Point-Counterpoint: Amazon Responds at Length to a New York Times Critique

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In a Times report on online sales of counterfeit books—and a ringing response from Amazon—a long-growing publishing retail debate moves into the spotlight.

At an Amazon locker in Berlin. Image – iStockphoto: Cineberg

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The Times: ‘Amazon Takes a Hands-Off Approach’
A robust response has been created by Amazon to David Streitfeld’s extensive examination of counterfeit books on the retail platform, an article published on Sunday (June 23) at The New York Times.

David Streitfeld

Streitfeld is an experienced observer of Amazon, and his Sunday article asserts, in part, that the retailer “takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way. That has resulted in a kind of lawlessness,” Streitfeld writes.

“Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said, often taking action only when a buyer complains. Many times, they added, there is nowhere to appeal and their only recourse is to integrate even more closely with Amazon.”

Amazon’s retort—which we’ll explain more fully below—is summed up in this sentence: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Nevertheless, a growing level of concern among some in the publishing community was confirmed a bit more than a year ago, when the Authors Guild—the United States’ chief advocacy organization for writers (both trade and independent)—announced it had arranged “a procedure with Amazon for resolving authors’ complaints with their Amazon book listings.” Even then, the Guild made a reference to counterfeit books as one of the hurdles it might handle, writing to its membership, “It is especially important that you let Amazon know when resellers are marking books as new that do not qualify as new under Amazon’s definition, or when you see infringing or counterfeit copies of books being sold on Amazon.”

In an update on June 26 to our story, Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, does tell Publishing Perspectives that the Guild has had good cooperation from the retailer in its arrangement. “While the Amazon reseller marketplace is now teaming with counterfeits, infringing summaries, and even scams,” she says, “when we complain about a specific infringement on behalf of a member, Amazon always responds immediately. Things are taken down within 12 to 24 hours.”

“In 2018, we stopped over a million suspected bad actors from opening Amazon selling accounts … and we blocked more than 3 billion suspected bad listings before they were published to our stores.”Amazon Statement

And one of the most compelling moments in Streitfeld’s piece goes by quickly. It’s a reference to Amazon mentioning counterfeiting to the investment community earlier this year. That passage references a Quartz write-up of CNBC’s story on February 4, in which Eugene Kim writes, “Under the ‘risk factors’ section of its annual report, Amazon added a new line addressing counterfeit problems on its marketplace. ‘We also may be unable to prevent sellers in our stores or through other stores from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated, or stolen goods, selling goods in an unlawful or unethical manner, violating the proprietary rights of others, or otherwise violating our policies,’ the filing said.”

As Kim puts it, “While Amazon publicly says it has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for counterfeit products and has built new technology to deal with the problem, its marketplace that allows third-party merchants [to] sell goods continues to be plagued by knockoffs.”

In short, the presence of third-party sellers on the retailer’s platform carries with it a serious challenge in quality control, and anecdotal incidents of wrongdoing such as those cited by Streitfeld tend to loom large when an operation is as vast as Seattle’s.

And the context in which the discussion now is taking place is worth considering. As recently announced, the Federal Trade Commission is to look at Amazon and Facebook, while the Justice Department is to examine Apple and Google, investigating practices that could potentially be ruled anti-competitive. It’s a time when—as Streitfeld and his Times colleagues Cecilia King and Annie Karni reported on June 3—”Regulators are divvying up antitrust oversight of the Silicon Valley giants and lawmakers are investigating whether they have stifled competition and hurt consumers.”

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that this is, in part, a congressionally driven investigative dynamic. At the June 3 annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, hinted at that evening’s announcement of the committee’s new antitrust study of the tech giants.

So it is that Streitfeld’s description of Amazon is being read by some in the volatile climate of that heightened attention to the big retailer’s operations.

Amazon: ‘The Ways We Protect the Customer Experience’

Since the appearance of the Streitfeld article, Amazon has issued a lengthy statement of its own, “Our Response to The New York Times’ Story on Book Counterfeiting,” also dated June 23. Written without a byline, it’s on the company’s DayOne blog site in the “Books and Authors” category. At several points, it directly counters certain parts of the Times article.

One of the Amazon statement’s last points is a response to what the retailer says is the Times piece’s inaccurate claims about competition among booksellers (a claim the Midwest Independent Booksellers disputed with the Times last year). There is widespread competition among booksellers, from major retailers to independent booksellers to grocery [stores] and drugstores. In fact, according to the American Booksellers Association (a trade group representing independent booksellers), the number of independent booksellers in the US has grown over 50 percent over the last 10 years.”

It’s that kind of detail that makes this commentary from Amazon a standout. While the company is very responsive to press inquiries, it’s also artfully economical in its concisely worded, informative answers. This post is comparatively extended, a big response.

“A recent New York Times article,” the Amazon statement opens, “claims that Amazon doesn’t care about counterfeits and takes a hands-off approach to what is sold in our stores. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“We invest substantial amounts of time and resources to protect our customers from counterfeit products, including books. We also stand behind every product sold in our stores with our A-to-z Guarantee [which promises consumers full refunds for products not received or not as advertised].

“Amazon strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products,” the statement says. “We invest heavily in prevention and take proactive steps to drive counterfeits in our stores to zero. In 2018 alone, we invested over $400 million in personnel and tools built on machine learning and data science to protect our customers from fraud and abuse in our stores.

“From the moment a third party attempts to register a selling account, our proprietary technology begins screening and analyzing during the account set-up process, blocking suspicious bad actors before they are able to register or publish a listing. In 2018, we stopped over a million suspected bad actors from opening Amazon selling accounts before they published a single listing for sale, and we blocked more than 3 billion suspected bad listings before they were published to our stores.”

“Publishers, writers and groups such as the Authors Guild said counterfeiting of books on Amazon had surged. The company has been reactive rather than proactive in dealing with the issue, they said.”David Streitfeld, New York Times

The statement adds, “We provided many of these details to the Times and they chose not to include these facts in their story.”

And Amazon’s article then goes on to respond directly at several levels to Streitfeld’s story. For example, the Times piece looks at a case in which The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy, a medical handbook, was so ineptly counterfeited that some of its information—important to medical practitioners’ treatment of patients—became hard to read.

“We’ve worked closely with Sanford Publishing,” the Amazon statement reads, “and took additional action in November 2018 to address their concerns. Since these measures were put into place, the publisher has not submitted any further notices of infringement.”

Further, Amazon’s blog piece reads, “Prior to publication, we also offered the Times the opportunity to speak with the CEO of a large education publisher, who is also a member of the Educational Publishers Enforcement Group (EPEG). As part of our efforts to combat counterfeit, we have worked closely with EPEG to ensure customers only find authentic books for sale in our stores. The Times never reached out to this source.”

The piece also brings up its standards for consumer reviews—”We take action against those who violate our policies, including suspension, bans, and legal action.”

And it highlights four programs as part of its consumer protection activity:

  • Brand Registry, Amazon says, has a membership of more than 130,000 brands and has seen a 99-percent drop in suspected infringements
  • Transparency, the program that uses a mobile app to scan a code for product authenticity, has more than 2,000 enrollees, says Amazon
  • Project Zero is a “self-service counterfeit removal tool” from which, Amazon says, its own systems learn to prevent new infractions
  • And the A-to-z Guarantee is the refund promise the retailer offers its consumers

Of course, Streitfeld’s accounts of counterfeited writings are compelling, particularly a case in which a book about Atari technology of the 1980s was stolen, given a new cover, title, and a fake author’s name—though the counterfeiter kept the actual author’s “biographical details about being the editor of ExtremeTech.com and writing for PC Magazine and Popular Science.” It’s almost like those preposterous jokes about students copying each other’s tests so feverishly that they copy their victims’ names onto their own exams. And yet someone posing as an author named Steve S. Thomas sold Jamie Lendino’s book (and others’, apparently) as his or her own.

Streitfeld does goes on to write that Amazon, once informed by the legitimate author Lendino, “wiped Mr. Thomas’ oeuvre from its store,” the fake author having created more such faux titles.

And what some might see as a silver lining here is this Times-said/Amazon-said face-off that has so quickly developed based on the Streitfeld piece.

The original article is a deep, layered essay. And the retailer’s retort is a full-throated defense of itself. The company is speaking its corporate mind, just as Streitfeld and authors and publishers speak theirs. A debate in the open beats snarls in the shadows every time.

Streitfeld says that Sanford Publishing has felt compelled to become an Amazon seller—and pay a 20-percent commission—so it can ship its own legitimate copies of the Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy to buyers.

And for its part, Amazon’s thorough response says the company is “steadfast in our commitment to earning the trust of customers, as well as the millions of honest entrepreneurs, authors, and publishers who use our stores to offer great value and selection to our customers. … The Times cites a small number of complaints and we recognize our work here isn’t done. We will not stop until it’s zero.”

However you feel about the online retail issues being addressed here, the biggest win may be this chance to get the debate into the sunlight of daytime journalism.

More from Publishing Perspectives on Amazon is here, and on bookselling is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.