Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon screws over gay publishers -- how to get even.

Amazon has created a firestorm with its treatment of books with a gay theme to them. Publishers of gay-themed novels and romances noticed that their books had vanished from Amazon’s ranking system.

Publisher Mark Probst contacted vendor services (a nightmare in itself) and asked them about this. The reply was shocking. He was told: “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adults materials must also be excluded from that feature.”

Please note that this is the typical, evasive answer that one gets from Amazon. The truth was that much of the material that was vanishing from listings wasn’t “adult” material except in the sense that it contained big words. But if by “adult” they mean “erotic” or “sexual,” then the material was neither. Probst also noticed “there is a multitude of ‘adult’ literature out there that is still being ranked—Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, come on! They are using categories THEY set up (gay and lesbian) to now target these books as somehow offensive.”

When this all got some negative publicity for Amazon they changed their story. I’m told that some vendors who deal with Amazon will get contradictory stories from Amazon about specific policies on the same day. Others complain that dealing with Amazon is like dealing with the Kremlin, except they aren’t as friendly or transparent in what they do. Publisher’s Weekly, the big boy in the publishing news world, says “titles like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain are among the titles who have lost their ranking.”

By the time you finish reading this you will know how to get the cheapest books possible using Amazon but without actually buying from Amazon. Amazon doesn’t want you to know this. Amazon makes it as hard as possible for you to do this. But here is how you can purchase the same book at below Amazon prices (which aren’t as good as people think they are).

I’m going to tell you how to get the most out of Amazon without ever buying from them. Amazon is not just a book vendor but also an outlet for “shops," which are book vendors. I suspect the only reason they allow other vendors on their site is to avoid any anti-trust problems. But, to steer customers to their usually higher priced books, they make the links to these other vendors rather small and more difficult to see.

When you search for a title on Amazon you will see huge type with their “discount” price and links to order directly from them. If you do that then you will pay more for the book than you need to do. For example, here is one book I just looked up. I get large type promoting the link to buy from Amazon. (See below.)

You will notice they sell the book for $14.40. In smaller type, and a bit farther down the page you will see this link:
This second link is easy to miss. It’s designed that way intentionally. If you want a new copy of the book then click on the word new. This will open up a page of vendors selling the book. The list is usually ranked according to price with the cheapest vendors at the top. But again Amazon is deceitful here as they usually list themselves first, even if they are the more expensive vendor. Just look down the page a bit further and you will see numerous vendors with cheaper prices than Amazon; rarely will this not be the case. Amazon is almost never the cheapest source of books on Amazon, but most people don’t know this. In the case of this book, going that extra step, about two seconds of your time, just save you an extra $3.

You will now have an array of vendors selling you the same book. You want a good price but you want decent service as well. Don’t fall for the trick of automatically buying a book because it is one cent cheaper, or even $1 cheaper. Check out the vendor rating. That is easy to do. You will see the name of the bookstore along with their rating. Here is an example.
My advice is to avoid any vendor with a rating lower than 98%. For instance, this vendor, whom I know nothing about, has a rating of 88%. That means 88% of their customers were happy and 12% had some problem. Twelve percent doesn’t sound like much, but that means one out of about every eight customers had a complaint with their order. They could all be bitchy customers, but not likely. I figure that a small percentage of people just like to bitch and I figure the 2% margin takes that into account. Still don’t buy the book yet. When you order from this vendor he is likely to lose the bulk of his profit to Amazon.

Vendors take all the risks. They buy the books and are required to ship within two days. Amazon has no such policy for itself, only for the vendors. A typical bookstore discount is 40% off list price. Amazon will take about a 20% commission on the book from the vendor. But the vendor has to replace books lost by the post office and take responsibility for any problems, even problems within Amazon’s own system.

Let us say that you accidentally click twice to order a book. You think you ordered once but Amazon sees it as two orders. The vendor is obliged to ship within two days. His only recourse is to send you a message. But Amazon forbids you and the vendor from directly dealing with each other. He must go through Amazon to reach you. The vendor sends a message but has no idea if you received it. Often these messages get lost of other generic messages from Amazon. The vendor is required to ship the second book or be in violation of policy and might lose his shop listing if he doesn't. You get two books and you are pissed off. The vendor has to accept the returned book and credit your account. All the postage, etc., are his losses. Amazon lost nothing. I would guess that it is typical for Amazon to make more money on the sale from a vendor than the typical vendor makes from the same sale.

The way to order is to contact the vendor. But, as I said, Amazon blocks their contact details. There is a way around this and it only takes a couple of clicks. Look at that rating again, you will see that it is actually a link. Click on the rating itself and that will take you to a vendor’s page. On the bottom right of the page you will see Vendor Help:
Now click on “Contact this seller.” You will now sign into your account and you get a screen that will allow you to send a comment to the vendor. You will be stopped from putting in a phone number or your direct contact details so don’t try. Ask any question or tell the vendor you wanted to ask some questions and could he contact you. At this point your email goes into the Amazon system. But when the vendor receives this query it will have your email address on it. He can now contact you directly and probably will.

Often, with the name of the vendor and their city, you can Google them and find their contact details on line. That is even faster and far more reliable than trusting Amazon to get your email to them. So I’d first try an on-line search for the vendor. Only if that doesn’t work should you email via Amazon. The more you leave Amazon out of the process, the more likely it is that things will go smoothly.

If the vendor contacts you directly, and you reached them through Amazon, ask if he will take a direct order from you by email or will call you for a credit card order. Ask about shipping costs and options. You may find the shipping is cheaper as Amazon overcharges grossly in some areas (this is true if you order more than one item from a vendor through Amazon and even worse if you live in Canada or overseas). Tell the vendor you want to order directly from them only and not through Amazon. Most vendors can take your order and process it. You will get faster service and you can pick the kind of shipping you want—options you don’t get through Amazon.

I may browse Amazon for titles and information but I have stopped ordering from them and ordering through them. Not long ago I needed some software. I found a vendor on Amazon offering the same item cheaper than Amazon. I Googled them and found their contact details. I then placed the order directly with the vendor. This was faster actually. Vendors tell me that Amazon sometimes has glitches where orders can be sat on for hours, if not a day or two. Suddenly the problem resolves and they get a bunch of orders. I also got the option of downloading the software directly, so no shipping was required. And I liked knowing that the vendor got the full profit.

If you order directly you know that the order was received and that it is being filled. You can also ask vendors if they can offer a better price. Remember that since they aren’t paying a 20% commission to Amazon they may be more inclined to grant your request. You will get cheaper books this way. You will get better service this way. You are in direct contact with the people supplying the book and can find options that Amazon won’t offer you. I also think it is important to help these individual book sellers, they are what keeps the market competitive and competitive markets are better for consumers. Do yourself a favor and start buying from the vendors directly. It’s a win-win situation for you and for them. Sure, Amazon won’t like it. But frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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