Over the last month, there have been a couple publishing stories receiving wide play across mainstream news sites such as The Guardian, Vox, Huffington Post, and others. While such outlets may be respectable and have the ability to get most stories right, in the publishing industry, two problems often come into play:
- A lack of understanding of industry statistics—and an inability to put them in their proper context
- Knee-jerk judgment regarding anything Amazon does
Publications with business models that predominantly rely (or did rely) on print also have the “nostalgia” problem—where they’re particularly prone to latch on to any story that indicates a possible resurgence of print or decline of digital.
. . . .
A lawn-mower vendor or a light bulb manufacturer could have told you this was probably coming. In every part of Amazon’s far-flung retail operation, third-party vendors “compete with Amazon”—that’s Amazon’s own language—to be the default sellers of items in a product’s buy box—the box that contains the purchase button and indicates the seller and purchase price.
This wasn’t the case for non-used books, however, until earlier this spring, when Amazon introduced this same capacity for third-party vendors to be made the seller in the buy box of new books. This change has kicked up a firestorm of complaint in the publishing community.
Let’s start with Amazon’s statement to the press on this: “We have listed and sold books, both new and used, from third-party sellers for many years. The recent changes allow sellers of new books to be the ‘featured offer’ on a book’s detail page, which means that our bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon, where third-party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items. Only offers for new books are eligible to be featured.”
At the heart of the matter for publishing people is the question of “new.” If that book is in fact new, then it will have been bought from the publisher (or an official wholesaler/distributor) by the third-party vendor. Thus, the vendor’s payment will have paid the publisher and thus the author.
So, the question is: Are these new books really new? Are they being sourced legitimately? Amazon says it’s working hard to be sure that books offered as new are actually new. In this seller forum thread, you can see a third-party seller (called “tomepusher”) working through a long exchange with other vendors. His listings have been removed by Amazon, he says, “because of complaints about used items sold as new.” In the course of this exchange, you see the vendor being told by colleagues that he should have an invoice “directly from the publisher” as protection, to prove the books were legitimately bought new, if Amazon inquires.
And the retailer isn’t the only one inquiring. Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch has reported that Penguin Random House is asking Amazon re-sellers “specifically how and from whom you are acquiring our books.”
Coverage from Publishers Weekly has included a precise definition from Amazon of new as “brand-new, unused, unread copy in perfect condition. The dust cover and original protective wrapping, if any, is intact. All supplementary materials are included, and all access codes for electronic material, if applicable, are valid and/or in working condition.”
As is frequently the case, reaction to Amazon’s application of its standard buy-box policy to books is probably overheated. It’s not clear yet how much actual impact this may have on revenues for authors and publishers if third-party sellers are indeed held to dealing in actual new books.
That said, at the heart of the disturbance is a mystery as to how third-party vendors can sell new books at the low prices they charge (and still make anything) and how they’re obtaining the books they say are new. If anything, this development will lead to a healthy tightening of some publisher’s own sales policies—particularly as it relates to advance review copies, hurts, and remainders—as well as to tighter controls on what books are sold as new on the Amazon platform.
PG says this is another example of publishers believing they have a divine right to overprice their books. Barnes & Noble discounts books online and in stores and has done so for years.
There are vendors (and not a few) that have figured out how to make money on razor-thin margins in all types of consumer products. Why should books be special?