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10/05/2006

Comments

Mike Perry

Your "sticky one" comment brings up the downside of your otherwise useful market strategy. It has the small publisher putting virtually all his sales "eggs" into Amazon's basket. As I am sure you realize, that's risky.

About 2001 I had a frustrating telephone conversation with Amazon's legal department about how it was displaying our edition of Arthur Balfour's classic Theism and Humanism. The book had gone into a second edition and someone who knew how to "game" their system was offering a supposedly used copy of our first edition for about $50. Keep in mind that both editions are $14.95 paperback reprints of a 1915 original that sells today to collectors for perhaps $20. Neither is worth $50.

Because that used copy seemed to offer Amazon far more profit than the small markup on our second edition, the results for some searches for the title on Amazon ONLY displayed the overpriced used version. Nothing else. Our far-cheaper paperback was completely invisible. Other types of searches, which apparently did not use that "maximize Amazon profit" algorithm, would display our inexpensive edition.

Amazon legal did not deny that this was happening or that it wasn't deliberate. They admitted that what a potential customer sees when they search is at least sometimes only what makes Amazon the most money. Since then, I've noticed that sometimes less profitable editions seem to be there but less easy to notice.

More recently, G. K. Chesterton's "The Ballad of the White Horse" was listed among five best books on a particular theme (tales of war) by the Wall Street Journal. For a few days, sales of our version, part of a collection called G. K. Chesterton's Early Poetry, were quite brisk, although perhaps not as brisk as they should have been. Again, it seemed to be how Amazon was gaming search results.

If I remember right, we had the least expensive paperback edition and our edition included other Chesterton poetry, making it the best deal by far. But when users searched for the title, they didn't get a list of all titles. They were sent directly to our hardback, which even I would admit was rather pricey. (It was intended for libraries and I had to pass along the high cost of Lightning hardbacks.) That's when what Amazon did got rather bizarre. The page for our hardback appeared to list a paperback edition, but people who clicked on it were sent to someone else's more expensive paperback. Only by playing around with various searches and looking down lists could you find one that took you to our paperback edition. Weird, but certainly consistent with a policy of showing website visitors search results that maximize Amazon profits.

That's why I've stuck with full discounts for our books. It gets them in some bookstores and, by giving Amazon more flexibility in their pricing, keeps a book from falling into the "black hole" Amazon reserves for books with low profit margins.

One moral of this rather sad tale is that publishers should encourage those who want to buy their book through Amazon to search using the ISBN. That does seem to always get to the title.

A SUGGESTION: Someone with the proper technical skills should offer small print-on-demand publishers an online alternative to Amazon, one that would give us the no-hassle, no inventory advantages of doing print on demand through Lightning without making us so dependent on Amazon for sales.

It'd work something like this. If you set up an account and send them properly formatted data, Ingram will already direct-ship Lightning titles to customers for a publisher . For a small publisher with a few titles, all the hassles of creating an online store to do that make doing it alone a poor idea.

But suppose anyone publishing via Lightning/Ingram could set up an account with a third party, either a business or a co-operative, who'd handle all the billing and data processing. A small publisher could have what appeared to be his own direct-order online store without the hassle of maintaining it himself. He'd get the publisher slice of the profit and the sort of markup Amazon gets without running an online store or being dependent on Amazon's whims.

Even better would be an online store that pools all Lightning publishers who want to join in one large, virtual online store with enough titles that many users would check out prices there. Since small publishers could quit at any time, they would be its primary clients, so it would be run for them without Amazon's games. It could even, with a few exceptions, offer prices that were guaranteed to match or better Amazon's. And this alternative would give publishers control over how their books come up in searches, how they are priced, and how they are displayed.

Most important of all, it'd offer something that authors and publishers desperately need--a competitor to Amazon that will pressure it to be more accountable. Amazon is very close to being a monopoly, and that's bad news for almost everyone.

--Mike Perry, editor of Chesterton on War (out in January)

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