When I originally decided to use CreateSpace as the print-on-demand (POD) publisher for my short story collection, The Year of the Elm, one of the main attractions was its tight distribution integration with Amazon.com. (CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, and an amalgam of two companies that were acquired by Amazon in 2005.) I have always been opposed to proprietary e-book formats, so making my work available for Amazon’s e-readers was less of a draw. However, because I already offered the collection in multiple e-book formats on Smashwords, adding a Kindle version was essentially adding a market, not a product. Offering a print-on-demand paperback and selling it through Amazon, however, was a whole new proposition.
The conventional wisdom about distributing a book through Amazon is that every independent author should make their work available on that site. In fact I’d wager that every person reading this post believes that to be one hundred percent true. And as someone who felt a definite thrill when I first saw my work for sale on Amazon I understand the appeal. Instead of waiting for a publishing-industry gatekeeper to green-light participation in the market on an equal footing, Amazon makes it possible for you to green-light yourself. Who’s gong to turn that down? (I mean, other than Groucho Marx, and, apparently, me.)
Over the past two years or so, much to my surprise, I have slowly come to the realization that my work doesn’t and probably never will belong on Amazon.com. Incongruously, this evolution was accelerated and crystallized over the past couple of months while trying and ultimately failing to compel the Bing search engine to find my work on CreateSpace’s out-of-the-way e-store pages. Yes, the fact that royalties are higher on CreateSpace than on Amazon is a plus, but that’s about the only obvious business-related advantage in choosing CreateSpace over Amazon. Yet I’m still convinced I’ve made the right decision.
Before exploring my rationale in detail, however, a couple of stipulations. First, there is no question that Amazon.com long ago became the default bookstore for the country if not the world. Tell most consumers to order a book and they will, without thinking, click over to Amazon because the association is that complete. Second, it is also clear that Amazon does an excellent job of facilitating purchases and fulfilling orders. Since many people already have an Amazon.com account, and because Amazon does everything possible to make purchases effortless, there is literally no easier way for most people to buy a book.
Given those two truths, it should be obvious that any self-published author who chooses not to make their work available on Amazon.com is an idiot. And for a long time that’s how I felt as well. Until, that is, I started thinking about what I’m trying to do by self-publishing my own work, and about the relationship I want to have with my readers. That’s when it dawned on me that what Amazon.com wants and what I want are not the same thing, which in turn led to the realization that how Amazon gets what it wants is not something I want to be part of.
Sales as a Goal
It’s axiomatic in every aspect of life these days that the only demonstrable worth anything has is its transactional value. If, as an individual, you are not relentlessly maximizing and trading in your own celebrity then you are by definition a loser, as evidenced by the endless number of metrics we now use to define who is hot and who is not in the transactional food chain. From “Likes” to “Friends” to Followers,” people have voluntarily traded the intrinsic value of relationships for an abstracted transactional definition in order to increase the social capitalization of their micro-media empire of one.
In this context it should come as no surprise that one of the oldest metrics — money — has an exalted place at the transactional altar. If you dare suggest that a lucrative or even speculative financial transaction should be avoided for any reason up to and including concerns about legality, let alone ethics or morality, then in the eyes of a significant percentage of the population you are a naive fool. To the transactional way of thinking there is nothing more important than making a sale, if not also a profit, and this way of thinking seems to have such deep roots in American culture (if not also humanity) as to be essentially indivisible.
Still, after various cultural conversations of one kind or another we Americans have from time to time decided that some means of making a buck are just not okay. Owning other human beings, for example, seems to be generally frowned upon. Putting children to work in coal mines or sweat shops or factories for fourteen hours a day also seems to be socially unacceptable. And of course abusing developmentally disabled workers is obviously wrong. So there is some precedent for not availing one’s self of every possible opportunity to make money, even as it’s also true that there are plenty of people in the world still engaging in various forms of slavery and abuse in order to fund a lifestyle to which they believe they are uniquely entitled.
It is through this kind of narrow and infrequently used ethical window then, that I find myself leaping with regard to Amazon.com, albeit on a significantly more banal level. After a lot of soul searching I’m not willing to do or excuse whatever it takes to grind every last sale out of every last person who might be a potential customer for something I wrote. Instead, I’m drawing my own meaningless line in the sand even if it costs me a few bucks along the way.
Business as a Goal
Attendant with the idea that every sale is a good thing is the idea that every endeavor is or should be a business. If you’re good at baking cakes then obviously you should go into catering or open your own bakery. If your mother passed down sacred recipes that everyone loves then obviously you should open your own restaurant. (You love your mother and want her to be proud of you, don’t you?) Likewise, if you enjoy writing then it stands to reason that you should try to make a living with words.
From the point of view of a naive fool, however, it could be argued that you’re also free to choose what you do and do not want to engage in for profit. Or whether you want to run your for-profit business as a quiet, sleepy little avocation rather than a national brand that demands a full-time, heart-attack-inducing commitment. For example, if you like making quilts I believe it’s fine to make quilts and give them away, or perhaps sell a few now and then at a craft fair in order to purchase more supplies. People may buzz in your ear about how you could make more money with your quilts or run a quilting school or open up a quilting shop, but none of those things will necessarily further your own quilt-making, and may in fact keep you from it. So there’s some merit in questioning whether your bliss actually merges at any point with the functional and practical demands of business. (A step I think many people overlook.)
In wrestling with that question I also think there are as many points of view to consider as there are people. I have known for a long time that I am not willing to write something simply because I think it will sell. It’s also a fair bet that nobody reading this has lived the life I’ve lived or run up against the same obstacles. Then again, if I were younger by several decades there’s no question I would be embracing self-publishing differently, including focusing more of my previous for-profit writing efforts in that direction. Being now more of a has-been than a will-be, however, my goals for writing have changed considerably in terms of what motivates me, what gives me satisfaction, and even what I think I can reasonably accomplish.
As I’ve noted before, I believe every self-publishing author should maintain extremely tight control of their costs. This belief, however, is not inherently about treating writing as a business but about making writing sustainable and thus also enjoyable — or at least as enjoyable as it ever is — over the long haul. By which I mean, ideally, your entire life. The benefit of self-publishing is not simply that it’s a way to get around the gatekeeping inherent in the traditional publishing industry, it’s a way to get around the bloated costs of publication as well — and that’s true whether we’re talking about old-school, vanity-press scams or the equally dubious costs associated with industry book deals. Approaching writing as a business does indeed include managing costs, but it also means doing a lot more than writing.
The fact that Amazon is the most highly rated brand in America clearly says they’re doing right by their customers. If you’re a competitor, however, and particularly if you’re a competitor in the book industry, you might have some whiny complaints about Amazon’s business practices, including the way in which Amazon controls prices on its site. For example, here are the pricing requirements for selling your work in e-book form, via the Kindle Direct Publishing program:
You must set your Digital Book’s List Price (and change it from time-to-time if necessary) so that it is no higher than the list price in any sales channel for any digital or physical edition of the Digital Book.
But if you choose the 70% Royalty Option, you must further set and adjust your List Price so that it is at least 20% below the list price in any sales channel for any physical edition of the Digital Book.
By “list price in any sales channel,” we mean the suggested or recommended retail price or, if you sell your book directly to end users, your own sales price, for an edition of the book available outside of our Program.
Translation: Amazon always gets the lowest price, and that’s true for POD sales as well. As an independent author you get to set the initial price, and you can raise or lower that price, but the price for each work you sell on Amazon.com must be as low or lower than the sales price available anywhere else in the world. If it’s not, Amazon.com has the unilateral right to match that price.
Now, from the customer’s point of view this is obviously a good thing. Amazon can all but guarantee that its e-book and book prices are always the lowest available, saving customers the time of having to look for the best price somewhere else. The power of this price-control guarantee not only benefits Amazon by making it trustworthy in the eyes of its customers, but it also means Amazon doesn’t have to do anything to compete with other retailers on price. Without lifting a finger, simply as a condition of sale, Amazon gets the best price for books.
The fact that Amazon doesn’t care what price you set as long as they get the lowest price tells you as a self-publishing author everything you need to know about Amazon’s business model and how Amazon makes money. Unlike businesses that agonize about quality or value, Amazon doesn’t care if your book or e-book is good or bad or if it sells for fifty bucks or zero bucks, because like stock brokers and real estate agents they get paid no matter what. Amazon only cares about the content of your work if what you’ve written negatively impacts their brand, and only cares about the price you charge relative to other retailers because having the lowest price helps Amazon generate more transactions.
As any product search will demonstrate, however, Amazon is not just a bookseller but an everything seller. So while your heart is telling you that Amazon.com is a trustworthy virtual bookshop looking out for your consumer needs, your brain should be reminding you that Amazon.com is in fact little more than an online order-fulfillment company — albeit one which dwarfs the online presence of major brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart. (Something Walmart is once again attempting to change.)
My Self-Publishing Goals
Self-publishing to me means the freedom and opportunity to write what I want without necessarily thinking of that writing as a business or even as an inherently transactional experience. I can then take my work and make it directly available to others without having to negotiate with gatekeepers or seek permission from others, and that’s an incredible liberty relative to the way book publishing worked until very recently.
Having spent most of my professional writing life working in industries that were both collaborative and commercial, self-publishing appeals to me precisely because it offers opportunities that go beyond simply making a buck by plying my craft. In particular, I want to make myself available to readers and other writers with as little interference as possible, because I value that kind of direct connection. I’ve accomplished that goal in some ways by establishing this web site and writing posts about storytelling, which has over time convinced the search engine gods that I’m worth noticing.
I’m also interested in using that search-engine-based model when I make my work available for sale on the internet. I want anyone anywhere in the world to be able to type in some basic information about me (my name, say, or the title of something I’ve written) and find my work. What I’m not interested in, and have become less and less interested in over time, is having anyone or anything get in the way of that basic search-driven process. I am not and do not want to be in the order-fulfillment business, but I also do not want an order-fulfillment company wedging itself between me and anyone who is interested in finding me.
So while Amazon.com cares about sales only, I care about something other than sales. I care about being able to invest myself in the writing process for the sake of the work, as opposed to any particular outcome or gain. I also care about being available to anyone who wants to find me or something I’ve written, and to the extent that I can omit or limit third parties in furtherance of those goals I believe I’m ahead. From that perspective, no matter how good Amazon is at driving sales, it’s still a third party with its own divergent agenda.
Rationality as a Goal
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, still, that I’m an idiot. Even if I’m all weepy about process and about avoiding gatekeepers and third-party interlopers, you believe that making my work available on Amazon.com does nothing to prevent me from achieving those goals, while still providing the powerful upside of piggy-backing on Amazon’s muscle as an online retailer. And I don’t blame you for thinking that, because that’s what I used to think.
But there’s a problem with asserting that the only rational response to the existence of Amazon.com is to use that site to make money. As is often the case with assertions that are blindingly obvious to everyone, this particular assertion requires a tightly constrained premise that denies any relevant context. In this case, the only way you can assert that Amazon is always a clear benefit to self-publishing writers is to ignore the larger context of self-publishing itself.
As I’ve written before, if your big idea for making a living involves writing and selling books, you are already so far out of touch with reality that it doesn’t matter how you go about trying to achieve your goals. Yes, you can be a little smarter here and there in the margins, but none of those decisions are going to make or break you, or, more importantly, allow you to make writing your full-time career.
So if we’re going to make rationality the determining factor in whether an author should or should not choose to make their work available on Amazon.com, we also need to make rationality the determining factor in whether writers should write for profit in the first place. And all of the math and metrics and data I’m aware of conclusively show that if you’re trying to write to be read, let alone writing to make money, you are in fact a deluded person who is all but guaranteed to fail no matter what you do. Which leads me, personally, to conclude that I better have personal reasons for writing apart from any profit motive, because the odds are — whether I use Amazon.com or not — that I am not going to make much or any money from my efforts. At least not immediately, and probably not ever.
I’d love to have a hit and sell a lot of books. But when it comes to starting a new work that’s not foremost in my mind because I know — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that I can’t control the factors that ultimately result in that kind of success. On a good day I can control myself long enough to get some writing done, and I can control my craft, and my intent, but not the outcome of my work. And it would be the definition of irrationality to think otherwise.
Amazon.com as Black Hole
Search engines rank sites in part by checking to see how many other sites connect to the site being ranked. As such it’s to any site’s advantage to generate as many links as possible, thereby increasing its page rank when the site is included in hits for a related internet search. Amazon.com has been so successful at connecting itself with other sites in so many ways that a high page rank is all but assured not just for books but for almost any retail product. (Feel free to try it. Google here; the spotty and unreliable Bing here.)
In populating search returns with high-ranking hits to both its own and affiliate sites, Amazon inevitably marginalizes other pages relevant to those items, which in turn helps Amazon retain dominance as a retailer. In fact, because Amazon’s hits are so often at the top of search returns, it’s likely that many consumers go directly to Amazon and search for products there rather than searching more broadly using a web-wide engine. In this Amazon is indeed a beacon of success because its cyber-gravity sucks in web traffic and keywords at a rate nobody else can compete with, which may be what many self-publishing authors want. But it’s not necessarily a good thing if you happen to be, say, a wacky self-publishing author with your own website, or a writer who wants to make work readily available through other points of sale.
The point in all this is that Amazon’s search dominance is not a happy accident or even the natural byproduct of Amazon’s scale as a retailer. Rather, the power of this black-hole like effect is a direct manifestation of Amazon.com’s online strategy. From my point of view as a self-publishing author that strategy might still be fine if there was some way to prevent Amazon.com from obliterating my itty-bitty site or other points of sale, but if I make my work available on Amazon there’s no way to prevent its super-massive virtual gravity from obscuring such relatively small outposts. As a result, it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to find my work for sale in locations other than Amazon unless they’re willing to drill down and pick through the absurd number of third-party affiliate hits that pollute search returns as a result of Amazon’s business practices. And I don’t think many consumers are going to do that when they’re probably already accustomed to clicking on the first Amazon link.
Here, for example, are three hits for my short story collection, taken from the first page of Google hits prior to removing that work from Amazon:
Not only are those hits all for affiliate (non-Amazon) sites, but note that the second one links to Sears. Had you clicked on that hit you would have been delivered to a Sears page which offered a number of products for sale, none of which was my short story collection. Yet somehow Sears’ rank among the hits returned for that search was well ahead of the rank for the CreateSpace page where you can actually order the book. How did Sears end up outranking a point of sale for my work when it doesn’t even sell my book? Well, that’s the unbridled power of affiliate marketing and search engine optimization, and of perverting the entire objective of search in order to make a buck.
Amazon.com as Market for New Products
Amazon is a market in every sense of the word. Relative to self-publishers it is an online store where work can be sold as long as Amazon.com’s terms are agreed to, but Amazon aims to accomplish much more with each product it offers for sale. Unfortunately, many of the bells and whistles that Amazon.com adds to your book pages are not inherently of benefit to you as a writer. If you have no other web presence the decision to use Amazon.com is probably still a no-brainer, but for some self-publishing authors Amazon.com may not be so much a friendly retail partner as an elbow-throwing competitor.
If you haven’t noticed by now, Amazon hosts its own third-party market for some products, including books. It’s this secondary role of not simply selling products but creating and hosting a competitive market which fuels a great deal of the web pollution that ends up obscuring other points of sale for self-publishing authors like me, while also making self-publishing authors complicit in what I think are intentionally unethical sales practices. That these practices freely allow other retailers to price my work well above or below the rock-bottom price that Amazon insists I give it is particularly problematic.
Here’s a screen capture for a reseller offering a new copy of my short story collection through Amazon’s in-house third-party market:
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking nobody in their right mind would pay $165 for a book they know they can buy directly from trustworthy old Amazon for $11.99. And I agree with you, though I’ll be coming back to that point in a bit. We’ve all seen comical examples of third-party prices on Amazon that reached absurd levels because some algorithm went wacky in an automated pricing program. But the very fact that we end up talking about extreme examples of third-party retail prices leads us away from a much more interesting and relevant question, which is why Amazon hosts a third-party market at all.
If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on about Amazon.com, it’s that there is an army of people being paid very good money to make sure there is nothing on an Amazon.com web page that Amazon does not want to be there. Meaning not only that the inclusion of third-party retailers is intentional, but so is allowing those retailers to list prices that are above or below the price point at which I am selling my own work. So again, leaving aside the issue of whether anyone would ever pay such prices, why does Amazon.com intentionally create and host a secondary market for products that it already sells, including prices that are quite often the definition of highway robbery?
Over the course of a week or two I took screen shots of that same third-party retailer’s pricing for a new copy of my short story collection, which fluctuated wildly above the price I had set. In the following examples note also that you can see prices for used copies on a separate tab:
I find it odd that a third-party retailer would offer the same book at such wildly fluctuating prices over such a relatively short time, but it seems even odder to me that super-trustworthy Amazon would allow such crazy pricing practices. I have no inside information on why America’s most trusted brand thinks this is a good idea, but if I had to guess I’d say that in the same way Amazon quotes inflated retail prices in order to tout significant savings, allowing third-party retailers to offer high if not absurd prices only makes Amazon’s prices look like that much more of a deal — if not a steal. If true that’s obviously lame and nothing I would ever do myself, but in the twisted, ruthless context of corporate retail sales it makes a kind of twisted, ruthless, corporate sense.
Amazon.com as Market for Used Products
If Amazon.com feels it’s in its best interest to host a third-party market for new products, then it’s logical that Amazon would also want to allow the resale of used products as a means of denying that traffic and business to other online resellers. Here’s a screen grab of my short story collection being offered as a used book:
As with the new-book prices, there are a couple of odd things about these used-book prices. First, despite the fact that there are two used copies being advertised in two different conditions at two different prices by the same reseller, those prices are still approximately three and a half times higher than the cost of a new copy. This again raises the question of why anyone in their right mind would pay such prices prices, or why any retailer would offer such prices.
Second, take a close look at the text that describes the condition of the two used copies. One of the benefits of having only a handful of sales of a tiny little book is that you pretty much know where all the copies are. And as the sole account manager for my short story collection I’m reasonably confident that this particular reseller did not and does not have two copies of The Year of the Elm that have “some wear on binding and pages” or a “lightly worn cover and pages” respectively. Which means those ads are lies, and those lies are being hosted by Amazon. To whatever extent Amazon actually tries to police claims in such ads I can see how doing so would be difficult, but the fact that those ads are in all likelihood deceptive doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy about Amazon’s trusted brand or about any of the other third-party ads on Amazon.com.
Now, here’s a screen shot showing yet another used price for my short story collection from the same reseller, but this time I want you to take a close look at the price being shown on the new-book tab:
As I said earlier, in selling any work through Amazon.com I’m contractually obligated to give Amazon the lowest price available anywhere. So how is it that I’m compelled to accept those terms, yet Amazon itself is hosting third-party retailers who are offering my book for less than that price? I mean, how is that even possible, and why does Amazon make it possible? (Because I’m a computer whiz I either did not capture or accidentally deleted the screen grab showing the $10.09 listing for my book, but you can see the same lower-than-retail pricing here, here and here.)
I have no idea how a third-party retailer makes honest money selling new or used books at cut-rate prices plus a few dollars shipping and handling, particularly when they would likely have to purchase a new copy from Amazon at many times that price in order to complete the order. What I do know is that even though I can’t lower the price of my own work anywhere in the universe without Amazon having the legal right to do the same, everybody else on the planet seems to have the right to offer my book for sale on Amazon for anywhere from $0.01 to $278 or more. And that seems a little odd, although admittedly I’m just a dweeb writer and not the most trusted brand in America.
Amazon.com and Duplicity
Why would Amazon sponsor a third-party marketplace on its own retail website, and allow third party resellers to offer the same products Amazon sells at both wildly inflated and drastically reduced prices? Well, since Amazon gets a cut of any transaction that takes place, spurring sales by any means available obviously makes good business sense. But even if you’re the biggest Amazon.com fan in the world I think it’s also clear where all of this could become a problem.
If Amazon reserves the right to cut prices on products to match the cheapest price available anywhere, and it’s also hosting a third-party market in which resellers apparently have the right to offer anything at any price, then Amazon — if it was really, really sleazy — could use the cut-rate prices of third-party retailers on Amazon.com as a justification for cutting its own prices to match. But again, that would be super sleazy, and it’s hard to imagine that the retailer with the most respected brand in America would be willing to risk its reputation with such gutter-trash sales tactics:
Some brands, including German chef knife maker Wüsthof, said they stopped selling goods on Amazon after the company priced some products below the minimum advertised price. When Wüsthof complained, Amazon cited competition from third-party sellers, according to Todd Myers, Wüsthof’s vice president of sales in the United States. Myers said Amazon told Wüsthof to crack down on these third-party sellers itself.
Others, such as Swiss Gourmet, distributor of Swiss Diamond cookware in the Americas, have threatened to pull out unless Amazon limits discounting and cracks down on unauthorized third-party sellers.
Ralph Lauren Corp, Hugo Boss AG and Guess Inc have all protested recently about unauthorized sellers. Adidas AG plans to ban dealers listing its products on Amazon and eBay starting in 2013.
While you’re mulling all that over, consider another relevant fact. In a brick-and-mortar store, when a retailer puts a product on sale that product has usually been paid for and is in physical inventory. The retailer literally owns the item being closed out or discounted, and in setting a new price must decide whether a diminished profit or even a loss is the right business move at that time. In the case of a print-on-demand book being sold through Amazon.com, not only is that book probably not being held in inventory, it probably isn’t even printed until an order is received — meaning any attempt to cut the price is not a business decision related to a product that Amazon has purchased, but a goad to induce transactions regardless of what the owner-author might prefer.
That Amazon might manufacture the legal right to engage in such price drops by allowing if not encouraging its own third-party retailers to offer my book at lower price points than the one I set myself is nauseating on an ethical level. But even that isn’t why I decided to stop using Amazon.com to sell my work. Rather, it’s that this predatory practice of allowing steep discounts as well as insanely high prices also has an inevitable byproduct, and that byproduct is victims.
Amazon.com and Complicity
Imagine you’re at Walmart to make a purchase. After locating the item you want and checking the price, you notice a seedy-looking character in a trench coat standing next to the floor display of the product you’re after. Sensing your interest this person opens their coat and offers to sell you the same product at a wildly inflated price. When you decline the person instead offers to sell you the same product at an insanely steep discount. You can see what you want right in front of you, you know what it costs, yet for some reason Walmart has granted floor space to a person of dubious character so they can offer you sales pitches that are almost certainly not in your best interest. Would you be happy that Walmart was presenting you with a variety of price points and deals? Or would you feel like you were being exposed to risks and uncertainties you didn’t want to deal with?
Again, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s the same thing you’ve been thinking all along. Yes, Amazon allows all kinds of crazy prices — indeed, it goes out of its way to provide a platform through which third-party retailers can offer crazy prices on Amazon.com — but nobody in their right mind is ever going to buy my short story collection for two hundred dollars. And if customers really can get it for four bucks or two bucks or nine cents, what’s the downside to me as long as I get paid?
You’re right. Nobody who actually stops to consider either a very high or suspiciously low third-party price on Amazon.com is going to pull the trigger on those deals. Between being cautious about opportunities that seem too good to be true and having the good sense to buy a product at the lowest reasonable price — meaning the one that Amazon.com is offering itself — it’s almost a certainty that customers will not avail themselves of any new or used third-party offering that Amazon.com hosts on its site.
But that leaves us with a bit of a problem. Basic economics dictate that third party retailers would not be offering products for sale on Amazon.com if there was no money to be made. Sure, some of the people floating deals are probably just bad at what they’re doing, but if there was literally no money to be made ever then nobody would routinely populate Amazon’s site with crazy high prices and crazy low prices for the rather blindingly obvious reason that it would lead to absolutely no return on investment. So there is, somewhere, even if only in the margins, a profit to be had, and that profit is at least enough to convince Amazon and its trench-coat-clad resellers to keep Amazon’s third-party marketplace humming.
So who are the Amazon customers that these third-party resellers are actually selling to? The answer unfortunately is people who are not in their right mind, and I can think of a number of customers who meet that definition. First, in terms of low-priced sales, there are people who are not paying attention. They’re busy, they’re in a hurry and they’re predisposed to getting the best possible deal, so they scan the prices, click on the lowest price and bingo: a purchase is made. It may be a purchase that turns into a nightmare, or that comes with all kinds of hidden shipping and handling charges, but the transaction takes place and Amazon gets paid. Second, in terms of high-priced sales, there are people who are easily confused, including people with developmental disabilities or the elderly, who may have a hard time understanding that the price they’re looking at is four or ten or twenty times higher than the price Amazon is charging for the exact same product. They know it’s what they want, little Billy has been begging for it for his birthday, the sale is being brokered by Amazon and they’ve heard Amazon can be trusted, so they go ahead and buy my book for $96 instead paying the $12 I’m asking.
Again, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking these kinds of distracted or confused sales are so rare as to be almost unheard of, and again I think you’re right. But this kind of market dynamic is the same process that drives all of the spam you’ve ever received in your life, and I’m betting you’ve received plenty of spam. If you’ve ever looked at spam you’ve probably had the same reaction you have to the third-party prices on Amazon.com, which is that nobody in their right mind would ever go for whatever deal the spam was offering. Yet the very fact that spam exists proves beyond a doubt that it works, at least enough to encourage people to do it.
The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach in thinking all this through is that Amazon sponsors its own spam even though that sponsored spam inevitably dupes or tricks some of Amazon’s own customers. I also think any claim that Amazon is unaware of these practices is not credible, nor is any claim that Amazon is powerless to stop such practices given that it’s got more cash on hand than most countries. Amazon has never shown any reluctance to crush anything or anyone that inhibits its profits, so the very fact that Amazon is doing nothing to deal with these practices means Amazon.com’s third-party marketplace is working exactly as Amazon wants it to.
While Amazon may be the online version of Wal-Mart, the irony here is that Wal-Mart in both its retail stores and online guise has better price controls and a safer purchasing environment than Amazon.com, which is perfectly happy hosting all kinds of obvious and blatant pricing scams as long as they get a cut of the proceeds. That Amazon’s third-party spam also helps pollute the web with affiliate links, obliterating search results for retail products on other retailer’s sites, is yet another advantage from Amazon’s point of view.
Opting Out of Sales on Amazon.com
If you’re a self-publishing author you need to make sure you’re visible to people who want to find you on the internet. If you’ve elected to have Amazon do most of your selling people will be able to find your work because of the voracity with which Amazon sucks in keyword searches, but there is no free lunch. Not only will people get hits to the Amazon page selling your work, they’ll get dozens if not hundreds of collateral hits to third parties that are using your product as a means of driving traffic to their web sites — even if they don’t actually offer your work for sale, as was the case with Sears.
It’s been several weeks since I began turning off all the Amazon-related distribution options for my short story collection via CreateSpace, and I have to say the results so far are exactly what I was hoping for. While Amazon.com still shows up as a retailer for the e-book version of that work, the POD Amazon links are gone and third-party links to both the e-book and POD version are diminishing. Over time my hope is that the CreateSpace POD point of sale will end up at the top of the search returns, as will the e-book version available on Smashwords. [Book removed 01/03/17.]
— Mark Barrett