For a forward-looking company that has revolutionized the way books are sold, Amazon.com has been extremely backward when it comes to recognizing and correcting at least one problem that is hurting its sales and the sales of its book suppliers.
The problem revolves around new editions. As several PMA members have pointed out, there’s a glitch when a publisher releases a new edition, with or without a new ISBN. Even if the publisher has notified Amazon of the change–duly noted it in emails, the only acceptable form of communication–the results are the same.
A would-be customer plugs in the title and up pops the old edition. That old edition may be incorrectly labeled as “temporarily out of stock” or correctly classified as “out of print.” But whatever its actual or alleged status, the important point is that the new edition–the one that’s up to date and available, the one customers would surely prefer if they knew it existed—doesn’t surface.
What that translates into is lost sales and disappointed customers. Customers who aren’t aware of the new book may leave the Amazon site without hitting the Submit Order button. Or they may end up ordering a book that is obsolete, even as obsolete as a title about the 2003 tax code when the reader needs to know about regulations governing returns for 2004.
Although many PMA members are quick to point out that they are pleased in general with Amazon, others are angry about the way it handles many aspects of its relationship with publishers, and all seem mystified by this particular frustrating glitch.
“How are you serving the customer by not having the most up-to-date version of a book posted?” asks Kaye Thomas, founder of Fairmark Press Inc. “That’s the thing. It’s so completely contrary to [Jeff Bezos’s] business philosophy.”
Echoing Thomas’s comments, Rudy Shur, publisher of Square One Publishers, adds, “In spite of billing themselves as having one of the most advanced ways of selling books, Amazon has some really antipublishing policies.” [See “Applauding Amazon,” in this issue, and previous installments of Amazon reports in the February and March issues.]
In Search of an Explanation
Getting around the new edition glitch can turn into a real odyssey for a book publisher. Judging by anecdotal evidence, it can take anywhere from six months to a year to make a new edition surface. And even then, the fix occurs more because the problem resolves itself than because of any intervention by Amazon. Eventually, it seems, enough consumers find the new edition to boost its sales and get it to show first when people do a search.
The reason for the pop-goes-the-old-edition snafu? Although Amazon won’t say, it appears to have several parts:
- Some publishers believe the culprit is the way Amazon’s software is written. When a buyer types in a title, Amazon’s site will post the edition that sold the most. A new edition hasn’t sold any copies, so the old one comes up first.
- Because Amazon tries to keep overhead low by automating as much as possible, it relies on the computer to list books instead of involving a person, who might catch the new edition error.
- Amazon tries to limit manual changes to its listings to save money.
- The online bookseller has streamlined listings so consumers won’t be confronted with a confusing display of titles.
- Finally, Amazon says it wants to save readers money by offering copies of the old edition as used books.
What’s also unclear is whether or not there’s a quick fix. Is the solution just a matter of rewriting some code, solving an intractable technical difficulty, or getting Amazon’s slow-to-move bureaucracy to stop jamming up the works?
Amazon has taken some small steps toward explicitly recognizing that there is a problem. Not too long ago, no one at the site would admit that. Publishers who sent emails–the only complaint method available–would get what read like a computer-generated response stating: “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….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.”
Apparently, Amazon is no longer entirely in denial, but it also doesn’t want to give out a lot of detail about the problem or possible solutions. When I asked in February about the new-edition glitch, an Amazon public relations person wrote in an email response: “I can tell you that we are aware of this and looking into it, as we’re always working to improve our systems to offer a better experience and want to be surfacing the most relevant and current search results for customers.”
After I told her that PMA members had cited chapter and verse about their complaints and that Amazon might be better served by addressing the issue in greater depth, the public relations staffer declined to elaborate on her statement, but she did say she’d welcome an opportunity to see more specific questions raised by PMA members. (See “Show Them the Specifics” below.)
Time Costs Money
Probably what bugs independent book publishers the most is that when Amazon lists an old edition instead of a new one, there’s no way to correct the listing. All you can do is submit emails documenting the snafu and asking the site to start featuring the current edition. This usually elicits canned replies until, finally, the old-versus-new-edition problem goes away after sales of the new edition have somehow mounted up enough that it supplants the old edition as top seller.
But all’s not well that just ends well. The time lag between the moment the new edition comes out and the moment it shows up at Amazon is costly for publishers in terms of sales, productivity, and aggravation.
Although none of the publishers interviewed for this story can document exactly how much this problem has cost them, just looking at the diminished sales trail is enlightening. When the One Page Business Plan Company came out with The One Page Business Plan in a new improved edition, for instance, the title’s sales fell from 150 to 200 books a month–numbers that had put it among the top sellers in the business plan category–to 20 books a month. “It’s a year later, and we’re at about 160 books a month,” says Jim Horan, president and CEO of the Berkeley, California, publisher. “It’s taken us almost a year to recover.”
Then there’s simply the time spent sending emails to Amazon instead of tending to other aspects of business. Thomas of Fairmark Press estimates he spent about six hours emailing Amazon about the new-edition problem. He even wrote to Amazon president and founder Jeff Bezos about it and, not surprisingly, didn’t get a response. “After a while I stopped hitting my head on the wall,” Thomas says.
He goes on to say: “A year ago we had new editions for two of our books come out at the same time. We spent a lot of time trying to explain the problem to Amazon. We kept getting a form email from them. I kept writing–Look, please have a real live person read this email and understand what the problem is….If they had just listened and acknowledged the problem, it would have helped a lot.”
Where or when will it end? For now, publishers aren’t satisfied with how Amazon is dealing with the problem. Although many want to make it clear that Amazon helps more than hinders them in their sales efforts–”My overall impression of them is wonderful,” says Fairmark’s Thomas; “we’ve just had this one aggravating issue”–a lot of independent publishers are seething. It’s like being in a romantic relationship where you love everything about the person except that he or she snores. Sure, you won’t divorce your mate over the issue, but you are losing a lot of sleep over it. The new-edition snafu may be Amazon’s version of snoring. Hopefully, the giant will wake up soon and stop destroying the sleep of its bedmates in the publishing industry.
Jenny C. McCune is a freelance business writer. She began her career as an assistant to the vice president of sales of what was then Viking Penguin Inc. USA, and she continues to follow the publishing industry. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show Them the Specifics
Now that a public relations person at Amazon has said that she would welcome an opportunity to see more specific questions raised by PMA members, you’re invited to send detailed reports about sales you’ve lost because of Amazon’s old-edition-pops-up practice.
Please quantify lost sales as thoroughly as possible, using the kinds of figures Jim Horan presented when he spoke with Jenny McCune for this piece and/or other kinds of measurements, and send your facts and figures to email@example.com.
The information you’ve sent so far is grist for this mill too, of course, but the more quantitative data you can send, the more powerful our presentations to Amazon can be.