Archive for January, 2010

Books pulled from Amazon.com in pricing dispute (AP)

Saturday, January 30th, 2010 | Finance News

NEW YORK – New copies of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," Andrew Young's "The Politician" and other books published by Macmillan were unavailable Saturday on Amazon.com, a drastic step in the ongoing dispute over e-book prices.

Macmillan CEO John Sargent said he was told Friday that its books would be removed from Amazon.com, as would e-books for Amazon's Kindle e-reader. Books will be available on Amazon.com through private sellers and other third parties, Sargent said.

Sargent met with Amazon officials Thursday to discuss the publisher's new pricing model for e-books. He wrote in a letter to Macmillan authors and literary agents Saturday that the plan would allow Amazon to make more money selling Macmillan books and that Macmillan would make less. He characterized the dispute as a disagreement over "the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market."

Macmillan and other publishers have criticized Amazon for charging just $9.99 for best-selling e-books on its Kindle e-reader, a price publishers say is too low and could hurt hardcover sales, which generally carry a list price of more than $24.

Macmillan is one of the world's largest English-language publishers. Its divisions include St. Martin's Press, itself one of the largest publishers in the U.S.; Henry Holt & Co., one of the oldest publishers in America; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and Tor, the leading science-fiction publisher.

Sargent credited Amazon in his letter, calling the company a "valuable customer" and a "great innovator in our industry."

But, he wrote, the digital book industry needs to create a business model that provides equal opportunities for retailers. Under Macmillan's model, to be put in place in March, e-books will be priced from $12.99 to $14.99 when first released and prices will change over time.

For its part, Amazon wants to keep a lid on prices as competitors line up to challenge its dominant position in a rapidly expanding market. The company did not immediately return messages seeking comment Saturday.

Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony Corp.'s e-book readers are already on sale. But the latest and most talked about challenger is Apple Inc., which just introduced the long-awaited iPad tablet computer and a new online book store modeled on iTunes. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, suggested publishers may offer some e-titles to Apple before they are allowed to go on sale at Amazon.com

The e-book market is an increasingly important one for Amazon. The company hasn't given specific sales figures on the Kindle, but CEO Jeff Bezos said Thursday that "millions" own the device. The company now sells six digital copies to every 10 physical ones of books available in either format.

To preserve the more lucrative hardcover business, publishers including Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Hachette Book Group USA have said they will impose delays on the release of digital copies.

It's not the first time that books have disappeared from Amazon's virtual shelves. Last summer, Kindle users were surprised and unsettled to receive notice that George Orwell works they had purchased, including "1984" and "Animal Farm," had been removed and their money refunded. It was a deletion of pirated copies that had been posted to the Kindle store, but the ordeal highlighted a concern — that a book already paid for and acquired can be revoked by an e-tailer. The Kindle operates on a wireless connection that Amazon ultimately controls.

Bezos later apologized, and Amazon offered affected customers free books or $30.

Late Friday, author Cory Doctorow, who is published by Tor, the Macmillan division, called readers and writers "the civilian casualties" of the dispute in a post on his popular Web site, boingboing.net. It's a "case of two corporate giants illustrating neatly exactly why market concentration is bad for the arts," he wrote.

Another Tor writer, John Scalzi, speculated that Amazon's move would have "a long-term effect on Amazon's relationship with publishers, and not the one Amazon is likely to want," he wrote on his Web site.

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AP Business Writer Andrew Vanacore in New York contributed to this report.

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Obama taking populist tone in fight over jobs (AP)

Saturday, January 30th, 2010 | Finance News

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is shifting his administration's emphasis to battling unemployment, the scourge that is hurting households nationwide and threatening to inflict heavy losses on Democrats in November's elections.

In the process, he and his allies in Congress intend to force Republicans, through a series of upcoming votes, to choose between Wall Street's high fliers and Main Street's middle-class workers. With Democrats struggling to deliver on big promises such as overhauling health care, they hope their increasingly populist tone _coupled with Republican resistance to two Democratic-crafted, deficit-reduction proposals — will prevent wavering voters from drifting to the GOP.

The White House has pushed a job-creation agenda for months. But it wasn't supposed to reign as the top priority until Democrats achieved their much-touted health care revisions.

That trouble-plagued campaign still drags on, however, leaving Obama little choice but to make it clear that creating jobs is his chief concern.

The shift in focus is not necessarily a death knell for the health care push. House and Senate Democratic leaders are trying to persuade colleagues to pass the contentious package despite fierce GOP opposition and polls that show substantial public dislike.

For now, at least, the legislative leaders seem content for Obama to remain fairly quiet while they work behind closed doors. If they can move the health care package close to the finish line in the next few weeks, they may call on him to buttonhole enough lawmakers for a final push.

That gives Obama leeway to focus heavily on trying to whittle down the nation's 10 percent unemployment rate. In Wednesday's State of the Union address, he declared, "Jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010." On Friday he rolled out details of a $33 billion, one-year tax incentive plan to encourage more hiring.

Underscoring the administration's concern, Obama's top economic adviser said Saturday that while the U.S. economy is recovering, job losses remain painfully high.

"What we're seeing in the United States, and perhaps in some other places, is a statistical recovery and a human recession," Lawrence Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council, told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

White House senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview that the administration also hopes Congress will approve a new stimulus bill in the next couple of weeks. The other most immediate priorities, he said, are votes on a bailout fee on big banks and a financial reform package, including a new consumer finance agency.

Congressional Republicans have opposed these and other proposals, saying Obama wants to slap stifling regulations on the nation's still-struggling financial sector.

Some Democrats view the GOP stance as a policy and political miscalculation.

White House officials and Democratic lawmakers described a strategy to put Republicans on the spot by scheduling regular votes on jobs, financial regulation and other matters that fall in line with the Democrats' populist message.

The strategy is meant to put Republicans in a box. They can vote with Democrats on items such as imposing a fee on big banks that received public bailout money. Or they can oppose such measures and risk being painted as protectors of big banks and stock traders rather than working-class Americans.

Many congressional Republicans, riding high after their stunning victory in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts Senate race, think the Democrats' strategy won't work. They appear almost united in their willingness to oppose Democrats on numerous measures that arguably might appeal to the public, calling them irresponsible, unworkable or overly intrusive.

Senate Republicans recently helped kill a proposed bipartisan commission meant to reduce the deficit, even though some originally had embraced it.

They also unanimously opposed an increase in the allowable level of federal borrowing. The measure, which Democrats passed on a party-line vote, includes requirements that the government pay up front for many new programs rather than finance them through borrowing. Republicans say the pay-as-you-go plan encourages higher taxes.

Many House Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Obama's call Friday for a $5,000 tax credit for each new worker hired this year, capped at $500,000 per employer. They said previous efforts proved ineffective.

Obama himself hinted at the strategy in a recent interview with Time magazine.

"It'll be interesting to see how some, who have tried to exploit legitimate anger at the big banks this year by trying to put it on us, are going to position themselves — whether in fact they're going to want to protect all these financial institutions from the regulations that will prevent the kind of disaster that we've seen over the past couple of years," Obama said.

"They're going to have to vote yea or nay, aren't they?" the reporter said.

"Right," said the president.

Both parties have made some nods at bipartisanship in recent days. But chances for meaningful accords before the November elections seem remote.

Obama and House Republicans engaged in a freewheeling exchange Friday in Baltimore, but the most energetic portions involved each side sharply defending its positions and pointedly criticizing the others'.

House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio thanked Obama for coming. A short time later he issued a lengthy, point-by-point rebuttal of the president's comments, under the headline, "President Obama repeats discredited talking points during dialogue with House GOP."

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Obama seeks $200M to help cities host 9/11 trials (AP)

Saturday, January 30th, 2010 | Finance News

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is proposing a $200 million fund to help pay for security costs in cities hosting the trials of accused terrorists such as Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The money will be included in a budget plan for 2011 of roughly $3.7 trillion that President Barack Obama will submit to Congress on Monday, a congressional aide said Saturday. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the spending blueprint hasn't been announced.

The administration said late last year the trials would take place in federal court in lower Manhattan, near where the World Trade Center once stood. But there's growing opposition from the city, and it now seems likely that the White House will decide to hold the trial elsewhere.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has put the cost of tighter security at $216 million just for the first year after Mohammed and the others were to arrive from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. New York City officials had warned of massive gridlock in lower Manhattan due to the extraordinary security steps that would have been required to host the trial.

Options for alternative trial sites include the northern Virginia city of Alexandria, which hosted the 2006 sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who pled guilty to helping plan the 9/11 attacks.

Republicans have led the opposition to hosting Guantanamo detainee trials in the U.S.

But other states such as Illinois would welcome the detainees since holding them is a source of federally funded jobs. Democrats controlling the state government want to sell a prison in the rural northwest portion of the state to the federal government to house Guantanamo detainees.

Despite his promise to take on the deficit, Obama's budget submission for the upcoming year is shaping up as a mostly stand-pat blueprint — like most presidents propose during election years.

"It is critical that we rein in the budget deficits we've been accumulating for far too long," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. "Deficits that won't just burden our children and grandchildren, but could damage our markets, drive up our interest rates, and jeopardize our recovery right now."

But Obama's $3.7 trillion or so budget plan for 2011 to be released Monday won't offer politically dangerous cuts to costly federal benefit programs that are driving massive budget deficits, administration and congressional officials say. Nor will it propose broad-based tax hikes that could help close extraordinary budget deficits requiring the government to borrow almost 40 cents for every dollar it spends this year.

The president has instead announced a freeze on some domestic programs. He also wants to appoint a bipartisan commission to recommend a plan to deal with deficits that reached $1.4 trillion last year and are likely to approach — or exceed — $1 trillion for many years to come. But the savings from the freeze will be mostly symbolic, while the deficit task forces recommendations might not ever get a vote in Congress.

Obama's budget blueprint will instead mostly tinker at the edges of the budget — cutting lawmakers' pet projects, for instance — but fails to touch the real cost drivers of the deficit: spiraling health care costs from programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

The White House is reprising a plan to reduce the benefits wealthier people take on itemized deductions like charitable gifts and mortgage interest. The idea could soon raise more than $30 billion a year, but is sure to be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.

The administration has already announced it will propose freezing, on average, the budgets of domestic agencies for three years, a difficult but largely symbolic step since it would save taxpayers just $10-15 billion next year.

Some Cabinet departments such as Homeland Security, Justice, Education and Transportation will enjoy budget increases, officials familiar with the budget say. But Commerce will face a big cut because of lower costs for the Census Bureau, while the Environmental Protection Agency would bear cuts in accounts funding local clean water efforts. The Interior Department would face a budget freeze.

The White House announced Saturday that Obama will propose to kill off or cut back 120 programs to save $20 billion. They include the Save America's Treasures program, originally designed to preserve "irreplaceable" U.S. cultural and heritage resources such as the bus in which Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Lawmakers, however, often direct the money to refurbish projects such as old small-town movie houses and county courthouses.

Government documents projects a $708 billion budget for the Pentagon next year, which includes $159 billion for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's roughly equal to war estimates for the ongoing budget year that started in October.

The core Pentagon budget would receive about a 3 percent boost.

Just Saturday, a Treasury official said Obama's budget proposal will also call for the repeal of a widely ignored tax on the personal use of company-issued cell phones and other mobile devices. A 1989 law — passed when cell phones were considered a luxury — says that personal use of a company cell phone should be taxed like other fringe benefits, such as a company car.

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