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Don’t Immediately Trust Mainstream Sites on Publishing Stories

30 May 2017

From Jane Friedman:

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.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

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?

Amazon, Big Publishing

34 Comments to “Don’t Immediately Trust Mainstream Sites on Publishing Stories”

  1. how many other retailers use books as loss-leaders? how many indies can lose money on every book sale? and in the final analysis, why care?

    • how many indies can lose money on every book sale?

      How does that happen?

      • Felix J. Torres

        It’s the old “Amazon loses money on every book sold” myth.

        Never mind that the DOJ debunked it years ago.
        Or that Amazon rarely if ever discounts books to 50% of list whereas publishers regularly give them discounts as high as 55%.

        There’s this undying belief that publishers don’t give discounts based on volume and that Amazon pays the same wholesale price as the “little bookstore on the corner”.

  2. A very long time ago, I read somewhere “Believe half of what you see and nothing of what you read.” Honestly, it’s still good advice.

    • Felix J. Torres

      With digital video editing believing even half of what you see will get you in trouble. 😉

      The better modern mantra is question everything, especially if money or power is at stake.

  3. Felix J. Torres

    PG: it’s not a matter of actual margins.

    If you remember, for the Agency Conspiracy, the terms Apple insisted on meant the BPHs (and their authors) made less money than they were making through wholesale. They just wanted to make sure consumers paid more, even if it meant less money for them. It’s one of the reasons the case was a slam dunk.

    For all their posturing as “guardians of literary culture” they seem to be perfectly content to see people read less as long as they get them to pay more for what they do read.

  4. It’s a problem of Publishers and their longstanding Deep Discount clauses. If the truckloads of books publishers sell at deep discount can now find their way to Amazon, (and those will certainly meet all of Amazon’s conditions for new.), then suddenly, Amazon can sell any book at ‘deep discount’ prices. Sadly, it’s the Author who ends up getting the short end of that stick. But this move from amazon will likely lead to the dismantling of Deep Discount sales entirely, and *that* can only be to the benefit of Authors when the dust settles.

    • +1

    • even if it’s not a ‘deep discount’ situation, the publishers sell their books to stores at 50% (or higher) discounts routinely, that’s how the stores make their money.

      If any of these stores decide to sell the books on Amazon, they can do so, and still make a profit even if the book is substantially cheaper than the publisher’s list price.

      Given how many other industries have stores that never sell anything at list price, why is it a surprise and “unfair” if Amazon does the same?

      • Felix J. Torres

        Because it’s Amazon.
        And it’s books!
        Books are special!
        Books aren’t products, they’re art!!!

      • I would far rather a bookstore sell thru Amazon any unsold books it bought from me via Ingram, vs returning them.

        Since I’ve stopped making them returnable, any bookstore that masters this now has an improved inducement to buy for stock.

    • Yes. That is the one nitpick I have with the OP – the publisher got paid for these books, but almost certainly not the writer.

  5. “Don’t Immediately Trust Mainstream Sites on Publishing Stories”

    No kidding! But the sad thing is that noob authors and too many buying readers will accept these slanted stories as gospel. TPVers know better, but we’re a tiny minority. 🙁

  6. So what publishers are trying to do is to get the same sort of consideration that car dealers have. Once a new car is driven off the lot, it’s used, no matter what, and as I recall seeing somewhere, once a new car drives off the lot it depreciates by a few thousand dollars. You can’t buy a new car and then resell it as new – it’s a used car merely by the fact that it is no longer being sold by the dealer. They want books to work the same way.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Well, that is the rule amazon uses: it’s “new” if it’s never been sold at retail. Whether the vendor gets it from a distributor, another vendor, or from the publisher doesn’t matter. Auto dealers do sell cars to each other and they still count as new. Of course, with cars the retail transaction involves a transfer of title. So new = never titled, regardless of how many miles it ran on test drives or from dealer to dealer.

      The funny thing is the whiners act as if the publishers were retailers and the only ones authorized to sell books. They keep talking as if the remaindered books didn’t come off the same presses and warehouses as the ones Amazon LLC sells.

  7. “… mainstream news sites such as The Guardian, Vox, Huffington Post …”

    They tried to claim those three get anywhere near the truth?

    .

    If the books haven’t been sold to John Q. Public then they are ‘new’ books.

    If not, then the publishers ‘selling’ them to ‘any’ wholesaler/distributor means they were ‘sold’ and can no longer be called ‘new’.

    And we’ve already discussed on these pages where those ‘cheap yet still new books’ are coming from – publishers deep discounting so they get paid for the book but the author doesn’t.

    .

    As for not believing anything you see, with a picture or two of someone I could have them doing just about anything:

    https://www.daz3d.com/facegen-artist-pro

    Give them the body they’ve always/never wanted, dressed as they wouldn’t be caught dead and then photoshop them hobnobbing with someone they can’t stand (and send the shot to those three rag mags above – one of them is bound to pick it up! 😉 )

  8. Patricia Sierra

    What are hurts?

  9. Patricia Sierra

    Thanks Dave & Anonymous. I’d never heard that term before in relation to books. I don’t think the third party sellers on Amazon can claim damaged books are new without noting the defects.

  10. A bookstore can be a third-party seller on Amazon. A regular, buys wholesale books through a distributor bookstore. There’s nothing to get hung up over here.

  11. Didn’t we see a similar story criticizing Amazon’s stores because they put on the shelves books they think readers want to buy, rather than books publishers think readers should read?

    IIRR, publishers pay Barnes and Noble for their shelf space, so they expect Amazon should do the same. Since Amazon doesn’t, they’re ipso facto evil.

  12. “While such outlets may be respectable and have the ability to get most stories right…”

    Ah, the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect strikes again. “Oh, sure, this media outlet always gets the story wrong when they write about MY field, but I trust that their always right when they write about OTHER fields.”

  13. So, the question is: Are these new books really new?

    Consumers don’t care what the publishers consider a new book. They don’t care what authors consider a new book. They don’s care where the money they pay for a book goes.

  14. A while ago, I remarked that my Createspace paperback books were sold as new books at a much lower price on Amazon by several distributors from Ingram.

    It was really disturbing, because, if the distributor had acquired these books from Amazon, how could he possibly sell them at such a low price? Besides, my sales figures were really low, and I couldn’t figure out how these distributors could have acquired the books.

    So, I disabled Createspace extended distribution. Maybe I’m a control freak, but I had the feeling things were being made behind my back.

    • You fix a retail price for your paperbacks, yes? Is there a wholesale price too? Someone with wholesale access to them can sell for less, can’t they?

      I mean, hypothetical. You say your paperback price is $10.00. Someone can go to Amazon and order your book at a wholesale price, say $6.00. Why can’t they then sell for less than the $4.00 markup you do?

    • Felix J. Torres

      Just because a vendor offers a product for sale doesn’t necessarily mean they have it on a shelf taking up space. Not in these days of just in time supply chsins.

      Vendors on Amazon only need to have access to a product to be able to offer it for sale.

      I understand it isn’t uncommon for POD books to be listed by vendors that order them from Ingrams (or CreateSpace) *after* receiving an order.

      Amazon itself got its start that way.

      As for how they can undercut Amazon all it takes is the willingness to order and ship it for less than Amazon’s standard retail markup.

      The point of concern is whether they were listed at a price lower than your wholesale price. As long as you got your full share there is no hard proof of hijinks.

  15. on audio, a reseller at ebay and amazon, duplicated the original cds at home, copied the cover work for the cds and box, along with publishers logo and all, assembled all and shrink wrapped and voila, a ‘brand new, not used, audio set for investment of 2.00, selling for $15 or more ea.

    With books, not hard at all to send one orig copy to china through a broker, come back with a short run of books that cost w shipping 1 or 2.30 per, and sell for 10 or 15 on amz, plus one’s cut of shipping of 3.99 or more. Same cover, same interior design, publisher’s logo intact. “New” book. Bootlegged. Or one can buy grey market and resell. Or black.

    If amz doesnt realize the ease at which bootlegging can be done even at home in some cases; audio, hard cover, trade, mass market, film… so easily with barely an investment up front, they are naive.

    It is not hard to do at all.

  16. Don’t Immediately Trust Mainstream Sites

    Fixed it for you.

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