Nearly 200 PMA members reported on experiences with Amazon in response to a recent email invitation; perhaps surprisingly, about two thirds of the reports were wholly or partly positive. This sample, from the partly-positive bunch, shows some different perspectives on the same fact situations and highlights two Amazon practices that bother a great many PMA members.
As publisher after publisher pointed out, Amazon often places small orders one after another, raising shipping prices to the point where sales become unprofitable (see below for an antidote that worked for one firm). Worse, Amazon appears to have set up a system that eclipses new editions and highlights old ones, even when the old ones are out of date and/or unavailable.
Reports in upcoming issues will show what pleases publishers whose enthusiasm for Amazon is unbridled and what infuriates publishers who see their relationships with it as useless or counterproductive.
We’re going to make sure selected people at Amazon see the whole series of reports. Ideally, their reactions plus the pointers that PMA members are offering will make doing business with this giant online retailer easier and more profitable going forward.
What’s Easy. What’s Hard
We’re a small publisher, just four titles. Overall we’ve been happy with Amazon.com, but there’s one problem it stupidly refuses to acknowledge.
First the good news. We’ve sold more than 10,000 books through Amazon’s Advantage program, accounting for a significant part of our revenue since we started selling books in 2000. This was largely because we lucked into a bestseller on a topic that was really hot a few years ago: employee stock options. Amazon provided an easy way for people to find this book even though it was by an unknown author and from a new publisher. It’s true what they say: the Advantage program levels the playing field for independent publishers.
In general we find it easier to deal with Amazon.com than any other major customer. Orders are on the Web, with email alerts. We don’t have to bill Amazon, and it pays on time, directly into our bank account. We almost never get returns. It couldn’t be much easier.
Our biggest problem with Amazon.com is that it makes it hard for shoppers to find a new edition of a book. The search engine sends people to the page for the old, outdated edition, even when that edition is out of print and out of stock and a newer edition is available and in stock. This situation can persist for several weeks until people who somehow find the page for the newer edition buy enough copies to make it rank ahead of the outdated edition. This situation is bad for us, bad for Amazon, and bad for Amazon customers, but Amazon refuses to acknowledge, much less correct, this problem.
Fairmark Press Inc.
Dealing with Damage
We’ve had fair sales through Amazon and not many problems with trade paperbacks. But the hardback book we did this year (with dust cover) has been a nightmare. I’ve packed each order myself–looking at the books as I count them out and box them–and packaging them very securely. But Amazon returned a huge number as “damaged” (torn dust covers, some severely). I do not believe this could have happened while the books were in transit from us to Amazon. I believe it happened in Amazon’s warehouse. I have written many times, but usually get a stock answer that says Amazon provides only pristine-quality books to its customers. Amazon never deals with whether the damage might have occurred in its facility. You cannot find a human to talk with. You’re just stuck.
Ruby Moon Books
In the Absence of Human Contact
My experience with Amazon is pretty positive. The hardest part for me is that I can’t just pick up a phone and call a human being. A minor challenge is the multiple orders for small amounts of books instead of one that pulls them all together. I do understand that for such a big organization it is doing what works best for Amazon, and I’m glad for the orders.
The business model at Amazon.com seems to be to eliminate human contact–even human beings–whenever possible. In the old days (three years ago) one could call Seattle and straighten out a glitch with an actual person. Now it’s email only to respondents who often seem to have only a first name. Nobody provides a phone number. If a problem is complex, different workers will respond to each email. Form letters abound, and “ironclad” policies are quoted in response to most queries.
However, the Advantage program pays reliably at the end of each month, and Amazon’s accounting is comprehensive.
Partly About Combining Orders
We have been selling books through Amazon for almost a year now, and the company makes it very easy to confirm and ship orders. The only problem I have is that Amazon will order books several times every week. For instance, I receive an order on Monday and ship it; then on Tuesday I have another order from Amazon. I wish it would just combine all the orders for the week into one, which would save our company money on shipping charges.
50 State Notary
My titles have been listed with Amazon since 1999; except for its ordering system, I’ve had nothing but exceptional service from/with the company. It pays on time, refunds money for books it can’t account for in its system, and almost never sends returns. I do wish I wouldn’t receive orders so haphazardly, however. I get an order for a title one day, and another for the same title two or three days later.
I am a first-time publisher, and I had some initial frustrations, including the ridiculous initial order of two titles. Soon thereafter Amazon ordered 13, and then, just three days later, another two copies! The shipping costs pretty much eat up my profit on such small orders. So I emailed and queried that order of two, and a person replied, agreeing that it was an unreasonably small order and upping the order to 10 copies. He said those orders are typically generated by computer with no actual person overseeing them. I encourage others to challenge such small orders.
Just a few days later Amazon ordered 16 more, and three days after that another 23. Obviously from a shipping standpoint it’d be better if Amazon would wait and order a larger quantity at once, but I’m willing to live with that.
My main complaint was that it took more than a month to get my book’s order page to say “ships within 24 hours.” When it says “ships within a month” or “ships in one to two weeks,” that’s a deal-breaker for many shoppers. But apparently the Amazon computer now feels that there are enough copies on hand to fill orders quickly.
Colleen Dunn Bates
Prospect Park Publishing
Owning Up to Error
Despite the fact that it seems impossible to actually speak to a person, Amazon’s systems usually work. That said, you need to stay on top of all your dealings with the firm. Some time ago we shipped an order, but it never showed up in the orders-received list for our company. I checked the procedure for how Amazon handles this, which involved making a claim after 90 days with tracking info and proof of receipt (provided electronically when using FedEx Ground, as we do).
Yesterday I sent out my claim, and this morning’s email contained a message that said, in part:
Thank you for providing us with the tracking information for your shipment(s). We have double-checked our records, and have confirmed that there are items apparently delivered to us that have not been recorded as “received” in our system. Since you have proof that these items were delivered to our facilities at least 90 days ago, you are eligible for compensation.
I have requested that a compensation payment be issued to you by our accounting department. The compensation amount will equal the amount you would have been paid if all of the missing copies had been received and sold normally through your Advantage account.
For some reason, I am always impressed/thrilled/relieved when something works, but especially when a company the size of Amazon takes responsibility for its error.
Bay Tree Publishing
Ripple Effects and Reports
I self-published my first book in 1998, and Amazon.com has been a huge part of my success ever since. I have two titles–104 Activities That Build: Self-Esteem, Teamwork, Communication, Anger Management, Self-Discovery and Coping Skills and Team-Building Activities for Every Group–that have been constantly ranked in the top 4,000 for the past few years, sometimes as high as 250. The words in the titles made it easy to find the books before Amazon had the Search Inside the Book feature, which sometimes seems to bring up titles that don’t have anything to do with the keyword you enter.
More sales meant more linking to other similar titles, which in turn helped sales, and the high ranking meant top listing when someone was searching for my topics. Also, I have been amazed at how many people link to these titles from their own sites, which is even more free advertising. Good book reviews help too, but whenever I see I have another review I have to admit I’m nervous, even though I know I have great books.
I had problems with access to the reports page for over a year, but recently they were resolved when Amazon changed to a new easy-to-access report page. Over the years I have kept very close track of my rankings and sales report (when I could access it), and sometimes it seemed that Amazon was putting book sales into the next month, because on the first day of the month my report would have an extremely high number of sales. Of course, I can’t prove this.
Another thing I have noticed is that Amazon seems to give all my books the same discount, so all at once all of my titles will go from a 30 percent discount to a 15 percent discount. I prefer to have as high a discount as possible on my books, since I get the same amount per book, and a higher discount means more sales. Also, when I first started out Amazon was located in Washington state, and since I live in Washington, shipping costs were low. I wasn’t happy about having to ship to Kentucky and Nevada, but I’m sure most everyone else in the country was.
All in all, Amazon has been great to do business with and has helped my book sales tremendously with little work on my part.
Rec Room Publishing, Inc.
Processing and Pricing
Amazon has always been very understanding when it comes to operational glitches, as long as I write and explain in a timely manner.
Also, its processing system works well, unlike other distribution
channels. Payments are timely, orders are easy to process at our end, and inventory levels are always available for viewing online. Uploads are handled fairly quickly, returns are rare and usually involve only books damaged in the mail.
The only serious misunderstanding we have had was when Amazon sent our payment (via check) to the wrong publisher, when we had already been signed up and receiving EFT payment for months before. Fortunately the publisher who received our check was honest enough to contact us and send us our portion. It took many emails and phone calls, not to mention more misdirected checks, before this finally got straightened out.
My biggest ongoing beefs with Amazon are the high discount and paying the shipping and now an annual fee…good grief. We are selling through Amazon Advantage only to play the game for credibility’s sake and to get the books in circulation–selling below cost in most cases and making it up with volume (humor).
Denlinger’s Publishers, Ltd.
Better Than Brick-and-Mortar Stores?
Amazon is an Internet behemoth with serious growing pains. Asking it to be mindful of publisher concerns is like asking a kindly elephant not to step on the ants. And dealing with Amazon is like dealing with the IRS. When you make a mistake, the punishment is swift and harsh, and finding the right resolution can be a frustrating process. When Amazon makes a mistake, the first daunting task is to find someone who’ll listen and help you. That’s the real problem.
But then think about brick-and-mortar bookstores that overorder and then return 90 percent of the books because they put them in the wrong section and on the bottom shelf. Bookstores sell books today no differently than grocery markets sell breakfast cereal. Position, position, position. Get my title next to the register, on an aisle table, or in an end cap. At least Amazon levels the playing field for publishers. When it does something unfair, the company is democratic about it. Everyone suffers the same fate. For little guys, that’s a step up.
Your Own World Books
In on the Launch
Our first book has been out for six months, and Amazon has been selling it for about four months. While the initial setup was challenging (you are never able to talk directly to a person; everything is done through email, and the email is not even personalized), we are pleased with how it has been going.
The New-Edition Exception
We have been selling The One Page Business Plan on Amazon for almost seven years. I think the company is absolutely fabulous to work with–with one minor exception.
Why do I think Amazon is great to work with?
- It orders only what it can sell in two to three weeks.
- I never get returns from Amazon.
- It pays on time, always.
- Online status reports are accurate, easy to use, and helpful!
- The book ratings are incredibly helpful! They give us lots of legitimate bragging rights. In our category, our title has been the bestseller for three-plus years, most days. We tell everyone that, and they can easily verify it for themselves.
OK, the negative.
When we launched the third edition, which included a CD, we experienced absolute meltdown with Amazon for about three months. The company kept showing the old title, indicating it was out of print, but would not show the new title, which had a new ISBN. We followed all of Amazon’s instructions, but it was pure hell! Somehow, it finally figured out that we had a new edition (duh) and that the old title was no longer available.
That experience aside, I love Amazon. Every self-publisher should be in the Advantage program and drive as many customers as possible to Amazon to increase their sales rank and then tell the world they have an Amazon Best Seller! Ingram doesn’t let you do that. Baker and Taylor doesn’t let you do that.
P.S.: We have sold almost 30,000 books and will do an eighth printing in a few months.
The One Page Business Plan Company
Three Problems and Some Praise
Obviously, to be a publisher today, you must interface with Amazon.com. Unfortunately, human contact is not welcomed. Email communication allows Amazon to do one of two things: take care of your problem or send you a canned response saying that your question has been passed on to another department and there is nothing else to be done. Then your question is never answered.
Here are three very bad policies I have tried to make Amazon aware of that hurt publishers’ sales:
1. In its review sections, it includes reviews of a book’s old edition. If a book was first self-published or previously published by another publisher, the reviews generated by these old editions will be kept permanently on the book’s site. So even if a previously published title has been completely rewritten and reedited, you can’t expunge those old reviews. Apparently at the Amazon school, books have “permanent records.”
2. If a prestigious newspaper or magazine runs a wonderfully positive review of a book and Amazon does not have a relationship with that periodical, it will not include the review on a book’s site.
3. This is a new one: Amazon will cite only one edition of a book at a time, even if that book is an old edition and out of print. It has refused to replace old out-of-print editions with up-to-date new editions. When I questioned Amazon about this insane policy, I got an email saying that it had forwarded my complaint to its “Development Team.” This major problem can only result in lost sales for both the publisher and Amazon.
On the other hand, I had a positive experience when one of my titles received a scathing review from a so-called reader. Much of what the review said was untrue. I was able to track it back to the person whose email address it came from, who told me he hadn’t sent it. I asked him to check the Amazon site, and when he saw his name attached to the review, he emailed Amazon that someone had used his name without his permission. I followed up with an email as well, and within two hours, a notice about identity theft appeared below the review, stating that the person submitting the review had broken the law. Two days later the bogus review was gone.
Square One Publishers
What Went Wrong with Warehousing
For very small publishing companies like mine, Amazon.com originally offered the ability to achieve parity with the large houses. The only bug for some small publishers was that the order time was listed as “six to eight weeks” even if we could fulfill immediately because Amazon didn’t warehouse our books. That wasn’t a problem for Chatoyant–buyers of poetry are generally patient people. But in response to small-publisher complaints, Amazon set up a new system that would warehouse copies of small publishers’ books.
I could have told Amazon that this wasn’t the right system for a company like mine–I sell few books through Amazon and benefited mostly because my books were findableon its site, which made them look more legitimate. Predictably, a couple of years ago Amazon cancelled this free program and replaced it with a fee-based system. This fee, which looks small to a bigger company, wiped out any possibility of my company making a profit on sales at Amazon.
I now class Amazon with Barnes & Noble, whose arcane book-listing system has caused us much difficulty, and I now no longer direct my Web-site buyers there. I’m sad that these changes have taken place, because I think the original system was the best: Amazon could truly be “the biggest bookstore on earth” because any publisher could list its books. Now that Amazon charges, it is missing a lot of small-press books, and Chatoyant has found other outlets.
I cannot say that I am thrilled with Amazon, nor can I say that I am furious with it. Its accounting records leave me exasperated, to say the least. Instead of directly billing its annual fee, the company deducts it from book sales, and it does so about a month after some sales. This leaves me trying to figure out exactly where Amazon deducted the fee and what it is paying me for. Amazon sends an email order for X number of books on its order number ABC, but when it sends money to my bank, it does not send me an email that says “We have paid you $$$ for order number ABC.” Other outlets selling my books always do this, and I have no problem tracking the sales, but Amazon seems to be behind the times for a site that sells so much to so many. And I certainly am not thrilled with the monies I receive from Amazon. But then, everyone goes to Amazon to buy books, so I feel I’m part of the collective whole.
Sheila G. McCurdy
While we have excellent sales and timely payments from Amazon, we are frustrated that we can’t get the company to correct the copy it has on a number of our books. We have sent in changes for several books a number of times, and we have yet to see corrected copy on Amazon’s site.
The Adventure Approach
We have found Amazon.com an invaluable marketing tool. However, there have been some major glitches. One morning we discovered our name had mysteriously been replaced with another publisher’s name–right in the middle of an email campaign to consumers. Fixing that one took about 10 days of emails and phone calls. Several times, our cover has disappeared, and we have had to resend artwork. Also, punctuation in text we send Amazon often converts to obscure symbols. Getting that fixed has sometimes taken months. And we have found Amazon incredibly slow to respond to submissions of new titles.
On the other hand, Amazon.com gives great credibility, especially to our titles that have been ranked higher than 1,000. The numbers are a nice library and book-trade marketing tool for us. And Amazon provides a good forum for us to promote our to consumers and those in the trade.
We have come to realize that our relationship with Amazon will always be an adventure–sometimes good and sometimes bad–but without Amazon it would be far more difficult for small publishers to market, promote, and generate quality sales.
Amazon as Icing
We are members of the Amazon Advantage program. In general, the program has been a positive experience.
We sell most of our books directly to consumers and bulk markets and not through traditional bookstores, and we view Amazon as one of our sales conduits. Obviously, we prefer to sell books through our own site to capture greater profits. However, many consumers remain hesitant to share credit-card information with an unknown publisher. Amazon’s credibility can make a difference with these buyers.
Also, Amazon’s marketplace presence and search-engine capabilities make a difference. We do not have such a strong brand. I believe many people find us by searching Amazon.com by topic, title, or category.
And it’s nice to have a backup online sales option for those times our site is having problems.
We have no complaints from a technical or operational perspective. Amazon’s order program works well for us. The only snafu was when we did not receive an email reorder message. I caught the problem when checking orders online, notified Amazon, and haven’t had any problems since.
Sending Amazon books in relatively small volume is costly, but manageable, especially when I remind myself these are icing sales on our marketing cake.
The Die-Hard Development Team
Here’s a response Amazon sent when a publisher asked about its practice of featuring old editions and burying new ones. In essence, the publisher’s question was, “Why won’t you feature the new edition when that would mean more sales for both of us?” Although the answer below seems to echo a perennial parenting favorite–”Because I said so”–the full explanation is apparently some version of, “Because our system uses sales history to determine which edition to highlight, and sales for brand-new editions are nonexistent or minimal.” To which the logical response may be, “Well, fix it. We’re both losing money this way and cheating customers in the process.”
Thanks for writing to Amazon.com. As you may already know, we recently changed the manner in which we present items on the initial search results page. In order to simplify the search results list, we now display only one entry per title and provide links to other available editions.
While we understand that a publisher or author’s desired edition may not appear as the initial item in the search results list, this search results feature is now operating as intended by Amazon.com’s Development Team. However, please know that the initial item is subject to change over time and the edition may differ depending on the type of search and the search terms being used.
We are unable to make manual changes to the initial item that appears in the search results list. The editions that appear are derived automatically by our system.
Thanks for your interest in Amazon.com.
Book Catalog Department