Life as a bookdealer with Amazon

Whilst it's good news that Amazon's acquisition of the Book Depository has come to the notice of the Office of Fair Trading, who have started the merger enquiry process by inviting comments, none of that will make one iota of difference to the situation that the vast majority of bookdealers in this country have to deal with.

Last year I posted about the almost complete impossibility of running an online secondhand book business without having to use Amazon in some way.  I thought it would be interesting to look again at what life is like as a bookdealer all too aware of how much their livelihood depends on Amazon.  What follows is the body of my previous post, with updates as relevant.

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. As the years went by, ABE, ever mindful I suppose of the need to satisfy shareholders, 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, forcing them to become more and more anonymous.  It now takes a determined buyer to winkle contact details for an individual seller out of Abe.   Abe stopped allowing booksellers to process credit card payments themselves.  Abe sellers have to have sales processed via Abe, which is far more expensive.  The sellers absorb the extra costs, not Abe.

With the constant whittling away of bookseller individuality, many booksellers 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.  Abe, and therefore Amazon, have now bought the antiquarian site ZVAB.

So what is the problem with selling via Amazon?  Amazon's attitude to its sellers has always been 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. Over the next few months, there was an entertaining dance by booksellers finding ways round this, and Amazon then plugging each new route.  Amazon have succeeded in locking everything down now.  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.  These are not empty threats.  I know booksellers who have been suspended, or threatened with suspension.

Amazon have also been obdurate about raising their postage charge, which has now lurched up a massive 5p to £2.80 for a UK book. Royal Mail charges have gone up each and every year, but the seller simply has to absorb that.    The bookdealer doesn't actually get £2.80, mind you:  out of this postage charge, Amazon take their "associated administration fee", which is £0.49.  You would think that there would be no difference in administering different postage charges:  once you have the system in place it would cost the same to administer any postage charge.  Not so.  Amazon charge US buyers £6.94.  The administration charge for this is not £0.49, but £1.08. Is this an administration charge, or just a cut of the sale?

I mentioned price parity, in which Amazon forbids the seller from charging less for their products elsewhere than Amazon.  I wasn't prepared to do this, so left Amazon last year, somewhat in fear and trepidation.  Fortunately for me, although sales have been down, they are not catastrophically so.  I am fortunate in being a niche retailer, selling horse and pony fiction.  I have a large and well-visited information website supporting my sales site.  Other booksellers are not necessarily so fortunate.  

So what's changed since I wrote last year?  I thought that Amazon would raise their 1p minimum price.  They haven't, as yet.  ABE have taken steps to clean up their offerings, trying to get rid of the megalisters by stating that a seller may list only two of a particular title.  This seems to have had a beneficial effect.  Chrislands have raised their monthly fee, but have at the same time increased what they offer.

None of this, however, has done anything to dispel the climate of fear that exists in the bookselling community.  I admit to waking much earlier than I'd like in the morning,  fretting, myself.  I sell principally through ABE and Chrislands.  Virtually all of my income is, ultimately, dependent on Amazon.  If Amazon get nasty with me my business will be rocked to its core.   Amazon still pursue those who sell on its site and who step out of line.  None of the comments I'm about to quote on how booksellers feel about Amazon are attributed.  The reason?  Each and every bookseller who got in touch with me fears what will happen to their income if Amazon decides to punish them for speaking out.

[I] cannot live without amazon – so daren’t leave them – too much of our income comes through them. A very sad fact of life.

I'm still not ready to leave Amazon because I still need those sales. 

My own website does not do very well and I depend enormously on Amazon. Much of our business is with libraries and professionals rather than collectors and they seem to use Amazon despite its useless search engine and poor descriptions.  I have a deep loathing for Amazon having crossd swords with them a few times but cannot see how else to manage as their share of the cake seems to increase all the time.  Zvab has changed its pricing structure as a result of being bought by abe.  I get the feeling amazon will be a great global cloud sharing life with google and not much else.

And I'll leave you with this:

Amazon is a hybrid monster with sharp shoes and a spray tan,  and a tinsy antique fine lawn handkerchief (that’s us) just peeping out of its breast pocket – used only to wipe its dribbling snout.   


Anonymous said…
Unlike you, I'm a private seller, clearing out books. I do use Amazon and get irritated by the numbers of sellers there who give no description of the books, just use a formula one for all their (usually 1p) books. You don't mention eBay. Not only are sales there terrible at the moment, eBay increasingly favours business sellers and always puts buyers before sellers (for instance, limiting the amount you can charge for postage). Then there's the extortionate Paypal fees. What else can you do, though? It is still the best place to sell.
Jane Badger said…
I completely agree with you about the use of generic descriptions. I haven't mentioned eBay as I don't sell on there, but will certainly include them in a future post. As you say, there is little real alternative for the seller. Whether you're a private seller or a business one, it is very hard indeed to sell books without Amazon.
Peter Allen said…
We haven't sold through Amazon since about 2000 (or whenever it was about then that their price structure got greedy), we dropped out of ABE for the same reason before Amazon took them over - and also, in both cases because we disapproved of their business ethics - we do list on, the ILAB site,, and our own website - and are doing splendidly. Mind you, we do have a niche market: antiquarian and modern (up to about 1950) literary first editions. If every bookseller left Amazon and ABE, they'd collapse - at least as secondhand bookselling sites. We've never regretted leaving them at all - except for the junk mail we get from ABE asking us to rejoin...

Peter Allen
pp. Robert Temple Books, A.B.A.
Jane Badger said…
I agree with you that it would be a huge blow if every dealer removed their stock from Amazon and Abe, but I don't know how good the other sites would be at picking up the slack. Public awareness of them is, I think, pretty low compared with the big ones. The length of time it would take for sales to build might be enough to push some sellers over the financial edge.

I think that niche is the way to go. If you're a traditional, b&m, selling everything bookseller, however, then what do you do?

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