Tuesday, 30 March 2010

How bookselling sites are squeezing the independents

In the early days of internet bookselling, there was AbeBooks, a Canadian company launched in 1996 whose mission was to provide a platform for booksellers to reach a wider audience, whilst maintaining their individuality. You paid Abe a monthly fee for listing your books, and another fee when a book sold. AbeBooks was a success: after all, it made sense to join together with other booksellers who had different inventories to yours. You reached customers you could never reach on your own, and life looked good.

Abe launched the British version of the site in 2002, and I joined in 2003. In those days, Abe were keen for you, the bookseller, to promote yourself. You could buy Abe bookmarks on which you were encourage to print your own details; you could have your own website mentioned on the page on which the details of your book came up.

Abe carried on growing, and started to feel the pressure for ever increased profits from its shareholders. Booksellers started to feel the pinch: fees increased. Slowly, Abe changed. Listers with enormous numbers of books, many of them print on demand, started to appear on listings. Often you would have to wade through page after page of these "books" to reach a physical copy. Abe dropped its belief that booksellers should be able to promote themselves: they initiated a range of nibbles at the ability of booksellers to communicate with sellers, though after furious protest from booksellers, many of these have been quietly dropped. You can, however, no longer mention your own website: you have to use the Abe storefront to give the buyer any additional information about yourself, and it takes a determined buyer to reach that and find your telephone number.

Abe used to allow booksellers to process credit card payments themselves; but then announced it would take over all payments. This it said was to maintain security for its customers; the effect on some booksellers was profound. Some no longer had the volume necessary to make processing credit cards themselves economic. All found that Abe now took a cut of the postage, of which previously sellers received 100%. All now had increased costs: Abe processing credit cards was much more expensive than your own provider doing it.

Many booksellers had already looked at what was happening, and decided that a website of their own was the way to go. A company called Chrislands provided websites specially set up for booksellers; easy to operate and set up - a tad samey in look, but efficient and bug free. I have one myself, and it's one of the best business decisions I ever took.

Abe then bought Chrislands in April 2008. In December 2008, Amazon bought Abe. It therefore owned Abe, the next largest bookselling site to itself, Chrislands, the major provider of websites to independent booksellers, as well as other companies Abe had already aquired: Fillz, Bookfinder and 40% of Librarything.

Many booksellers were already selling on Amazon as well as Abe. Amazon's attitude to its sellers was always more draconian than Abe: it had no history of having started as a service to booksellers, and it behaved like what it was, a large corporation with a very firm eye on the bottom line.

Over the years I sold on Amazon, the contact the seller was allowed with the buyer was cut, cut, and cut. Originally when you made a sale, you would be sent an email from Amazon including the buyer's email so you could contact them. Of course, if you did this, you were free to mention your own website on your email. Amazon then stopped sending sellers buyer's email information. There were, however, various places on a seller's account this information could still be reached, but Amazon have now plugged all those routes, and all communication has to take place within a service monitored by Amazon. If you promote your own website via those messages, you are in trouble. If you send any promotional material out with the book, you are in trouble. There have been successive user agreements tightening up regulations yet further, and threatening suspension from Amazon if you transgress.

Amazon have also been obdurate about raising their postage charge. It has been £2.75 per book for years, despite the fact Royal Mail raise prices every year. It is the bookseller, of course, who absorbs these charges.

All that is, I suppose, fair enough. You are using their site to achieve your sales, and you sign a user agreement you sign one, knowing what the rules are.

Now though, as I've reported recently, Amazon have decided that you may not charge less on any other site than you charge on Amazon. So, if I sell a paperback for £2.70 including p&p, I am undercutting Amazon, and that they won't allow. Either I raise the price on my site so it equals Amazon, or I leave.

I've left.

A comment on my post stated that it was more likely that Amazon would be going after the large sellers: that might be so, but as Amazon own Abe and Chrislands it would be easy enough for them to work out who was who. There would be far more fluttering of dovecotes on the Amazon and Abe forums if a well known bookseller was removed, rather than one of the anonymous megasellers. Obedience is what Amazon want. They do monitor sales and listings for transgressions: I was chastised several times for attempting to sell The Secret of Galleybird Pit by Malcolm Saville. Amazon maintained I was attempting to sell a proof copy as my listing contained the word "galley". In the end I gave up trying to sell that title on Amazon.

It is easy to offend Amazon even if you have done nothing wrong. One bookseller was wrapped over the knuckles and threatened with suspension for supposedly mentioning another site in a book description:

...the publisher of a book I listed was (from memory) One.com (literally One.com) and this information appeared in the book description. Amazon threatened me with suspension because I had infringed their policy which does not allow any direction off-site. I rang and had quite fierce argument with support staff who said it didn't make any difference that this was the the publisher's name and unless I removed it the crime was sufficient to have my account closed out and being permanently banned as a seller.
Will Amazon's tentacles extend into Abe and Chrislands? At the moment there is no sign of this, but I confess I'm worried in case by writing this I could be jeopardising my business. I still sell on Abe, and my own site is powered by Chrislands. Although Abe has faults, it's a much better platform for me as a seller than Amazon, and without Chrislands I would really suffer.

Amazon have more power than they ought. It's unbalancing the secondhand book trade on the internet. And once Amazon have price parity, and legions of booksellers toeing the line, will they keep their minimum book price at 1p? I don't think so.

6 comments:

David said...

Thanks for a really thought-provoking post and good luck with life after Amazon.

As my ABE prices are always completely out of synch with Amazon, I'll wait with interest to see if they contact me!

Best Wishes,
David
Now or Never Books

Jane Badger said...

Good luck to you too. It's an interesting time for booksellers.

Caro said...

I used to work for a book cataloguing company who decided to list on Amazon to generate more sales. There was much consternation when orders started to come in for books we didn't have, thus bringing down our rating, and as head cataloguer, much of that consternation was directed at me. After a lot of wading through lists and databases, it turned out that amazon was rewriting our information in some cases, using the ISBN's only as matches. So our listings were never accurate. Not that they cared much.
I do not have much love for Amazon since then.

Jane Badger said...

Caro, that rings a bell. The very first order I got from Amazon was for a book I didn't have, as they'd done to me exactly what they did to you, and overwritten my (correct) data with their incorrect data. They still allow multiple and ridiculous listings for what is the same book.

Derbhile said...

A depressing, but enlightening post.

Jane Badger said...

Thank you!