It has been a little over a year since Amazon began allowing third-party sellers to “win” the buy buttons on its book pages. Previously, orders placed using the main buy button on a book page were sourced directly from Amazon’s stock, thereby guaranteeing that publishers and authors would be paid for the purchases. But with the change, Amazon allowed orders placed using some buy buttons to be sourced from third parties, cutting authors and publishers out of those transactions. (Among the factors Amazon uses to determine who wins the buy button are price, availability, and delivery time.)
Authors and publishers protested the change when it was implemented, but a number of industry members who have followed the issue say that the policy is not going away. “They are here to stay,” said Fran Toolan, CEO of Firebrand Technologies, referring to the third-party buy buttons. For one thing, Amazon allows third-party sellers to compete for buy buttons in all of its other categories.
In December, Firebrand’s Doug Lessing was one of three people who took part in a webinar titled “Tracking Third-Party Sales,” sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group, looking into the buy-button issue. Using its Eloquence on Alert software, Firebrand tracked 2,700 third-party sellers, and Lessing said he was surprised how often third-party sellers win the buy button. According to him, third-party sellers win the button on 5% of titles on an average day; at most, third-party sellers win the button on 15% of titles. The majority of the buy buttons that were won by third-party sellers, Firebrand found, were controlled by seven companies, and the average selling price for each book offered by a third-party seller was about 33% off of the its price.
Lessing, along with fellow panelists Maureen McMahon, who is president and publisher of Kaplan Publishing, and Zack Price, founder of Blog into Book (a book vendor and publisher), agreed that the books likely to be of most interest to third-party sellers are high-priced titles, including textbooks. Frontlist trade titles are less likely to have buy buttons from third-party sellers, but for deep backlist titles whose inventory may be thin, third-party sellers have a relatively high portion of the buy buttons, Price said.
Since a third-party seller must offer new books (as opposed to used) in order to win a buy button, determining where the companies are obtaining their books has been a question posed by publishers ever since Amazon allowed third-party sellers to compete for the buttons. During the webinar, there was no definitive answer, but panelists pointed to some of the same sources others mentioned a year ago: used books, review copies, gray market titles, and imports. McMahon noted that some sellers were selling so-called new copies of Kaplan’s out-of-print books.
Both McMahon and Price said that Amazon does try to police its sellers to make sure that they are indeed selling new books. Amazon “is cracking down” on third-party sellers who can’t prove that the books they are offering are new, Price said, adding that Amazon wants to ensure that its customers can trust the third-party sellers who are winning the buy buttons.
Even with Amazon committed to policing its third-party sellers, the sheer number makes it difficult to catch all the companies that are violating the rules. McMahon said it is important for publishers to be aware of what is going on with the third-party buy buttons, and to be willing to experiment with ways to monitor, and to discourage, sales of books that aren’t new. On some of Kaplan’s Amazon book pages, the publisher added a note that says books bought from third-party sellers may not have the most up-to-date information.
In another experiment, in recent months, Simon & Schuster has sent out finished review copies with big stickers on the covers that say “Review Copy, Not for Re-sale.” Asked if this was done in response to the buy-button problem, a S&S spokesperson said that the publisher is “stickering these books in response to the proliferation of review and promotional copies being sold by third parties.”
Hachette Book Group had also taken some measures to prevent review copies from turning up for sale on Amazon. During last year’s fourth quarter, the publisher inserted a note inside the front cover of each review copy saying it was not for sale, and that if the book were sold, authors would not receive royalties from the sale. HBG stopped the practice at the beginning of 2018. “We figured we got the message out over the course of three months,” a spokesperson said.