With publishers in the throes of the holiday season, where purchases can make or break the bottom line, some are experiencing critical issues with their biggest retail partner: Amazon. Supply chain hiccups have left the biggest titles from some publishers out-of-stock and unavailable for purchase at the all-important retailer.
Several publishers, wholesalers, and distributors spoke to PW, on the condition of anonymity, about how the situation is impacting their holiday season. Many said the problem is stemming from the fact that Amazon placed unusually large orders in October and November that it is now struggling to process.
“The whole industry is set up so that everything moves through the pipeline: if someone plugs it up, everything goes kablooie,” said one editor at a regional press. This editor's house has a frontlist title which he feels is being adversely affected by the situation; although Amazon ordered a significant percentage of the book's total print run, the retailer has yet to make the title available online. The book, which was released last month and has received significant media attention, is currently listed as “temporarily out of stock” on Amazon.
Another publisher said the issues at Amazon are forcing it to reprint books more aggressively than it would, in order to keep stock flowing through other channels. Some sources told PW that the problems at Amazon are leaving their books sitting on distributors' loading docks for up to four weeks.
When asked about the situation, Amazon downplayed the suggestion that there are any issues. "We are excited about strong customer demand for books this season and our holiday forecasting has prepared us for increased volumes. As always, we are working hard with publishers to keep books in stock for customers," an Amazon spokesperson said.
Don Linn, director of the Chicago Distribution Center and one of the few people contacted by PW who would speak on the record, confirmed that his company, which largely handles academic and scholarly titles, has had some issues with Amazon this season. While Amazon skipped several scheduled pick-ups from to CDC in the past two weeks, Linn told PW that a large shipment was taken by the retailer this past Friday. “They’re being responsive,” Linn said of the retailer, adding that he's confident the problems will be resolved soon.
The situation Linn and CDC client-publishers described, in which Amazon's trucks are missing scheduled pick-ups, seems to be at the heart of the issue for others as well, including some larger indie publishers. A number of affected publishers told PW about regularly-scheduled “milk runs,” pick-ups which facilitate the delivery of shipments to Amazon's warehouses, being skipped. This means stock is left piling up at distribution centers, instead of making it to Amazon's warehouses. (When titles do not make it to Amazon's warehouses, they are left listed as out of stock on Amazon.com.)
Currently the situation seems to be limited in scope; many publishers contacted by PW, including several of the Big Five houses, reported no problems with Amazon. But for those affected, concerns are mounting about when the problem will be fixed and, come February, how the issue will impact returns. "It's been so frustrating," one publisher told PW. "For small presses, this is our moment."