Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells spent a recent morning browsing Amazon, growing gradually more agitated with every click. He was already unhappily aware of a disturbing change to Amazon's bookselling practice – one that allows third-party vendors to claim the prominent one-click buy button, so that books that previously would have been sold by Amazon directly can be quietly shipped from a variety of sellers. He just had no clue how pervasive the practice had swiftly become.
As Wells browsed, he ultimately discovered that nearly 200 of the roughly 220 titles published by his prestigious, Windsor, Ont.-based small press had Amazon listings that were, at least for a time, ceded to third-party vendors. That means that, as one example, a customer looking to purchase Samuel Archibald's Giller Prize-shortlisted Arvida who simply clicks "Add to Cart" would in fact be ordering the book not from Amazon but a third-party vendor called "Reuseabook." A given listing could have dozens of vendors vying for prime position, sometimes with wild variations in price or shipping policies; another Biblioasis title, Mauricio Segura's Black Alley, recently saw its primary Amazon buy button taken over by a third-party vendor somehow hawking a new copy for $6.91 (list price is $19.95), while Robyn Sarah's recent poetry collection Wherever We Mean to Be was primarily being peddled by Wordery Canada for $24.78 (list is $19.95).
Although this might seem like marketplace minutiae, Amazon's policy change is pushing buttons throughout the publishing industry, and the ramifications for readers – who seem to have been purposefully stranded in the dark – could run deep. Amazon customers, mostly unaware of a change instituted with stealthy subtlety, could now unknowingly pay a strange price to receive a less-than-pristine book shipped without Amazon's usual haste. Publishers and authors, meanwhile, stand to lose royalties and revenue if, as they suspect, third-party vendors are sometimes disguising grey-market books – for instance, not-for-resale promotional copies – as new. And all of these symptoms could be more acutely felt in Canada, where some publishers already standing on perilous ground feel they're being nudged closer to the edge.
"It's going to greatly curtail how accessible Canadian books are to Canadian readers across the country," Wells said. "What shocked me was how drastic the change was over the last month. Basically, now the vast majority of our books are being sold through third-party vendors. The scale of this surprises even me.
"Needless to say," he added, "discovering that was very disturbing."
Perhaps it only adds to his apprehension that the consequences of this change remain ominously ambiguous. Publishers don't know how many books are being offered through third-party vendors, and the listings, determined by an algorithm, change minute-to-minute. Since it seems anecdotally that listings for smaller books are more likely to be taken over by third-party vendors than megasellers, the move could disproportionately affect Canadian literary presses. Meanwhile, conscientious consumers and bibliophiles who believe they're making a contribution toward their favourite writers may unwittingly be part of the problem.
Although any theoretical loss in royalties might be felt most by the top-selling titans, writers with more modest followings are fretting, too. Author Matthew Bin derives about 95 per cent of his writing income from online sales, and about 75 per cent from Amazon. With frustration, he recalls a recent incident in which a colleague tried to purchase his 2007 title On Guard for Thee: Canada's Peacekeeping Missions, only to wonder why the still-in-print book, which retails for $25.95, was selling for more than $200 through an Amazon vendor. "This policy won't have an immediate effect, I suspect – it's the long-term effect of devaluing the products of creative workers," said Bin, former national chair of the Canadian Authors Association.
The question of most urgent concern is where, exactly, are these third-party vendors getting their books? Publishers worry about a variety of so-called "grey-market" sources: overstock burned off in bulk by publishers at remaindered prices; gently used or damaged books sold off cheaply in bulk; and freebie review copies sent to media and recycled back onto the market. In these situations, authors would receive a fraction of their usual royalties, or none at all.
Amazon, for its part, insists its new books are really new.
"Only new books are eligible to be featured in the Amazon Canada Books New Buy Box and be the 'primary offer' on a book's detail page, whether offered from third-party sellers or Amazon," an Amazon spokesperson said. "We move quickly to address any violations. These recent changes mean that our Canadian online bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon.ca, where third-party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items."
That vow offers little solace to publishers skeptical that Amazon could possibly police so many vendors.
"There's no way Amazon can monitor that because those copies are being shipped directly from the vendor to the customer, and Amazon is not part of that," Goose Lane Editions publisher Susanne Alexander said. "Amazon simply does not have the ability to enforce that in any way."
To test the system, the U.S. Independent Book Publishers Association asked its members in June to order their own books through third-party vendors. Some books indeed arrived new, others bore minor imperfections, while author Thais Nye Derich snapped a photo of a copy of her Second Chance she received that was not only used, but actually featured an inscription she'd personally penned to its original owner.
It would thus seem the responsibility of readers to flag suspect reading material to Amazon. But critics argue the change seems designed to escape the notice of shoppers. Given further abnormalities in price, shipping fees and times, some see Amazon's shift as fundamentally anti-consumer. "Readers who have been lulled into assuming Amazon is where you come for a good deal are no longer getting a good deal," Wells said.
Fredericton-based Alexander has seen first-hand how a third-party vendor can relegate a book to second-rate status. In the fall, she recalls a Goose Lane book that bloomed to Amazon's bestseller list before its primary listing was co-opted by an alternative vendor. Suddenly, sales "just dropped, and dropped dramatically," she said.
"When you're buying through one source and another vendor comes up with different terms than you're accustomed to, I think it makes purchasers nervous. I think in that instance, it was very much people abandoning the purchase when they realized."
In that case, Goose Lane fought "very hard" and eventually restored Amazon as the primary sales vendor for the book, but some small publishers haven't found Amazon quite so malleable. When Brooke Warner, publisher of California-based She Writes Press and SparkPress, ordered some of her own titles through third-party vendors and received two "advance reading copies," the not-for-sale sort distributed to media and industry types, she said Amazon offered indifference. "They're certainly not acknowledging small presses like mine."
Many in Canadian publishing are happy to maintain that distance. Michelle Berry, author of the recent The Prisoner and the Chaplain and the owner of Hunter Street Books in Peterborough, Ont., says she gives "no thought" to the retailing giant as a writer or a bookseller. Some presses have taken Amazon's move as another prompt to tighten relationships with independents.
"We've always prided ourselves on our relationships with independent booksellers and our direct customer outreach, so if anything, these new polices are incentive to work harder in those areas," Coach House Books publicist Jessica Rattray said. "Amazon may be a giant, but we all know that giants don't always win."
They do, however, leave vast footprints. And those fearful for the future of the Canadian books industry are powerless to do much but hope Amazon eventually adopts a more conciliatory, or at least collaborative, attitude.
"In Canada we are in a position of trying to preserve our own market for our literature, but it gets harder and harder when we have Amazon working against writers," Bin said. "I'm encouraging them to look at who they're hurting and consider partnering with them rather than punishing them."