In recent weeks, Amazon’s new Buy Box policy has received a fair amount of industry attention and blowback, leaving publishers and authors speculating about Amazon’s motives for implementing it. While some think the industry reaction is a tempest in a teacup, with publishers raising their hackles once again over an Amazon business decision, others see the policy—which allows third-party sellers to “win” the Buy Box, thus relegating publisher listings to the “Other Sellers on Amazon” section—as an aggressive move against publishers and authors.
Amazon has long enjoyed the widespread support of independent authors, who rightly credit the retail giant for their ability to be authors at all. Without Amazon, most indie authors would have no means of reaching a broad readership. Many will recall the 2014 open letter on Change.org endorsed by 27 authors, including J.A. Konrath and Hugh Howey, condemning New York publishing and championing Amazon, reading in part:
“Major publishers like Hachette have a long history of treating authors and readers poorly. Amazon, on the other hand, has built its reputation on valuing authors and readers dearly.”
One might wonder if, given this kind of author loyalty, Amazon felt emboldened to change its book policies yet again. The Buy Box change was announced in November 2016 without much fanfare, in a seller forum notifying vendors: “Sellers will be able to compete for the Buy Box for Books in new condition.” The language of the announcement was geared toward vendors, not publishers or author-publishers.
And despite the controversy, some people’s reaction to the change has been ambivalent: So what if a publisher’s listing ranks third or fourth under “Other Sellers on Amazon?” The argument supporters of Amazon love to make is that e-tail giant is just beating publishers at their own game -- so publishers should start playing the game better and stop complaining.
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking. Amazon is much more than just a retailer. It’s the go-to site for books. Yes, you can blame publishers’ shortsightedness for allowing Amazon to rise to this position of dominance in the first place, but encouraging Amazon’s monopolistic leanings does nothing to advance new independent publishing models. And reliance on Amazon as your only vendor is a dangerous business strategy.
Many in the industry speculate that Amazon’s ultimate motive with the Buy Box policy relates to the company's plans to expand its POD offerings. Amazon’s guidelines for how to win the Buy Box states that vendors must excel in pricing, availability, fulfillment, and customer service. For authors using CreateSpace for POD titles, the only one of these areas Amazon will not directly control is pricing. It should also be noted that Amazon is very effective at controlling pricing across its own platforms, incentivizing low pricing on Kindle Direct Publishing titles, for instance, by offering 70% royalty to authors who price their e-books between $2.99 and $9.99 and only 35% to authors at any other price point.
For those authors who continue to be smitten with Amazon, this kind of relationship may work out well, and they may have a long and successful career as a POD author who wins the Buy Box every time.
The rest of us need to be vigilant. The new policy states that books need only to be in “new condition” to qualify for the Buy Box. But there’s widespread concern about where these “new” books might be coming from, and how some vendors can price new books as low as $3 per unit—unless they were used or free to those vendors in the first place. Some publishers, myself included, speculate that Amazon is allowing books to be sold that—whether they’re remainders or hurts, previously sold or promotional copies—effectively result in zero profit for the publisher (or indie author as the case might be). The Buy Box policy has ramifications for indie authors as well as publishers, and because Amazon has no quality control on its third-party vendors, they’re relying on consumers to police vendors. But would I complain about a $3 book that comes in less-than-new condition? I’m not sure.
Independent authors are Amazon’s most loyal authors, but the relationship is a dependent one, which means indie authors need to keep their eyes open. If your listing drops to the third or fourth position under “Other Sellers on Amazon,” you can jump through all the required hoops to win back the Buy Box, or you can let Amazon know that you’re unhappy. The key to a healthy relationship, after all, is that both sides feel comfortable communicating their needs.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book and What’s Your Book?