Amazon, the greedy giant with small publishers in its grip

To sell online, indie publishers must use Amazon. But its methods leave them out of pocket ÔÇô or out of sight, paying hidden charges, says the founder of Linen Press ┬áLynn Michell writing in The Guardian

Indie publishers need transparency and support from online companies that sell their books. Amazon fails such publishers on both counts. Ostensibly, it offers two ways of selling, but only one ÔÇô the costly Amazon Advantage ÔÇô does the job. So, in effect, Amazon offers no choice at all, since the successful sales method is financially prohibitive. The cheaper, more confusing marketing option disadvantages small publishers by making them less visible on Amazon and landing them with hidden problems and costs.

Amazon Advantage, which IÔÇÖve written about before, is the alpha method of selling our books. It puts us squarely in the limelight so that when someone types in the title, we are the first and most visible seller. Click on the cover image and the book on offer is the one sold by us. But the cost for this clarity and publicity is high, and can be met only by the big publishers, who print thousands of copies of a title and keep the cost-per-copy to less than a pound. But if you are a small press, the sums donÔÇÖt add up. Linen Press welcomes writers with no track record and writers from minority groups. We read the 20, mostly unsolicited submissions that arrive each week. Having signed up an emergent writer (emergent is a polite way of saying unknown), we usually do a first run of 400 copies, which works out at a basic production price of ┬ú3 per copy.

Then there will be other expenses in the process, such as ┬ú200 for a cover image, ┬ú200 for artwork, ┬ú500 for typesetting and the creation of digital files, ┬ú200 for flyers and publicity materials, perhaps 10 copies of the book to enter an award such as the Baileys womenÔÇÖs prize for fiction. The final cost per copy for us is nearer ┬ú4. Amazon Advantage takes 55% of the recommended retail price, so on a ┬ú7.99 novel, it takes ┬ú4.40 and we get ┬ú3.60. We have to post books individually, as they are ordered, at ┬ú3 postage plus the cost of an envelope. WeÔÇÖre down to a profit of 60p. Out of that comes the authorÔÇÖs royalty of 80p, so weÔÇÖre in minus figures.

We opted out of Amazon Advantage because we were paying the company to sell Linen Press books. Other small publishers opted out, too. Many of us protested. So Amazon came up with Amazon Fulfilment, which is the poor publisherÔÇÖs route to selling on its global sales floor. Yes, this costs less. The fees vary, as do our prices because thereÔÇÖs pressure to discount our books, but Amazon takes 30%-40%, so on a ┬ú7.99 book we take home a more reasonable ┬ú5, approximately. And we can send boxes of books by courier to Amazon, a more economical way of getting copies out (although this involves hidden costs).

WeÔÇÖre down to a profit of 60p. But after the author’s royalty, we’re in minus figures

The big catch with Amazon Fulfilment is that you are not listed up front as the main seller. Linen Press is listed only in AmazonÔÇÖs ÔÇ£hiddenÔÇØ list of sellers. So ÔÇô if you type in The Making of Her by Susie Nott-Bower, you canÔÇÖt just click on the cover to buy the book, but must go instead to the sidebar to find Linen Press listed among other sellers. At the time of writing, I found we were listed beneath a seller offering our book new, and more cheaply: OrendaBooks in Leighton Buzzard, selling the same book for ┬ú5.19 plus ┬ú2.80 postage. We are hidden in the ÔÇ£new and usedÔÇØ category and donÔÇÖt get the quick breath of publicity given to publishers who can afford to go down the Advantage route.

The other hidden cost is storage fees. Amazon doesnÔÇÖt like storing ÔÇ£agedÔÇØ copies of books in its warehouse and charges accordingly for ÔÇ£clean-upÔÇØ. So weÔÇÖve posted Amazon a big box of books to save on postage, but then weÔÇÖre asked for a lump ÔÇ£clean-upÔÇØ sum each year because our books havenÔÇÖt been priced cheaply enough and/or havenÔÇÖt sold quickly enough. This is from a recent email: ÔÇ£The next Fulfilment by Amazon inventory clean-up is scheduled for February 15, 2015. On that day, units that have been in an Amazon fulfilment centre for 365 days or longer will be assessed a long-term storage fee. As of January 2, 2015, you have 162 aged units of inventory in our fulfilment centres for which you will be charged ┬ú96.43, unless you submit a request to remove them (or they sell) before February 15, 2015.ÔÇØ Last year, we were charged ┬ú112. If we fail to pay, the books are removed, which triggers another fee; so we pay or we pay. And we have to post another box of books if subsequent orders come in.

Other persuasive reasons for sidestepping Amazon, as a buyer and as a seller, have been well documented. The BBC investigation (Panorama: The Truth Behind the Click) into working conditions in a UK-based Amazon warehouse showed an undercover worker walking 11 miles on a shift and collecting an order every 33 seconds. According to the BBC website, ÔÇ£experts have told Panorama these 10-and-a-half-hour night shifts could breach the working time regulations because of the long hours and the strenuous nature of the workÔÇØ.

ÔÇ£I would never work for this company again, I felt like a slave trapped in a big metal cage,ÔÇØ one worker told campaigning group Amazon Anonymous, according to Newsweek. Then thereÔÇÖs the pay, which is below the UK living wage of ┬ú7.85 per hour, despite Amazon sales in Britain in 2012 of ┬ú4.2bn. Other policies reported in the petition (@AmazonUK: this Christmas, pay your workers a Living Wage) are: 15 minute breaks that start wherever workers are in the giant warehouses, compulsory overtime, a ÔÇ£sack-if-youÔÇÖre-sickÔÇØ (three sick breaks in a three-month period) policy, monitoring and timing toilet breaks, getting half a point if youÔÇÖre one minute late (three points and youÔÇÖre out), a ÔÇ£performance consoleÔÇØ that tracks and logs workersÔÇÖ activities so they can be sacked if their ÔÇ£pick rateÔÇØ is too slow, and insecure temporary contracts for thousands of employees.

Our authors expect us to sell on Amazon, but they don’t always know the full and hidden story

So why does Linen Press use Amazon? Sadly, Amazon has the monopoly on book buying. It is the most visible, known and comprehensive book market in the world. Nowhere else is buying a book so simple, so convenient, even so addictive. Whether you want an obscure book on growing tomatoes or the ninth thriller in a series starring the same tough cop, type in the title and click. Our authors expect us to sell their books here, and we do, but neither they nor the buying public necessarily knows the full and hidden story.

The alternative to selling on Amazon is to rely on readers to search for us online and to order a book from our own website, but we donÔÇÖt have the same kind of visibility. We are David to its Goliath. Amazon may be responsible for closing down independent bookshops across the UK, and may have a shocking record in terms of workersÔÇÖ wages and conditions, but for a book buyer, itÔÇÖs cheap, reliable, fast and we all know how to use it. ThereÔÇÖs no competing with this bad giant of book buying.