October 16, 2017

Amazon, third-party booksellers, and the ethics of knowingly screwing people over


As consumers may have noticed, this spring Amazon made a change to the way it lists new books for sale. In particular, the company began letting third-party booksellers list books for sale in the big buy box on a book’s page, seemingly inviting competition in their marketplace.

But wait. I fear I’m not quite capturing it. Maybe this is a better way to say it: Amazon took a massive turd on publishers, authors, and consumers, and got away with it. Again.

My need for deep breaths notwithstanding, Amazon’s policy of allowing third-party sellers to compete with them on their own site is another development in the ongoing saga of the etailer’s truly impressive malevolence. As has been outlined in Vox, HuffPo, and other media outlets, Amazon now encourages sellers—and, likely, resellers—to dramatically undercut publishers’ list prices, snagging the coveted, central buy button on a book’s page.

Take, for instance, our book Class, by Francesco Pacifico. It lists for $25.99. As I write this, the book is up for sale by a third party named Go_Peachy for the impressively impossible price of $3.96 (plus $3.99 for shipping). Of course, there’s no conceivable way we’d give anyone an eighty-five percent discount on a front list title. Entire crops of corn would perish. The Nile would turn to blood. We would go out of business. So how are they selling it so cheaply?

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, bestselling author and Author’s Guild board member Douglas Preston describes the gray world of book sales. Hurt books, remainders, and comp copies often end up in the hands of third-party sellers under what may be legal, but are ethically unaccountable, circumstances. In turn, these sellers, who acquire books far below carefully set prices, are able to undercut the market. This hurts actual bookstores (something Amazon isn’t), publishers (who have to write off such copies as losses), and authors (whose royalty reports won’t include these sales), absorbing away profits we need to keep making books.

What seems even more invidious is that books listed by third-party sellers as “new” are, in fact often not. The Author’s Guild bought a number of them, and found that many shipped as non-mint or previously used merchandise. I’ve also done this for Melville House books, and passed along complaints to Amazon. Amazon claims to remove violating sellers, but the problem seems fairly rampant. And ultimately, it’s not clear the company has much incentive to police its marketplace carefully, since Amazon benefits from all of these sales regardless. So what if consumers take a loss?

Preston goes on to summarize:

Amazon, in its drive to take over the book market, has made a change that, at least inadvertently, can mislead its own customers and be hurtful to authors. The Amazon action comes at a time when authors are struggling more than ever to make a living in the harsh economics of the digital marketplace. Amazon’s policy will help undermine authors’ incomes even further if it directs customers to “new” books for which the author receives no royalty.

Here comes another week. Let’s hope this one won’t have some kind of terrible Amazon news. Fingers crossed.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.