Experimenting with EDI
by Bob Adjemian
For many years, I’ve thought about the fact that big publishing companies place orders electronically through a protocol called EDI (for electronic data interchange), and as a tecchie, I’ve been intrigued. Although I found the price tag daunting, I kept wondering whether I should be using it too.
Explained simply, EDI is a machine-to-machine way to process orders. It lets a publisher acknowledge receipt of an order and send a tracking number for the shipment (ASN) and an invoice to the buyer electronically; no humans needed once you have confirmed price, checked stock, and created the invoice. The buyer receives the electronic invoice immediately, along with the information about what is in each box, and, ideally, has you set up to be paid.
For both the publisher and the buyer, the system cuts processing and billing paperwork and labor. No doubt, the savings are a boon to corporations that buy and ship millions of dollars worth of merchandise. But what about smaller publishers? Does it make sense for us to embrace EDI?
Companies that do annual business with Baker & Taylor totaling more than $30,000 have no choice in the matter. B&T requires that they use EDI. But publishers with less than $30,000 annual gross sales volume at B&T are not required to use it for dealing with that wholesaler; instead, they are “to make every effort to provide EDI ordering capabilities.”
Amazon has a different approach for small presses. It created a Web site with full online EDI ability where you can receive orders and submit ASNs and invoice. It’s slow and tedious if you have many orders, but it gets the job done, and there’s no extra charge.
Seeing for Myself
One day, after dealing with many orders and Amazon’s slow online entry method and online invoicing, I decided to take a hard look at EDI.
I quickly found that prices continue to be high. Most services seem to charge about $1,000 just to get started. There is a setup fee, a per-vendor fee for setup, a general monthly fee, and a charge by the kilobyte for transmitted and received data. These costs add up quickly.
After searching for a while, I found an EDI service in Texas that charged only $150 for setup, including the per-vendor fee for the first vendor. At first glance, it didn’t seem to be as well organized as competing services but, given the low cost and the projected cost saving, I decided to give it a try.
Then I had to notify Amazon that I was going to use EDI. This required setting up a user account so the service could log in and monitor the progress of the EDI setup. Amazon, for its part, would work with the service to make sure everything happened according to its specs.
My involvement was minimal after I set up the new account, and all seemed to proceed smoothly.
Finally, we got our first EDI orders. An email from the EDI service notified us that we had received an 850 and referred us to the Amazon EDI Web site.
You have to learn quickly that 850 means purchase order. Because they can be unambiguous, EDI uses numbers, not names.
810 = Invoice
850 = Purchase Order
860 = Purchase Order Change
869 = Order Status Inquiry
Right away, I had a problem. The EDI orders listed only ISBNs, quantity, and price, but we organize our shelves by title. So I had to download and print the purchase order from the Amazon Web site to give my staff the titles of the books they needed to pick and pack. Plus I still had to print the packing list, provide a shipping date, and confirm the order manually.
At a separate EDI level, I also had to confirm the order electronically, and I had to enter correct prices and the like. The whole job was complicated because the Web page we had to go to was not user-friendly. I had to learn by emails back and forth that some spaces on the page had to be filled in; others were to be ignored.
Next, we had to submit the tracking number for each shipment. Because there were many ways to do this, it was extremely confusing. The goal seemed to be to cover every possible scenario. Were we putting the same book in each box, or multiple titles? What were the exact contents of each box? Each tracking number had to be matched with a package.
Once we submitted the ASN, we could submit an invoice but, again, using only numbers, not titles.
Then a new glitch occurred. Amazon complained that there was a problem with the EDI invoices. Perhaps it was a teething issue, but at this point, I threw in the towel.
Please note that I am reporting only about my own experiences with one EDI company, and only about using EDI with Amazon as a vendor. Different vendors have their own requirements and characteristics. Your results may vary. What I’m saying is that, judging by my experience, EDI is too expensive and cumbersome for a small press.
Bob Adjemian is general manager at Vedanta Press in Hollywood, CA. To learn more: vedanta.com.