A new program from Amazon is drawing a range of reactions from those across the publishing industry, from fear to downright anger. The e-tailer has started allowing third-party book re-sellers to "win" buy buttons on book pages. The program, publishers, agents, and authors allege, is discouraging customers from buying new books, negatively affecting sales and revenue.
Up until now, the buy button on book pages automatically directed customers to new copies of titles Amazon stocked from the publishers. Now, re-sellers can win a buy button by meeting various criteria outline by Amazon which includes the price, availability, and delivery time. The program is also only open to books in new condition.
Those objecting to this policy say it is allowing Amazon to deprive publishers of sales and authors of royalties. (Because re-sellers are not buying their copies from publishers, these sales will not be counted as sales, and money derived from them will not go to publishers or authors.)
A number of organizations, including the Authors Guild, are on alert. In a notice to its members, the guild said the change in policy means that “only Amazon and the re-seller share in the profits [of the sale]. This has the potential to decimate authors’ and publishers’ earnings from many books, especially backlist books.”
The new policy first surfaced this spring and has been a constant topic of conversation, and speculation, among publishers, agents, and authors. The policy took on a more public face last week, after Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and a board member of the IBPA, wrote about it in the Huffington Post.
The IBPA followed up Warner’s article with a letter to its members warning them of the potentially dire consequences of the third-party seller policy. In the letter, the organization said the policy “is likely to result in publishers selling fewer copies and ultimately being forced to declare backlist books out of print.”
Several of the larger publishers contacted by PW were aware of the policy and, despite their unhappiness with it, said they felt the only thing they could do right now is to monitor the situation.
When asked about the program, Amazon issued the following statement to PW: "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.”
Publishers and authors, especially, do not see the program in the same light, One of the major points of contention for this group is a clause in Amazon’s policy stating that only re-sellers which sell books in “new condition” are eligible to compete for the buy buttons. Publishers and authors were overwhelmingly skeptical that books in "new condition" are actually new books.
The guild and the IBPA both speculated about where "new condition" books secured by third party sellers are coming from, citing likely sources as hurts, book reviewers, and used bookstores. Wherever the "new condition" titles are coming from, though, the guild stressed that “re-sellers must be acquiring [the books] at a cut-rate price." The organization added that there also "appear to be enough of these copies that they could replace sales for truly new copies.”
As with any major change at Amazon, there has been extensive speculation about the motivation behind the move. One widespread theory is that, in addition to boosting its margin on book sales, Amazon is also trying to force publishers to use its print-on-demand services. Under the guild’s scenario, when consumers order a hardcopy book from Amazon, the e-tailer would not ship a publisher-supplied copy but would, instead, print a copy and then ship it, thereby cutting costs on storing inventory. If Amazon did implement such a move it would represent a major change in its management of inventory.
Sources at Amazon, however, denied that there is any connection between the new buy-button policy and its print-on-demand business. The sources told PW that the company print-on-demand program remains an entirely optional one for publishers.
Update: After this story ran, we heard from Amazon that while the phrase "new condition" was used in a letter sent to resellers what Amazon defines as new is found in its guidelines 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."