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The Curious Incident of the Red Tractor Rental in the Nighttime

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by Lee Klancher, Founder & Publisher, Octane Press —

Lee Klancher

As founder and publisher of Octane Press, I’d never seen a trade book offered for rent until I saw one of our own books on Amazon.

Late on the last Sunday evening in January 2020, I was happily exploring the features of my new book data management system. While cross-checking data listings, I noticed a very odd thing. Our book Red Tractors was available to rent from Amazon. The book retails for $75, and the rental price was a bargain basement $22.50.

My company, Octane Press, has published 140+ titles in the past 10 years, most of them in the transportation space. The list is modest enough that I can watch the books’ sales and listings closely—some might say obsessively—and I find the micro-trends visible in my company’s books a fascinating echo chamber for the industry as a whole.

Amazon is largely responsible for my change from working for a publisher to starting my own company, so I have a particular connection to and fascination with that platform. Ironically, I started my first book publishing job as a trade book acquisitions editor in July 1995—the same month and year Amazon started selling books.

Anyway, in my 25 years in this industry, I had not seen a trade book offered for rent.

I checked our other books’ listings on Amazon and, to my relief, found Red Tractors was the only Octane Press title for rent. I logged a complaint to Amazon via email, and the response sent me to the copyright division.

The copyright division at Amazon is essentially the kiss of death. We have dealt with Amazon’s copyright infringement emails in the past, and the process requires responding to a seemingly never-ending stream of repetitive canned email questionnaires. It’s frustrating to say the least.

With little hope, I sent my “Mystery Rental” complaint to the copyright at Amazon email, with ISBNs, screengrabs, links, and a promise of my first born if I received a coherent answer. The Amazon bots responded that what I sent was “incomplete.”

I resent my original email three times and was given that same canned response until Amazon finally declined to help at all with a canned (and largely irrelevant) response.

So, I requested a call from Amazon. Their operators are of wildly varying quality; some are helpful and well-informed, while others are robotic and of no use.

This representative was loquacious and speculative, and this is how he explained it:

  1. At some point, one of the Octane Press copies of Red Tractors was misplaced, damaged, or returned, and Amazon compensated us for that.
  2. At some later point, that copy was found, at which time, he said, according to our FBA contact, Amazon owned the stock as they had compensated my company for it.
  3. He said this gave Amazon the right to rent the book, as it is their property.
  4. He said there was no way to rectify this.
  5. He repeated number 4 several times in response to my increasing volume and tone.
  6. This wasn’t helpful for either of us.

After some fresh air and a glass of wine, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I rented the book from Amazon. My next move was to find the Amazon agreements that pertain to this, which were hidden deep in the bowels of the help menus of various systems.

After a second glass of wine and more digging, I found a clause in the lost and damaged clause in the FBA agreement that appeared to match the loquacious Amazon rep’s theories. The clause states: “Note: We may dispose of any item that we reimburse you for under this policy, including by selling it.”

That’s pretty clear: Amazon owns damaged books after it pays the publisher for them. But does that give them the right to rent books? Time for some legal advice.

A friend of mine referred me to a copyright attorney, Gretchen McCord with the Law Offices of Gretchen McCord PLLC. I explained the situation to her, and she responded quickly.

“When you entered into this contract with Amazon, you granted them the right to rent the book under the circumstances described in the contract, regardless of what the law says,” McCord wrote. “Without that contract, copyright law would allow Amazon to dispose of the book however it wishes, including by renting it out, only if it was the ‘owner’ of that copy. It is most likely that Amazon would be held to be the owner once it paid you for that copy.”

If a company buys a book, they can rent it out. Amazon has sold thousands of copies of Red Tractors, and it’s reasonable to assume they found or recovered a copy for which we had been compensated. They rent out textbooks, of course, and my guess is this recovered copy of Red Tractors slipped into the Amazon rental program. I doubt many consumers want to rent a trade book, so I don’t see this as much of a threat to my business in the short or long term.

Roughly 24 hours after I rented the copy of Red Tractors, the Amazon rental listing disappeared. A few days later, the book showed up at my doorstep with bent corners and no paperwork. Amazon was supposed to charge me another $20 to keep the book, which they neglected to do.

Bigger fish to fry, I imagine. As we all have today.

Lee Klancher is the publisher and founder of Octane Press, a book publishing company based in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @leeklancher. You can find more details about this situation (including screen grabs of the rental and Amazon communication) here.

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