Author’s Guild Rails at Amazon’s Buy-Box

(This post might be more interesting to the writers among us, but readers and buyers-of-books are also affected by the dynamics of this issue.)

Author’sGuild.org recently posted an article discussing a change in Amazon’s algorithms regarding who gets top billing in what is called the “buy box” of books – apparently the display at the top that lists all available formats and the relative prices. As you might know, a little farther down appear links to other retailers offering “used” or “new” copies of the books.

Currently, Amazon places itself in the prime “buy box” spot, as the first buy-option people see, but according to the article Amazon intends to use metrics to allow third-party retailers the chance to get in that prize spot. (Amazon gets its stock from the publishers, but acts as the distributor itself.)

Author’s Guild (AG) is incensed at the suggested change, but on reading their article I find their arguments less than compelling.

For instance, they claim:

…when the buy button is assigned to a third-party seller because its prices are lower and it can deliver quickly, most of the sales will be redirected to that third-party seller.

At first glance, this sounds like a good thing for consumers: they get the product they want at a cheaper price!

But AG asserts:

The problem with this outcome from an author’s perspective is that neither the publisher nor the author gets a cent back from those third-party sales. Only Amazon and the reseller share in the profits.

This doesn’t make sense to me, or to my dad (who is an experienced, clear-headed individual). After all, unless these “third-party” sellers are illicitly printing and selling copies of these books, they must be distributing copies that were already printed and sold by the author/publisher – which means the author/publisher was already paid for those books.

AG does suggest:

…most second-hand sellers today are slower than Amazon at fulfilling hard-copy purchases…

and if that’s taken into consideration in Amazon’s algorithm, the fact that some sellers are offering books for as little as 1¢ might not count as much (apparently they make their profit in the shipping fees).

Where are all these books coming from? AG says:

Some surmise that they are review copies…. Could they be returns from bookstores that never made it back to the publisher? Did they fall off the back of a truck? We don’t know. What we do know is … that there appear to be enough of these copies available that they could replace sales for the truly new copies—those that bring money to the publisher and royalties to the author.

That can’t be the whole story, though, because my novel – available only through Amazon and their subsidiary CreateSpace – also has third-party offerings ranging from $1.50 cheaper (not including shipping) to more than double the price. How does this make sense? I’ve always assumed that the third-parties sellers were buying from Amazon, then reselling the books, collecting a commission on the transaction, but the presence of a $20.00 copy (that ships from Japan of all places!) of a $9.95 book suggests it’s a bot function – which means we shouldn’t get exercised about it.

As for books that “fell off the back of a truck” — thievery is something to take up with the police and the parties/sellers responsible, not Amazon.

Of course, this whole issue is of less concern to self-published authors like myself, who don’t have a publisher in the mix looking for compensation and who can distribute my books as I like.

AG seems worried that Amazon is a monopoly in the book-distribution arena, and while (as my dad put it) they are “the 800 lb gorilla in this particular room”, they do have competitors. Lulu.com (for print-on-demand services), Google itself, and Smashwords (for ebook distribution) are the ones my dad mentioned. Amazon does have a massive advantage as the go-to center for online shopping, but railing at their algorithms is not going to teach customers to shop elsewhere. And if anyone’s going to start complaining about Amazon’s greed…

That knife can cut both ways. Again, self-published authors have more leeway in price-setting and distribution outlets, but publishers themselves should also take note: they now have the chance to get their own distribution of their book into Amazon’s proprietary “buy box” — How? By being a better buy for the consumer.

Having all your eggs in Amazon’s basket makes it imperative that you follow their changes and strategies closely, but it also reminds us to keep the customer/reader foremost in our minds.

Yes, Amazon is trying to do what’s best for itself – but it’s also trying to do what’s best for the people spending money on its site.

Instead of whining about lost income (“This has the potential to decimate authors’ and publishers’ earnings from many books, especially backlist books” — a misuse of “decimate” by the way) authors – and publishers – might do better to focus on how to provide better value to their customers and so ensure that, no matter what algorithm Amazon cooks up, their loyal fans will find it worthwhile to seek them out.

Another complaint AG makes is:

[Amazon] has devalued books by setting the price and consumer expectations for ebooks and hard copy books artificially low…

Thing is, we’ve heard this doomsday speech before. In the early 20th Century, it was “Penny Dreadfuls” (cheap paperbacks that were going to “ruin” consumer expectations). Before that, the printing press was the end of literature because it undermined the market of hand-written manuscripts.

Successful authors don’t make their customers their enemies (see “digital rights management“) — rather, they adapt their strategies to the changing times so that their offerings are more attractive than the competition’s.


Short portions of the original Author’s Guild article have been included for purposes of review and comparison, and are not the property of this blog.

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