Sunday, May 04, 2008

The voice of reason and common sense

It will not have gone unnoticed that I have been somewhat preoccupied of late with some deeply personal issues. I have not mentioned what has been going on in publishing for a good few weeks. Yesterday though, I did briefly mention the so-called Amazon debate, and how it is actually impossible for them to withdraw books from their site, as this is fed to them via the ISBN agency, Nielson Bookdata.

A letter from my own esteemed editor, and owner of Authors OnLine Ltd, Richard Fitt, only serves to confirm this. The letter, which can be read in both the May edition of Writers Forum, and on the Authors OnLine website , refers to a letter from one Dave Patten, which appeared in a previous edition of said magazine. I have not seen Dave's letter, since I rarely buy Writers Forum, preferring the rival publication Writing and Writers News, but from what I can gather in reading Richard's reply, Mr Patten was somewhat enraged at Amazon discounting his book, and as he saw it, demeaning its value. He claims to have asked Amazon to remove his book from their site.

As Richard points out, this is impossible, and the book is of course, despite Mr Patten's protests, still very much alive and kicking. It is in fact, impossible to prevent any one trader from selling any one book via their site without completely withdrawing it from the distribution system.

Many authors seem totally unaware as to how this works, being ignorant of exactly how such sites keep updated. The fact is, that Amazon (and other websites such as Play, Tesco etc) get their data feed from ISBN agencies such as Nielsen Bookdata, so if you register your ISBN with Nielson (which you have to do), then the book will be on these sites whether you like it or not. In most cases (certain larger publishers do sell direct to Amazon if they keep an inventory of books in stock), books are not sold directly to individual Internet based sellers. This is not then under the control of either the publisher or author, but something that happens automatically as long as you have an ISBN.

The supply of these books to such outlets is controlled as always, by the wholesalers and distributors - which in the UK means Gardners and Bertrams. They will supply to anyone who has an account with them and cetainly, no distributor would take a book on the basis that it was NOT sold to Amazon, or anyone else for that matter, as it would be cutting their own throats. It would be virtually impossible to police and may well be contrary to anti-trade laws.

As Richard also points out, in a free economy such as what we have here in the UK, a trader is entitled to sell goods for any price that they deem fit, even if they make loss. That is their concern and not something that we as authors should worry about. It is not as if we lose anything. Genesis of Man is supplied via Gardners to these outlets at 40 percent discount and this is the price that Gardners invoice them for. If Amazon choose to knock more off the cover price then that comes out of their profits and not mine, so why should I be concerned?

The thing we should all be much more concerned about is the sale of new and used copies via these sites, as in many cases they are misleasdingly advertised, and come from dubious sources - gallies for example or review copies. Many of those advertised as 'used' are not in fact used at all, but brand new copies hot off the presses. Richard claims to have tested this by ordering these so-called 'used copies' only to find new ones appearing through the door, alongside a bill from Lightning Source for printing costs!

These copies appear within weeks or even days of a books release, at ridiculous prices, and there is no attempt to differentiate between books in and out of print. Even after books have been withdrawn from the system, copies continue to show on these sites, advertised as both new and used. These must all be used though, as new books are no longer being printed. Neither author nor publisher get one single penny from such sales, while the customer has no way of checking the authenticity of the product until it is too late.

In some ways, Amazon and print on demand are perfect bed fellows, and I can certainly understand why my American counterparts were so upset at what they are doing across the Atlantic. Amazon do not have to hold stock of any of our books, do not insist on returnability, and you know that print on demand books can always be quickly obtained via this source. This I suppose is the secret of their success, and without them, much as I hate to admit it, my life would be a lot more difficult, and I would not sell nearly so many books, as obtaining books via this route is so much easier for everyone concerned.

I do not know how get their stock, but can only assume it is fed to them via the US ISBN agency, which makes me wonder how much of this debate has been blown completely out of proportion. For if they source books via the same route in the US, then they cannot be withdrawn from either, and none of the arguments that people have used to justify their ego driven attacks on Amazon hold sway. I have to include myself in this, as for weeks, I became far too embroiled in this debate, transferring all the anger and all the frustration that I felt onto this one company, in a desperate attempt to not only hold on to those emotions, but also to find authors in the US who were willing to go allow with this whole charade, thus maintaining my egocentric rantings and keeping me in the pain, so that I did not have to look at the source of these feelings.

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