More about Amazon
Here are links to two more articles about Amazon; one about the basics of publishing with Amazon, and one about the ongoing tension between Amazon and the Publishers' Guild, including more details on the third party seller controversy.
What is Happening with Amazon Buy Box?
No one is at the controls.
Editors Note: In this piece, Erica Meltzer, founder of the popular test prep series The Critical Reader, examines how the changes to Amazon's "buy box" policy have changed the distribution landscape for self-published authors.
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I had been self-publishing since 2011, when I released my first book, The UltimateGuide to SAT® Grammar. It had done well—exceptionally well for a self-published book, in fact—and so a year later, I decided to write a guide for the reading portion of the exam. The Critical Reader: The Complete Guide to SAT® Reading was published in 2013 and almost immediately became the Amazon top-selling book for the reading portion of the SAT (once known as the “Scholastic Achievement Test,” the infamous standardized admissions test required by most colleges in the United States).
Shortly after that book was published, however, the College Board announced its intention to redesign the exam and, concerned about the stability of the SAT prep-book market, I decided to turn my attention to the SAT’s rival test, the ACT® (once the American College Test but now an empty acronym as well) and produce an equivalent set of books for that exam. Later, as I rewrote my SAT books for the new test, I discovered I had leftover material that was still relevant to a whole raft of other verbal tests*. That’s how, in the spring of 2017, I found myself the author of an entire series of verbal guides.
Since the beginning, I had been publishing through CreateSpace, the self-publishing arm of Amazon (now merged with Kindle Direct Publishing), which had a number of advantages.
· The most advantageous royalty structure for print books.
· The publishing process was extremely simple.
· I could list the books on Amazon as soon as they were published.
· I could even sell to schools, libraries, and bookstores via Expanded Distribution—and I received regular bulk orders through that program.
My Amazon sales were sufficiently strong that despite reports of the traditional bookstore’s imminent demise, expanding into bookstores seemed to be the next logical step. I was encouraged by the fact that Barnes & Noble was already offering my books on its website and that at least one New York City retail store was carrying copies. Still, I assumed the process might have some hiccups. (After my first book had sold around 5,000 copies, I sent a query letter to Barnes & Noble, only to receive a rejection on the grounds that self-published books typically sold no more than a few hundred copies.) What I did not expect was to find myself caught in the crosshairs of a battle between Amazon and traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.
Fully aware that bookstores are notoriously hesitant to carry books by self-published authors, regardless of their success, I discussed my options with two experienced self-publishing consultants; both told me bluntly that I would need to list my books on Ingram Spark—indeed, that was my only option if I wanted bookstores to even consider my titles, since they were unlikely to consider anything printed by Amazon—and reassured me that publishing my books on that platform would not affect my Amazon sales. I assumed they knew the business well enough to understand the potential pitfalls, but even so, I had an odd feeling about the situation. At the same time, though, it seemed absurd that my titles were outselling all of their major big-box-publisher competitors on Amazon and yet couldn’t be purchased at a local bookstore. And with an established company and website, it also seemed natural for my next set of editions to be published under my own imprint and my own ISBN numbers. And so, in the spring of 2017, I set about reformatting and updating my books with an eye towards appealing to traditional bookstore customers.
In September 2017, I began uploading my books to Ingram. For the first month, nothing happened. My Amazon sales remained normal, and I quickly sold hundreds of copies on Ingram. But then, at the beginning of October, something strange happened: my Amazon sales dropped by more than 80% literally overnight. At first, I wasn’t particularly concerned. I was accustomed to occasional irregularities in royalty reporting, but after two weeks, it was clear that there was a problem. I checked a few of my books’ Amazon pages and found something I’d never seen before: instead of having Amazon listed as the primary seller, as had always been the case previously, an online bookseller in Texas—and a rather sketchy-looking one, at that—was now listed as the primary seller of my major SAT and ACT books. Five books in total. Perplexed, I called CreateSpace and inquired how a bookseller in Texas had suddenly become the main agent of my books on Amazon. As I was told, Amazon had changed its policy the previous spring: any third party could now compete for a book’s “Buy Box” and get listed as the primary seller. It was no longer guaranteed that Amazon would be the primary seller of my books.
How had I missed such a massive policy shift? And just as importantly, how had the people advising me missed it as well? How could no one have warned me this could happen? Over the next few days, I read every article I could find about the change. The consensus seemed to be that it was too soon to fully understand how things would play out, and that publishers would simply have to wait and see.
I, however, could not afford to do that. The most pressing question was how an online retailer in Texas had managed to acquire sufficient amounts of inventory to get listed as the primary seller. I had received no large orders, either through Amazon or through my website (where I sold the books directly as well); and given that the books retailed for between $20 and $30, they would be prohibitively expensive for almost any reseller, especially once shipping costs were figured in. I also checked the website of the Texas seller and discovered, to my further befuddlement, that my most recent editions were not even listed in their inventory. If they didn’t have the books, how could they get listed as the primary seller on Amazon, let alone sell them at all?
After several days of panic, I finally put two and two together: the Texas seller was ordering from Ingram. Of course. Everyone had told me that bookstores would only order from Ingram, but I had somehow missed the fact that the opposite was not true: Ingram did not only sell to bookstores or established physical retailers. In fact, any online reseller could get access to its wholesale catalogue. There was no way to restrict sales to major retailers such as Barnes & Noble, which clearly would not compete for the Amazon Buy Box. And because orders could be placed electronically, the books could be drop-shipped; the company in Texas didn’t even need to keep inventory in stock. Yes, I would receive royalties when books were ordered via Ingram, but the rate would be only about half of what it was through CreateSpace. If I kept the books on Ingram, my business stood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I promptly logged into my Ingram account and disabled my two top-selling titles from distribution—and sure enough, within a couple of hours, Amazon was once again listed as the primary seller. Quickly, I disabled the rest of my titles on Ingram, and they soon flipped back to Amazon as well. By now it was clear that if I wanted to keep my Amazon sales, I would have to stay off Ingram. As far as I could tell, it was all perfectly legal, and there was nothing I could do about it.
A few months later, I got curious and decided to try an experiment. In addition to my CreateSpace account, I had a separate Amazon Seller account—perhaps I could list the books with a wholesaler and then win the Buy Box for myself. After all, I would be able to offer the books at a lower rate than any other seller. Cautiously, I tried reactivating one of my lower-selling titles on Ingram, and within hours, the Texas retailer was again listed as the primary seller. By this point, it was clear that I was being targeted. (But how did they figure out so quickly that a title of mine was again listed on Ingram? One of the publishing consultants I had worked with supplied an answer: bots.) Still, I thought I might have a chance at winning the Buy Box. After all, as the author of a print-on-demand title, I had access to unlimited amounts of inventory, and at a lower price than any other retailer. I could not get the Buy Box, though. Suddenly, I was listed as ineligible. (At one point, the homepage of my seller account announced that I was “close to the Buy Box,” but when I clicked on my inventory listings, I received an “ineligible” message.)
And something else was strange: normally, the Buy Box would rotate, sometimes passing to a third-party seller and sometimes remaining with Amazon. In this case, it never rotated; it seemed to have switched permanently to the Texas reseller. After several days of tweaking my inventory listings in attempt to make myself Buy Box-eligible for my own product, I concluded that it was probably a lost cause and pulled the book from Ingram. Again, the primary seller switched back to Amazon almost instantaneously.
A couple of months after that, I tried listing one of the books with CreateSpace Expanded Distribution, with the same result. This was even stranger. I had sold my previous editions through Expanded Distribution for six months after the new Buy Box policy went into effect, and not a single third-party seller had swooped in and captured the primary listing for any of my titles. Why had my problems begun only two weeks prior, in October, after I released my new editions under my own imprint? Could Amazon be punishing me for using non-CreateSpace ISBN? I’d known since the moment I signed up with CreateSpace that depending too heavily on Amazon was a risk, and that someday the company would abruptly upend its model in a way that would force me to upend mine. I just hadn’t expected the change to come at the moment it did, or in that particular form.
When I called Seller Support to inquire what I needed to do to qualify for the Buy Box, I was informed that there was no precise formula; the algorithm took a wide range of factors into account and somehow determined who got assigned what. “But that’s impossible,” I protested. “The algorithm didn’t write itself; people had to create it. There has to be someone who knows how it works.”
It’s only very recently that I’ve come to understand how naïve a perspective that was; in assuming that things had to be subject to human control, I was thinking in terms of what is rapidly becoming an outdated paradigm. But it was not until I came across an article in Edge magazine by the science historian George Dyson that I understood what I had initially failed to grasp. As Dyson states:
The genius — sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental — of the enterprises now on such a steep ascent is that they have found their way through the looking-glass and emerged as something else… What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.
This, then, is the brave new world of publishing. The reality is that for small, startup publishers like me, Amazon—and its algorithm—dominates the market to such an extent that selling without it is simply not realistic. Although I’m aiming to sell more books directly through my website long-term, Amazon will play a core role in my business for the foreseeable future; that means I’ll need to continue re-finding my footing as the ground shifts. In the short term, that means no bulk sales to any online reseller with an Amazon account—no exceptions.
But as I’ve also come to realize, this isn’t just a simple morality tale about a big, bad tech giant. If other booksellers are serious about staying in the game, they need to understand what they’re up against and adapt accordingly. When I called Ingram to request removal of my titles from the catalogue as a result of Amazon’s new Buy Box policy, the representative implied that my situation was not an unfamiliar one. What surprised me was how matter-of-fact he seemed, how utterly unconcerned about the loss of what could easily have amounted to tens of thousands of sales. Did Ingram not view this as a problem? How difficult would it be, really, for them to allow publishers some control over the flow of their books? Could it truly be that hard to restrict sales of certain items to particular classes of retailers? Doing so would seem to be a win for both Ingram and publishers. Or perhaps bookstores could consider working with a wider range of wholesalers, instead of relying so heavily on Ingram.
The alternative… Well, since Barnes & Noble can no longer order my books directly through either Ingram or Amazon, they’re now ordering from The Critical Reader directly. While I certainly count this as an achievement, they haven’t (yet) agreed to stock the books centrally, and the ordering process borders on the absurd at times. There have been days when we’ve received three separate orders, for three different stores, from three different representatives—all apparently sitting in the same call center in New Jersey. It seems to me that there’s no need for things to be this complicated and piecemeal, but for the time being at least, it’s a small price to pay.
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Vector Illustration by Vecteezy.
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Erica Meltzer is Founder and CEO of The Critical Reader, one of America's leading test preparation companies. With over 150,000 copies sold, her SAT and ACT Reading and Writing guides consistently rank at the top of their respective categories on Amazon, outperforming comparable guides produced by Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Barron’s. She has been featured in Teen Vogue, The College Solution, and CBS Moneywatch, and her books are currently used by students and tutors worldwide. Erica graduated from Brookline High School and earned her B.A., magna cum laude, from Wellesley College. Before becoming involved in test prep, she worked in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University and in the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University, where she helped coordinate graduate admissions. From 2006 until 2015, she tutored privately in Manhattan as well as online, helping students around the world achieve their SAT/ACT goals and gain admission to a number of top colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and Duke.
ACT®: (once the American College Test but now an empty acronym as well)
GRE® (Graduate Record Exam),
GMAT® (Graduate Management Admission Test),
Advanced Placement® English Language and Composition Exam