I am, I suspect, like most people: I know that Amazon is a Big Bad Monopoly and famous for screwing over publishers, but, well, the books and DVDs they sell are competitively priced and the service is good and… So I buy from them. I even link books titles on this blog to my Amazon affiliates account – it currently earns me about £15 a year. (To be fair, I have always linked small press books directly to their own site, in order to better support them.) I’ve also tried selling books on Amazon Marketplace, but given that I have to price them so low to get sales, and that Amazon take off around £2.80 in fees, many of them I’ve sold at a loss. And I don’t mean a loss when factoring in their original purchase price. I mean, it cost me more to post the book than I received from the sale. But I didn’t much care – at least the books were no longer cluttering up my house.
But now the shoe is well and truly on the other foot.
Last month, I started up Whippleshield Books, a niche small press to publish literary hard sf. I did it partly to self-publish something I felt I needed more control over than another small press would give me. I also wanted it out quickly, so I could launch it on the back of Rocket Science at Olympus 2012 last weekend. Which I did. It’s called Adrift on the Sea of Rains.
I bought some ISBNs, and I paid to have the book professionally printed by MPG Biddles. Since the book has an ISBN – two, in fact, one for the paperback and one for the limited edition hardback – it appears in Nielsen’s database, and so was picked up by Amazon. Where the two editions were offered for pre-order.
But the product pages on Amazon were very basic, with only title, author, price, artwork, publisher, pagecount and ISBN. I decided to add a blurb and some reviews. I identified myself as the publisher, and filled in the necessary online form. It would take five days to update the product page, I was told. A day or two later, the book could no longer be pre-ordered; it was now marked “unavailable”. Thinking this might have been a consequence of my editing, I contacted Amazon.
They assured me it wasn’t, and said it was simply because they “did not have a relationship with the supplier”. Amazon suggested I join their Amazon Advantage programme. Now, I’d only edited one of the two editions of my book. The other could still be pre-ordered. The whole thing smelled to me, but never mind… I signed up for Amazon Advantage. It costs £23.50 a year. This was much better, I thought. I had much greater control over the product page. For the small annual fee, this seems okay.
Then Amazon ordered a copy of the paperback edition of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and I discovered things weren’t so good after all.
Amazon take 60% of the retail price. This is non-negotiable. For a £3.99 paperback, this means I earn £1.60 per copy sold. Amazon take £2.39. And they’ll carry as much stock as they think they can sell, which in this case is a single copy.
The paperback of Adrift on the Sea of Rains costs me £1.32 per copy to print (not including one-off set-up costs, or the fixed cost of the ISBN). So that’s 28p profit per copy sold on Amazon. A bit small, but never mind. Except… I have to ship the order. I have to pay for the postage and packing. At the moment, that’s 20p for a padded envelope and 92p postage for second class large letter. My 28p profit has now become 84p lost. If I have to supply single copies to Amazon, then for each copy I will lose £0.84. If they order 100 copies one at a time, I will be £84 out of pocket. I may not be a businessman, but even I can see this is no way to run a business.
It was always my intention to set up a website of my own for Whippleshield Books, and I would sell copies there. But only a microscopic percentage of the people who visit Amazon were likely to visit my site. So selling on Amazon appeared a good move. And so it would have been. If they’d ordered 100 copies from me at £1.60 for stock, I’d have made £28 (less shipping, which would be less than £28). But since I might have to supply each individual order… it’s untenable.
I’m going to withdraw my Whippleshield Books from Amazon. I am going to stop using my Amazon affiliates account (I’ll leave the existing links on this blog; I don’t have time to go back and remove them all). I am going to pull my books from my Amazon Marketplace account. And I will look elsewhere to buy books and DVDs. Even if it costs me more. (That may result in me buying less, which can only be to the good.)
Having said that, I will be providing a Kindle edition of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I have no choice in that – the platform is popular and it is the easiest way for Kindle owners to purchase the book. I can also make a profit on each sale. And I hope to have the Whippleshield Books website up and running in the two to three weeks.
April 13, 2012 at 11:35 am
And Amazon are rabidly anti-union. I’ve been agin them for ages. It even irritates me that the links to most cover images and the best bibliographic databases on LibraryThing are to Amazon, and so I use non-Amazon images wherever possible.
April 13, 2012 at 11:55 am
Knotty problem eh?
I went to a talk by Ewan Morrison a few months back where he tried to explain this exact problem to a bunch of indie writers and publishers. I was surprised at the sheer level of venom he got in return.
April 13, 2012 at 12:04 pm
You’d think Amazon would buy a substantial quantity to hold in stock, which means economies of scale would leave you some small profit. But they don’t. They’ll have 1 copy of mine in stock, probably fulfil an order that’s been placed. I can’t afford to sell this way.
April 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm
Bloody hell, this is horrible.
I suppose things can get even worse if international order gets placed.
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April 14, 2012 at 7:27 am
Would you not be better off selling copies of the book via Amazon as a Marketplace trader, rather than as a retail supplier? That way, although the book would be showing out of stock in Amazon’s main inventory, it would show up in the ‘new and second hand’ listings. And I’m guessing you’d be able to set the price as you liked, and Amazon would add their standard postage rate (£2.75 for books, based on past purchases) to any orders placed, which would cover the padded envelope + postage and then a bit?
(The above is all guesswork as I haven’t been in that position myself, so there may be flaws in the logic…)
April 14, 2012 at 7:28 am
I’d not considered that. I’ll look into it.
April 14, 2012 at 11:50 am
“I’ve also tried selling books on Amazon Marketplace, but given that I have to price them so low to get sales, and that Amazon take off around £2.80 in fees, many of them I’ve sold at a loss.”
Take your unwanted stuff to an Oxfam shop, Ian – Oxfam books on West Street, for example. At least then some truly needy people benefit, as opposed to Amazon execs.
April 14, 2012 at 8:38 pm
Sounds like they’re making things difficult for you to “encourage” the use of their print on demand services.
I hear more and more about Amazon’s dubious business practices towards small publishers these days. It’s unsettling.
I hope you will find other and less difficult ways to sell the Whippleshield books.
April 15, 2012 at 8:38 pm
(a tangent — i.e. not related to the post)
Ian, I’ll be finished my PhD qualifying exams in a few days and will suddenly have TONS of free time. I want to read a few history of science fiction monographs. Do you know of any particularly good ones? Thanks so much!
April 16, 2012 at 9:59 am
Trillion Year Sprees by Brian Aldiss is probably the best one.
April 17, 2012 at 2:47 am
Have you heard of this one? Seems somewhat more scholarly…
April 17, 2012 at 6:19 am
If it’s by Adam Roberts, it’ll be worth a read. He knows his stuff.