other independent bookstores to join in the complaint. The bookstore is represented by attorneys from law firms Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro of New York and Sperling & Slater of Chicago.

Representatives for Amazon and the publishers did not return requests for comment.

Barrett said in an interview that she was recruited to be the lead plaintiff by an attorney from the Chicago firm who lives in Evanston and is a regular shopper at Bookends & Beginnings.

“He loves my store. He basically felt for someone to be the named plaintiff and the face of the case ... we really fit the bill for that,” Barrett said. “I agreed with him, and I do think that we are typical of other independent bookstores and the challenges that they face trying to do business on this playing field that is so not level.”

The complaint alleges that Amazon worked with the five biggest publishing houses to acquire clauses that essentially ensure other booksellers cannot compete with the online giant, which typically charges prices lower than those listed on the book flap.

Other booksellers are not allowed to sell new releases earlier, or any books at a cheaper price than Amazon, and publishers “cannot offer lower wholesale prices to competing booksellers” than what Amazon receives, which would encourage competition in the market, according to the complaint.

These clauses, which control the price point at which the plaintiffs can offer books to customers, “have the intent and effect of controlling wholesale prices of print trade books and preventing competition with Amazon in the retail sale of print trade books,” according to the complaint.

Independent booksellers also cannot offer unique book promotional materials from publishers that are not available on Amazon, according to the complaint.

“Amazon benefits from this agreement because regardless of the wholesale prices, it faces no meaningful competition from any rival bookseller,” according to the complaint.