By Sarah Diamond
Fans of Amazon Prime will be familiar with the golden bar on the right-hand side of each product page. With one click, the “Buy Box” adds a product to a virtual shopping cart, to be delivered to the customer’s doorstep in two days. Before last year, Amazon was listed as the default vendor for all physical book sales, and the company would typically share 40% profits with the publisher. Third party sellers could also participate, but only if a customer opted to buy from an alternate vendor, deliberately choosing another company’s name from the “Other Sellers” list. This practice ensured that Amazon, and by default, traditional publishers, were given the advantage in all book sales. Publishers passed earnings along to the writers and illustrators they represent. But something changed last November when Amazon scrapped this vendor hierarchy and created a lottery system, wherebymultiple sources could compete to “win” the Buy Box. Now the identity of the Buy Box seller is left up to chance. Since most customers don’t pay attention to the default vendor, many people are now buying books from third party sellers without realizing it.
In a public statement, Amazon explained that the change was only implemented to make the bookstore work “like the rest of Amazon, where third party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items”, but what works for clothing and kitchenware will not necessarily work for books, especially when so many booksellers are struggling to compete with the e-tailing titan. The involvement of third party sellers is particularly uncomfortable for many publishers because it isn’t always clear where these third party books are coming from, or why so many of them are being offered at heavy discounts.
Take, for example, the middle grade bestseller Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Doubleday). The list price for a new hardcover copy is $16.99, but many third party sellers on Amazon offer brand new copies ranging from $11.90 to as low as $0.93, plus shipping. In the fine print, Amazon claims that only reputable, professional sellers will be eligible to win the prime spot in the Buy Box, but it bases these standards on customer reviews and ratings. Many vendors with lower prices boast 5-star ratings and high user satisfaction scores.
Even if the system works smoothly, there is no guarantee that a creator will see a penny from a third party sale. These sales do not “count” in the publisher’s ledger, so it will not help an artist earn out their advance. There are many theories about how third party sellers might be acquiring their books—free promotional copies, slightly damaged goods sold as new, bulk orders from publishers at a high discount, or a combination of sources—but what’s clear is that these sales do not feed back into a publisher’s bottom line, or do so at a much smaller fraction. Many publishers are now scrambling to track the flow of these books, to make sure that no legal lines are being crossed. Either way, the result is a system that fails to fully compensate both publishers and creators for their work.
Amazon has not responded publicly to complaints or explained their motives behind the change. There isn’t much that creators can do at this point, though shoppers can make a conscious decision to override the lottery by manually browsing through thelist of potential sellers and choosing the option ‘Sold by Amazon’. This ensures that the book’s publisher, and by extension, the author or illustrator, is getting a fair cut of the profits. It’s also worth noting that indiebound.org, brainchild of the American Booksellers Association, is an ethically minded competitor that supports both creators and independent bookstores.