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Blind-Sided by Amazon

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I am the Publisher of Gauntlet Press, a specialty firm that publishes signed limited editions of classic titles (Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Star Caravan, Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time, to name just three) and the works of contemporary authors (F. Paul Wilson, Poppy Z. Brite, Peter Straub, etc.). We publish six signed limiteds per year and sell our books to individuals through our Web site and mailing list, specialty dealers and Amazon.com. That is, until last week.

In the past, several months prior to a new title’s publication, I would go to the publishers page on Amazon.com and fill out a form to list our title as a Special Order. I would also forward a .jpg of the cover art. Once the book was listed (within a week), I could provide additional information (publisher’s comments, reviews, interviews, and author’s comments). I decided what discount would be available. Amazon.com paid for shipping. Orders came directly to me. Once the title became available, I would ship the very next day.

Aside from exposing the book to the world (we’ve received e-mails from Poland, Israel, Japan, and Australia regarding books of ours purchased on Amazon.com), a major benefit was getting paid up front. With the purchase order was Amazon.com’s credit card number, which I could run through immediately. Payment was instantaneous. No paperwork. No waiting 30, 60, or 90 days for payment. It seemed almost too good to be true.


It was.


When I went to register a forthcoming title last week, I wasn’t able to list it. With no notice whatsoever, Amazon.com had changed its policy. To be listed, your title had to be carried by Ingram or Baker & Taylor (two of the largest distributors in the country). Or you could opt for Amazon.com’s Advantage Program.

Chilling consequences

So what’s the problem? Well, Ingram and Baker & Taylor and the Amazon.com Advantage Program take a 55% cut on all titles, plus the publisher pays for shipping. Ingram and Baker & Taylor have a return policy. (They can return any book for any reason. Baker & Taylor can do so for six months; Ingram, for as long as the title is in print.) Ingram pays in 90 days; Baker & Taylor, in 60 days.


The ramifications of this change in policy can be enormous not just for a specialty press like Gauntlet. A great many small presses that focus on poetry or literary fiction that the mass market won’t touch, new authors who have little name recognition, or controversial material will suffer.

The small/specialty press will lose an incredible amount of money as a result of this policy change. When we could list a title as a Special Order, we looked at our costs and decided what discount to provide, whether it was 0, 10%, 20%, or 30%. Now you automatically have to allocate 55%. Take a book that sells for $40. With the discount, you take in $18 per book. Not $18 in profit, mind you. You have printing costs (which can be steep for small print runs), shipping charges (which Ingram and Baker & Taylor require you to pay), costs for cover and interior art, advertising, and… oh yes, the author’s royalty. If a publisher clears $5 profit per book, they’re lucky. Yes, those of us in the specialty press may love books more than money but we do have rent to pay and food to put on the table. With this new policy, we’re almost giving books away. In fact, if you have a book priced at $20 and you have to give the distributor $11 plus pay your expenses, you could well lose money on the title. Some publishers will be squeezed out.

How does this change the way I evaluate a project? Well, I can’t take a chance on an unknown author, or on many mid-list authors we’ve published in the past. And you can forget about anthologies unless a big name is attached. They are more expensive to produce (in a signed limited format).

How does this change book publishing in general? Many mid-list authors reinvigorated their careers through the small or specialty press. The late-Richard Laymon was extremely prolific, but until the specialty press began publishing signed limited editions of his novels, he was virtually unknown in this country. As a result of both critical and commercial success with his specialty press titles, he finally landed a mass market paperback contract. The specialty press will be reluctant to take on projects from authors like Laymon if their profit-margin is cut to almost nothing. New, unknown authors who don’t yet have a fan base will be hurt even more, with the reader the ultimate victim.

The disadvantages of Advantage

But what about Amazon.com’s Advantage Program? some will ask. With the Advantage Program, Amazon.com basically acts as a distributor, like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Check their guidelines. They take a 55% non-negotiable cut. They say the advantage is you can list publisher’s comments, author’s comments, reviews, and interviews. But when the Special Order option was available, I could do that without paying 55%.

For Advantage Program publishers, Amazon.com will display cover art. I scanned and forwarded Amazon.com cover art and it cost me nothing for a Special Order title. Look now at the fine print and you see that in the Advantage Program a book won’t be displayed until it’s actually published. With the Special Order option, I was able to list a book six months prior to publication. Even Ingram and Baker & Taylor provide better service in this regard. They encourage you to list a book prior to publication, and then they post it on Amazon.com right away.

So publishers are shooting themselves in the foot by going with the Advantage Program. If a book generates pre-publication buzz (via galley proofs, reviews, advertising), numerous orders can be pending prior to pub date if it’s listed early on Amazon.com. One of the books we published received orders for more than 100 copies from Amazon.com the day it saw publication-after it had been listed for months on Amazon.com as a Special Order title and orders had already been taken. (Note: This early posting can still occur if you’re with Ingram or Baker & Taylor.)

In addition, being paid immediately with Special Orders allowed us to pay a good portion of our printing bill. With the Advantage Program, which requires waiting to list the book until it is physically available, you get paid once a month. This is better than the other distributors, but not as good as with a Special Order title.

Where do we go from here?

What can and should be done? In the best of all worlds, there would be a great outcry from libraries and the specialty press, buttressed by organizations that provide services for this segment of the book community. The adverse publicity could force Amazon.com to rethink their decision and reinstate Special Orders.

Compromise is possible too. When I spoke with a representative at Amazon.com, I was told the reason for the change was the bottom line. Amazon.com wants to generate profits. I can sympathize. I want to generate profits for Gauntlet Press. Why not agree to allow listing of Special Order titles at a 20-30% discount? I could live with that. Amazon.com would profit, as well.

Many like to condemn Amazon.com for a variety of reasons. Until this past week, there was nothing negative I could say about the company. They opened the world to books offered by small and specialty press publishers. They prepaid. There was no need to generate time-consuming paperwork. Now they’ve become just another distributor out to make a buck. Without immediate action, the impact on specialty and small presses, as well as on mid-list and unknown authors, may well be devastating. And that is the bottom line.

Barry Hoffman is the Publisher of Gauntlet Press (www.gauntletpress.com), the Editor/Publisher of “Gauntlet” magazine (the only mass market publication focusing on censorship), and the author of four published novels-“Hungry Eyes,””Eyes of Prey,””Born Bad,” and “Judas Eyes.” Gauntlet Press won the 1999 Horror Writers Association (HWA) award for Best Small Press. Hoffman was a nominee this year for the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award because of censorship of his novel “Born Bad.”

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