Amazon’s "Buy Button" Policy Change Hurts Publishers and Authors
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Read Also: "An Amazon 'Buy Button' Call to Action" (June 19, 2017)
Read Also: "IBPA’s Fall 2017 Update on the Amazon Buy Button Policy Change" (October 5, 2017)
Dear IBPA Community,
On March 1, 2017, Amazon enacted a policy change that allows third-party sellers to compete for the Buy Box for books in “new” condition.
In case you’re not visualizing the Buy Box in your mind, it is this:
And, here it is on the right side of the screen next to a book’s description:
When you go to a product page on Amazon, the ADD TO CART Buy Box is the default offer. Other used options fall below the Buy Box. Where books are concerned, the default Buy Box has always belonged to the publisher. When you buy a book, Amazon pays the publisher 45% of the list price. This means your purchase is supporting the entity that published the book, namely the publisher, and authors are making a profit (albeit small) every time you buy because the publisher is paying an author royalty for each sale.
Now Amazon is giving that priority spot to third-party sellers, relegating the publisher button to a far less favorable position, below the landing page screen line, often last in a list of third-party sellers offering the book for a significantly lower cost in addition to free shipping. See the following example:
The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) believes Amazon’s policy change, allowing third-party sellers to compete for the Buy Box for books in “new” condition, hurts authors and publishers. Here’s why:
- Amazon, once again, is attempting to drive down the value of books, and therefore intellectual property and creative work in general. Under the new policy, Amazon is rewarding the seller that conforms to its rules (“competitive pricing”) by granting them the coveted Buy Box. Often this means dropping the publisher listing, and it’s not unlikely that publisher listings may fall off the buy page completely—at Amazon’s discretion.
- When a book is not obviously for sale by its publisher on Amazon, the author may not be making royalties. Although for now it seems that publisher listings are on Amazon, it takes a savvy consumer to even understand what they’re buying—and most will go for the lowest-cost item, especially if it’s in the coveted Buy Box position.
- While in some cases authors may still be making royalties off of third party sales, these sellers may also be obtaining books in ways that will not result in author compensation.
- They might be a used bookstore that cheaply buys stock back from consumers.
- They might troll book bins where people recycle books.
- They might have relationships with distributors and wholesalers where they buy “hurts” (often good enough quality to be considered “new”) at a super low cost.
- They might have connections to reviewers who get more books than they can handle and are looking to offload.
- And on and on.
In all cases above, the books sold on Amazon would not qualify as sales for the purposes of author royalties because they’ve already been sold, or originally existed as promotional copies. And even for those third-party sellers buying books through wholesale channels, the question arises of how Amazon is measuring “new.”
If consumers don’t see the option to buy new, from the publisher, then Amazon is promoting piracy. Authors get nothing from used books because the consumer is buying something that’s already been bought and tracked as a sale. If this new policy takes hold for most backlist books, authors’ and publishers’ revenue will dry up, and more and more books are at risk of going out of print more quickly. Publishers will not be able to afford to keep books in print that are not selling on Amazon. So, this policy is essentially driving books to an earlier death—and thereby hurting authors.
Amazon suggests that one of the ways you can win the Buy Box is to keep books “in stock.” This poses a major problem for self-published authors and any backlist author whose books are print-on-demand. Print-on-demand automatically means there’s no stock. The books are printed to order. If Amazon is penalizing books that are set up as POD titles and favoring third-party sellers who have stock due to any of the abovementioned means of procurement, authors will again be dinged when their own listing, or publisher listing, ranks low on the list of “Other Sellers on Amazon.” We can only suppose that Amazon will not penalize or remove books that are listed with CreateSpace—and as Amazon moves away from CreateSpace to consolidate its print and e-book self-publishing program onto Kindle, it will be interesting to note how often those books get the coveted Buy Box position for doing business with Amazon.
If indie publishers can't get into bookstores and are being cut off at the knees by Amazon-induced piracy, then the future is grim indeed. As a community of indie publishers, we should be very bothered by this new policy. Amazon is a mammoth player in the publishing space and it can do much to either help or hurt the publishing industry. Their new third-party seller policy is potentially terrorizing, in that it is likely to result in publishers selling fewer copies and ultimately being forced to declare backlist books out of print.
IBPA will continue to research and monitor this situation and inform our members of any changes to the policy. In the meantime, we welcome reactions and additional scenarios in the comments section below.
The members of IBPA's Board of Directors:
- Angela Bole, IBPA Chief Executive Officer
- Peter Goodman, Publisher, Stone Bridge Press (IBPA Board Chair)
- Robert Price, Publisher, Price World Publishing (IBPA Board Treasurer)
- Elizabeth Turnbull, Senior Editor & Partner, Light Messages Publishing (IBPA Secretary)
- Brooke Warner, Publisher, She Writes Press (IBPA Board of Directors & Executive Committee)
- Ian Lamont, Founder, i30 Media (IBPA Board of Directors & Executive Committee)
- Leslie Browning, Founder & Senior Editor, Homebound Publications (IBPA Board of Directors)
- Robin Cutler, Director, IngramSpark (IBPA Board of Directors)
- Keith Garton, President & Publisher, Red Chair Press (IBPA Board of Directors)
- Shannon Okey, Publisher, Cooperative Press (IBPA Board of Directors)
- Karla Olson, Director, Patagonia Books (IBPA Board of Directors)
- Joshua Tallent, Director of Outreach & Education, Firebrand Technologies (IBPA Board of Directors)
- Mark Wesley, Owner, me+mi publishing (IBPA Board of Directors)
In April 2017, the publisher of SparkPress was emailed by an author who said her book was no longer being listed on Amazon—at all—as available from SparkPress. When one typed in the title of her book, the only listings that came up were from third-party sellers. Amazon’s policy states that “eligible sellers will be able to compete for the buy box,” but in this case, SparkPress had been completely wiped off Amazon as an eligible seller in any capacity, without being notified.
Seal Press’ Second Wind by Cami Ostman experienced the same scenario. When you click on the product page for Second Wind, here’s what you see:
Note the paperback price: $3.23. Note the seller: Meadowland Media. At first glance, Seal Press’ listing could not be found, but it turned out to be there, just four buttons down and below the sight line of the landing page.
One must assume Meadowland is selling a used book as “new” in this scenario. Why? If they were purchasing the book wholesale they would have paid as much as 60% off the list price. So, they would have bought the book for $6.80. The only logical conclusion is that this seller is selling a used book, or a book they got for free in some capacity.
The impact this scenario could have on publishers’ backlist (typically meaning any book that’s six months or older) is devastating, especially because consumers don’t understand what’s going on here. When you search for this book, it looks as if the only listing that’s available is through Meadowland Media because the search function leads to a page where the only visibility you have is that Second Wind is $3.23. This screen shot says that there are “more buying options” but those buying options alert you to the 25-cent copy, not the copy being sold by the publisher for $10.62.
Small publishers are dependent on backlist sales for their livelihood. Amazon is a Herculean player when it comes to backlist sales because bookstores favor front-list books. If you’re looking for a book that’s a year old or more, you’re likely to go to Amazon to find it. Second Wind was published in 2010, but the way Amazon has set up this listing, it’s as if the book were out of print with the publisher. It’s not.