How Amazon, Once Again, Is Driving Down The Value Of Books And Undermining Authors

Third-party sellers can now 'win' the Buy box. Here's what that means.

05/04/2017 09:52 am ET | Updated May 05, 2017

On March 1, while the only people paying real attention were hypervigilant third-party sellers and book geeks on Reddit, Amazon enacted a policy change that allows third-party sellers to compete for the Buy Box for books in “new condition.”

In case you’re not visualizing the Buy Box in your mind, it’s this:

When you go to a product page on Amazon, the ADD TO CART button is the default offer. Other used options fall below the Buy Box. Where books are concerned, the default Buy Box option has always belonged to the publisher. When you buy a book, Amazon pays the publisher 45 percent of the list price, so authors are making a profit (albeit small) every time you buy. This contributes to authors’ royalties and also means that your purchase is supporting the entity that published the book, namely the publisher.

The suggestion in some of the articles I’ve read on this topic is that this new policy hurts small sellers, favoring bigger third-seller operations. But I’d like to break down how much this policy hurts authors and publishers.

I finally clued in to how problematic this policy is a couple weeks ago when one of my authors emailed me to inform me that her book was no longer being listed on Amazon—at all—as available from her publisher, in this case SparkPress, one of my company’s two imprints. When you typed in the title of her book, the only listings that came up were from third-party sellers. Amazon’s policy states that “eligible sellers will be able to compete for the buy box,” but in this case, we had been completely wiped off of Amazon as an eligible seller in any capacity, without being notified.

As an experiment, I typed in a few backlist books from my Seal Press days. By my third try, I’d hit upon Second Wind, by Cami Ostman. Same scenario. No offering from the publisher. When you click on the product page, here’s what you see:

Note the paperback price: $3.23. Note the seller: Meadowland Media. At first glance, I could not find Seal Press’s listing, but it turns out it is there, just four buttons down—the one that says “Sold by: Amazon”:

A big question that comes to mind here: Where is Amazon’s accountability to publishers? The impact this policy has on publishers’ backlist (typically meaning any book that’s six months or older) is potentially devastating, especially because consumers don’t understand what’s going on here. When you search for this book, it looks as if the only listing that’s available is through Meadowland Media because the search function leads to a page where the only visibility you have is that Second Wind is $3.23. This screen shot says that there are “more buying options” but those buying options alert you to the 25-cent copy, not the copy being sold by the publisher for $10.62.

Small publishers in particular are dependent on backlist sales for their livelihood. Amazon is a Herculean player when it comes to backlist sales because bookstores favor front-list books. If you’re looking for a book that’s a year old or more, you’re likely to go to Amazon to find it. Second Wind was published in 2010, but the way Amazon has set up this listing, it’s as if the book were out of print with the publisher. I know for a fact it is not.

Here’s what Amazon says about “winning” the Buy Box:

To compete for the Buy Box, both your selling account and your listed item must be eligible. Becoming eligible to compete for the Buy Box doesn’t guarantee that you will win it. You can increase your chances by pricing your items competitively, offering Prime and free shipping, providing great customer service, and keeping stock available.

Let me break this down in terms of the ramifications of this policy on authors.

• Amazon, once again, is attempting to drive down the value of books, and therefore intellectual property and creative work in general. I’ve argued in the past that Amazon price fixes e-books by fostering a system in which authors get better royalties if they price their books between $2.99 and $9.99. In this scenario, Amazon is rewarding the seller that conforms to its rules (“competitive pricing”) by granting them the coveted buy button. Dropping the publisher listing to fourth is an affront, and it seems very likely that publisher listings will fall off the buy page completely—at Amazon’s discretion of course.

• If a book is not showing up as readily available by its publisher on Amazon, the author doesn’t make royalties. Third-party sellers may have obtained the books they sell in any number of ways. They might be a used bookstore that buys stock back from consumers at a cheap cost. They might troll book bins where people recycle books. They might have relationships with distributors and wholesalers where they buy “hurts” (often good enough quality to be considered “new condition”) at a super low cost. They might have connections to reviewers who get more books than they can handle who are looking to offload. And this goes on and on. Regardless, the books these vendors are selling do not qualify as sales because they’ve already been sold, or they originally existed as promotional copies. (Someone pointed out to me today that some of these third-party vendors are buying books through wholesale channels, but it begs the question of how Amazon is measuring “new condition.” And if you’re buying a used book, it doesn’t benefit the author or the publisher. Before now, I’ve never been against used books, but this takes used books to a whole new level. If consumers don’t see the option to buy new, from the publisher, then Amazon is promoting piracy. Is this an extreme charge? Maybe. But the facts are the facts. Authors get nothing from used books because you’re buying something that’s already been bought and tracked as a sale. If this new policy takes hold for the vast majority of backlist books, authors’ and publishers’ revenue will dry up completely, and more and more books will go more quickly out of print. Publishers will not be able to afford to keep books in print that are not for sale on Amazon. So this policy is essentially driving books to an earlier death—and thereby hurting authors.

• Amazon suggests that one of the ways you can win the Buy Box is to keep books “in stock.” This poses a major problem for self-published authors and any backlist author whose books are print-on-demand. Print-on-demand automatically means there’s no stock. The books are printed to order. If Amazon is penalizing books that are set up as POD titles and favoring third-party sellers who have stock due to any of the abovementioned means of procurement, authors will again be dinged when their own listing, or publisher listing, doesn’t exist on Amazon. I’m going to venture to guess that Amazon will not penalize or remove books that are listed with CreateSpace—and as Amazon moves away from CreateSpace to consolidate its print and e-book self-publishing program onto Kindle, you will undoubtedly see that self-published authors with Kindle accounts will continue to be listed, while other self-published authors will suffer. Monopoly much?

As consumers and concerned citizens, we should be very bothered by this new policy. As a publisher, I feel powerless to help my authors. My author who issued the original complaint had her publisher listing magically reappear one week after emailing us to notify us it had gone missing. Now I realize that maybe it was buried on a secondary page all along, but no one is going to go digging for a higher-cost book on a secondary or tertiary Amazon page. Amazon is a mammoth player in the publishing space, but its goal is to disrupt publishing, not to support publishers or authors. This new third-party seller policy is potentially terrorizing, in that it can and will literally result in publishers selling fewer copies and ultimately being forced to declare backlist books out of print.

We can effect change and make our dissatisfaction about this policy known by buying elsewhere. Last year I got rid of Amazon Prime. Last month I tested the waters and bought backlist books at Book Passage and Powell’s. It was great. Both platforms are selling Cami Ostman’s Second Wind, from the publisher. Yes, the shipping cost is higher and I didn’t get two-day delivery for my purchases, but I had my peace of mind.

Support indie bookstores. Beware of these third-party sellers. Before you buy, at least look at who you’re buying from. Don’t buy blindly. Consider the ramifications of your purchases. If you want to support the authors you love, get off Amazon.