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Publisher Complaints Against Amazon Becoming Pervasive

The Digital Zone at the 2013 London Book Fair

The Digital Zone at the 2013 London Book Fair

By Roger Tagholm and Edward Nawotka

International publishers and booksellers at the London Book Fair this year have become increasingly vocal about their difficulties in working with Amazon.com. Privately, publishers raised concerns over Amazon’s term demands, its listing of editions for which it doesn’t have territorial rights and its sourcing of titles from wholesalers.

Speaking off the record, as has become the norm when Amazon is involved, one senior figure said: “Everyone is talking about reaching a horrible place on terms, and I think there’s increased frustration from publishers concerning data and their listing of multiple editions, often flouting territoriality.

“It may be that there is a problem with data fields, but there are conspiracy theories around. Trying to fix it is slow and difficult. Also, we’re finding that when it’s your own edition, they’re often not sourcing it from you. They’re going to a wholesaler in a different territory — Ingram, for example, or someone in India — where it might be cheaper. This can be bad for the author because it means they’re receiving an export royalty, which is lower.”

Talk of Amazon selling “grey imports” in the English and Spanish-language markets is not uncommon.

A top executive from one of Spain’s “Big Three” based in the Americas confirmed to Publishing Perspectives they had learned that Amazon was selling an imported edition of one of their firm’s blockbuster bestsellers in Spain, even though the parent company of the same firm held the rights for Spain and produced a local edition. When the problem was raised with Amazon, the company attributed it to a “metadata” error.

On the data feeds, one publisher pointed out: “You have to apply to them to change it, but it can take up to four weeks.”

Yet another publisher complained that when confronted with the error of selling import editions, Amazon only agreed to stop selling the books once they were presented with evidence of their legal obligation to do so. What’s more, when more than one title from a publisher was found to be imported, Amazon required individual requests for every title, an onerous process that is potentially costly and time-consuming — especially for cash-strapped publishers in Spain.

Still another publisher noted that when it comes to data, essentially, Amazon want to have all the publisher files — ebooks, POD — so they become the supplier and cut out the publishing industry entirely. They’re trying to get all the IP in — they want those files.

“Also, they’re the only company whose terms go up every year, even if your figures with them go down. Bookstores have stopped charging for windows, but Deal of the Week on Amazon will cost you £15,000.”

Amazon: Friend or Foe?

In a more public forum, on Monday the “Great Debate” — a popular Oxford-style debate at the Fair — asked whether people agreed or disagreed with the premise that “Amazon was a positive influence on the publishing business.”

It should come as no surprise that Tim Godfray, Chief Executive of the UK Booksellers Association, argued in opposition. “My contention,” he said, “is that Amazon has gotten so big that they are not competing, but destroying the competition.” He went on to outline a number of grievances, from Amazon’s use of Luxembourg as their European headquarters, a status which allows them to charge just 3% tax on purchases vs. much higher rates had they been based elsewhere in the EC, to the fact that they are encouraging customers to showroom — to browse in bricks-and-mortar bookstores but shop online.

Robert Levine, author of Free Ride, rehashed complaints about Amazon’s use of a right wing security agency to oversee Eastern European workers in German distribution centers and the company’s reliance on algorithms to recommend books. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Levine, “that in two or three years time you’ll find that Amazon is largely recommending books published by Amazon.”

Arguing in favor of Amazon were two publishers, albeit of very modest size: Irishman Eoin Purcell, editor at New Island Books, and Jennifer 8. Lee, publisher of DailyLit/Plympton — a company that worked closely with Amazon during its launch.

Of the two, Purcell offered the most cogent argument, suggesting that Amazon was unfairly maligned. He stated that its competitive advantage stemmed from the advent of the Internet, not from unethical business practices. Of Amazon’s residency in Luxembourg, a status which allowed it to charge cut rate VAT rate of 3% on purchases vs. much higher rates had they been located elsewhere in the EU, Purcell stated flatly that “they are taking advantage of tax loophole that any publisher would if they could.” He added that the challenges publishers are facing in the economy today are due to their own irresponsibility. “Maybe were were taking it too easy for the last century and we just got a wake-up call,” he said, adding, “Amazon is just the symptom, it’s not the problem.”

When a final tally of votes was taken from the audience to determine the debate’s winner, 59 members of the audience agreed the Amazon was a positive influence, while 117 disagreed.

One audience participant — an independent bookseller — noted, wryly: “The one real innovation that I can see that Amazon has brought to bookselling is in the area of accounting.”

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8 Comments

  1. Alexander
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    So, the argument publishers are making is that they should be allowed to charge $30 for book X when sold in Canada and $10 for exact same book X when sold in India but Amazon are the bad guy? It isn’t 1920 anymore. Globalization is an actual thing. If your book model is based on gouging customers in one country over another, you’ve probably bought into the wrong model.

    It always amazes me that the book biz is all about capitalism until the very second that somebody else says “pay me more money” then suddenly they are the little guy. Amazon raises rates? Awww, poor baby. It really stinks that Amazon won’t give you something of value for less than you want to pay.

    Amazon isn’t a saint…I just don’t get why anybody expects them to be…they want to make money and gain marketshare more than they feel the need to placate publishers…why is this surprising?

  2. Edward Nawotka
    Posted April 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    @Alexander — territorial copyright, whether right or wrong, is a legal contract. If Amazon deliberately flouts this, it is not just publishers who have a right to complain, but authors as well. Pricing is a complicated process and involves such things as production costs, distribution and VAT. There are legitimate reasons why one product costs more in one country than another. I pay a lot more for a book in Europe than I do in the US because I pay far higher taxes on it, for one thing. In return, those taxes go to pay for a lot of other benefits I would never see in the United States. Ask any German who is guaranteed four to six weeks of paid vacation a year….

  3. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted April 18, 2013 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget that Amazon once threatened that if publishers did not use its subsidiary POD vendor, their books would be de-listed from Amazon’s site. That is pretty heavy-handed.

  4. ellen.scott
    Posted April 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    i remain an admirer of Randall White, ceo of EDC in the US (Usborne/Kane Miller) because he had the guts to pull all his books from Amazon a year or more ago and not deal with the Beast at all!!

  5. Posted April 18, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    As an independent publisher of my own books I have always been inconvenienced by Amazon in various ways, among which are the fact that Amazon lists every edition of every book published, including those which had long gone out of print and replaced with newer editions; and it’s patent lack of concern for the loss of ebook sales among independent authors, who enjoy a few dozen downloads at a decent price before the sales suddenly stop. This happened so frequently last year that I have since taken down my ebooks and closed my Amazon account — and I don’t plan on returning anytime soon. Amazon used to be a primary marketplace for books. Now, it’s just a money suck and a cause of stress. Booksellers know that Amazon’s business model will only serve to destroy the book marketplace, and Amazon forgets to its peril that becoming a monopoly will only lead to its demise.

  6. Posted April 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Amazon has other and, I think, more serious problems that weren’t mentioned in the article above, problems that seem to indicate a pervasive lack of moral compass. I can give a most telling personal example.

    A few weeks before Christmas, I released, through virtually every print and ebook outlet on the planet, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Hospitals. It’s based on when I worked on the adolescent unit at a top-tier children’s hospital as the only guy on the unit’s day-shift nursing staff. It’s a practical and realistic guide for teen girls, or indeed any patient concerned about all the embarrassing situations that can develop when you are sick. I tell how to charm the staff so you become special and how to take control of your care so nothing you dislike happens. Those who’ve read it are giving it five-star reviews.

    Unfortunately, probably because “teen girl” appears in the title, some weird little pervert took a brief look the Kindle edition and passed on without buying it. He’d have been sorry if he had bought it. Several chapters in the book deal with what to do if a guy on the hospital’s staff gives creepy feelings. But his visit put three Kindle titles in the “also viewed” list–all three Kindle girlie porn, with one titled, “The Girl Who Opened Her Legs.”

    Like the publishers mentioned above, I went through Amazon’s standard complaint process for a webpage. Several weeks later, I got a vaguely worded email claiming that the matter was being looked into. Weeks later, those porn links were still there, so I escalated my complaint, sending a letter to a number of their executives, lawyers, and board members. Because I live in Seattle, I happen to know two of those I was writing.

    In those letters, I did more than complain about the porn links on my Kindle book’s webpage. I questioned why any porn book was appearing as a link on any page for any non-porn product. And keep in mind that my book is listed in Bowker for readers 10 and up—older children. It’s not like it’d be hard for Amazon’s whiz programmers to block porn links from books intended for older children and teens.

    So far, the only reply I’ve gotten from Amazon has been an email from one of Jeff Bezos’s letter responders. To his credit, he did get those links yanked from the book’s Kindle page, as you can see here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hospital-Gowns-Other-Embarrassments-ebook/dp/B00AFMVJ4Y

    But that was all. No response to the questions I raised about why any porn title is appearing as a link for any non-porn item on Amazon, much less a book intended for girls in their early teens.

    In some of my letters I questioned why this was happening, particularly given Apple’s well-known stance about porn. Apple’s policies should have raised enough awareness of the topic, that Amazon should have already handled it as an internal policy. Like I said, there’s a serious lack of moral compass at Amazon.

    I also pointed out that the end result of Amazon’s indifference is likely to be laws banning links to porn on any webpage likely to be read by minors. I could have added that, since the issue was advertising, no First Amendment issues are involved.

    More and more, Amazon reminds of another giant metro-Seattle business, Microsoft, as it was in the late 80s and early 90s with only one distinction. Microsoft’s problems seem to have resulted from geeky executives lacking an ability to empathize with others and obsessed with social Darwinian (us or them, only one can survive) business practices.

    Amazon’s problems, I suspect, lie more with its lawyer-centric culture. As I discovered when I investigated who I should contact, a disturbingly high number of people in policy-making positions at Amazon are lawyers. Hiring lawyers may be a way to get smart people. But lawyers also tend to think not in terms of what is right but what is legal.

    That matters. Given the recentness of the globalization and digitization of publishing, the law hasn’t caught up with practice. Publishers have to resort to pleading with Amazon to respect book territoriality. A mature legal system would allow them to sue and not only collect damages but 3-fold or 10-fold punitive damages. In that context, a lawyer-dominated Amazon would quickly discover ways to prevent those territoriality mistakes.

    In the long run, I doubt Amazon will achieve its larger goals. They’re likely to run into some of the same messy legal and public image issues that Microsoft faced in the late 90s. I know a lot of people who work for Microsoft and did contract work for it in the late 80s. Being put down for its legal behavior has had a dreadful impact on the morale of ordinary Microsoft workers, reducing the zeal they bring to their jobs. Much the same is likely to happen with Amazon.

  7. Fran
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Why in the world are porn links showing up anywhere at all on Amazon? And surely they should not be selling porn. I’m not a prude but they could take the loss on that part of the market and maintain some credibility, if that’s possible. And if they are selling porn ads, well that’s equally bad. Both instances would be profiting from the skin business. Bad all around, I’d say.

  8. Jane Aitken
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Amazon is just like any USA multinational. They have no moral or business ethics. Their only goal is to make as much money as possible. And they use legal threats immediately there is any move to challenge them . This will ward off problems as noone is about to take on in court a huge firm with massive resources. The only long term way is not to use them and to discourage friends/ clients from using them. I have always thought that the soft drink firm which sells unhealthy stuff with massive persuasive advertising could be brought down if people didn’t drink the stuff. This could bring down the whole USA economy but, hey, they are doing this quite efficiently already.

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