Sunday, August 10, 2014

Prisoner of the Amazons

"I think the definition of a book is changing." So said Jeff Bezos of Amazon some years ago, and he was right.

I have lately had an issue with Amazon that I haven't heard about elsewhere, not on Wikipedia's growing list of Amazon controversies, not in February's remarkable New Yorker article. I haven't met anyone who's had this particular problem, and I am not sure what to do about it.

One of my best-selling books (which is to say, one of the ones that sells best, not that I have dozens of bestsellers) is a test prep for the nursing test known as the TEAS. It has sold close to 100,000 copies on Amazon alone, a fact that I know because I log onto Amazon's useful Author Central website every so often to check things out.

Among the features on Amazon's Author Central are customer reviews. Amazon has had a bit of trouble with those reviews, some of which is documented on Wikipedia (above), but in general the reviews have been useful for me and fairly informative—and regularly positive. All of that changed back in May, when I started getting reviews that read like these:

I would love this book for studying, except all the graphs/maps/charts aren't printed correctly, so you can't answer 15% of the questions in the book because you can't read the charts! Almost all of the charts have missing information. For example, a bar chart without the bars!!! Horrible. And there is no way to contact McGraw-Hill...

Looks like I received a copy of this book that has a print defect. None of the charts and graphs are filled in, so I cannot answer those questions. I really was depending on this book to help me with the Teas test that I am taking in a week. Real bummer to have received this defective item. If you are planning on ordering this book, make sure with the seller that the graphs and charts are all visible. I feel like I have been ripped off!

And so on, and so on. There is no way to identify a reviewer on Amazon, and even though I wrote back to the angry customers and asked for details (where the book was purchased, etc.), I got no responses. Meanwhile, my ratings dropped, and eventually, in July, Amazon had so many complaints that they pulled the book, dropping sales into the toilet for several weeks.

At the same time, my publisher was going nuts, with the inventory manager ripping open cartons and checking books willy-nilly and finding absolutely nothing wrong.

Finally, in August, the publisher had a complaint directly from a real person and asked him to send a copy of the defective book. Surprise! THE BOOK WAS NOT PRINTED BY MY PUBLISHER. It was actually printed by Amazon as part of their "just-in-time" stocking program. If a publisher runs low on a title, they must allow Amazon to do short printings to stay in stock. In my particular case, the books were not even printed from existing digital files; they were scanned and sold, presumably for the same price as the originals. Somehow in the scanning process, pieces of the charts and graphs dropped out.

My publisher is looking into this, and I trust them to follow up. I have lost revenue (and ratings), my publisher has lost countless hours, and the poor customers who assumed they were buying a real book have been scammed twice.

Gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, who writes often about monopolies, made it clear at breakfast the other day that she is down on Amazon for a variety of reasons. The battle with Hachette appears to be just one in a long string of dubious business practices. And now I am a victim, along with a bunch of would-be nursing students.

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