The revelation early last week that Amazon is allowing third-party resellers to compete to win the featured buy buttons on the e-tailer’s book pages led to criticism from publishers, authors, and agents, as well as a fair amount of confusion over how the program actually works.

Up until March 1, the featured buy button had been reserved for books that Amazon sold on behalf of publishers. Under the new program, to win buttons, resellers must meet various Amazon criteria that include some combination of price, availability, and delivery time. In addition, the program is only open to books in new condition. Amazon noted that it permits resellers to compete with it on the sale of new items in most of its other product categories and that the recent change allows resellers of new books to compete in the books category.

Those objecting to the change in policy charge that by letting resellers—who are not buying their copies of a book from the publisher—get the main buy button, publishers will be deprived of sales and authors will lose royalties. An advisory sent by the Authors Guild to its members noted that, with the change in policy, “only Amazon and the reseller share in the profits” of sales when users buy using the reseller button. “This has the potential to decimate authors’ and publishers’ earnings from many books, especially backlist books,” the guild added.

The Independent Book Publishers Association, which represents more than 3,000 independent presses, sent a letter to its members warning them of the potential dire consequences of the third-party seller policy, saying that it “is likely to result in publishers selling fewer copies and ultimately being forced to declare backlist books out of print.”

While publishers and authors acknowledged that Amazon has the right to facilitate sales of used books through resellers, they are mystified about how third-party resellers can sell new books at the low prices they are charging and, more importantly, about how they are obtaining the books. Both the guild and the IBPA offered ideas about where the books could be coming from, among them remainder companies and used bookstores.

In a letter sent to resellers about the new program, Amazon said books must be in “new condition,” a phrasing that made publishers and authors believe resellers are using the term as a loophole to sell used books. Amazon said that, though the reseller letter does use the phrase “new condition,” the definition of what new means is found in its guidelines; a new book must be a “brand-new, unused, unread copy in perfect condition. The dust cover and original protective wrapping, if any, is intact.”

But publishers do not seem satisfied that resellers are abiding by that definition or that the requirement is being enforced. Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and an IBPA board member whose Huffington Post piece first brought this issue to light, said she wonders how Amazon is monitoring the resellers and what steps it takes to prevent them from selling used books once they’ve won the default buy buttons.

It is not just indie publishers that are questioning what the sources of books sold by resellers are. A letter sent to third party sellers by Penguin Random House that was leaked to media outlets requests “some clarity into the methods you use to source our titles for resale and... pertinent information, specifically how and from whom you are acquiring our books.”

PRH reminded the companies that “if the product is listed as ‘new’ and it is in fact a ‘used,’ ‘hurt,’ or ‘remaindered’ book you are in violation of Amazon’s Participation Agreement, and we call upon you to immediately cease and desist from selling ‘used,’ ‘hurt,’ or ‘remaindered’ books as ‘new.’ ”

In a statement, Amazon said it has procedures in place to make sure new books are in fact new: “We want customers to buy with confidence any time they make a purchase on Amazon and require all sellers to sell authentic products. We use a variety of methods to review sellers and individual offers depending on the situation and this can include asking for invoices, identity documentation and other information.”

The impact of the change is far from clear at this stage; a number of observers believe it will hurt smaller publishers more than big publishers. But all publishers and authors see it as Amazon taking another piece of the book revenue pie.

Correction: The PRH letter was sent to third party sellers, not Amazon.