Blemished books also seem to feed the gray market for ânewâ books. Bookstores will return shopworn books or those damaged in shipping under the category of âhurt books.â The publisher sells these books as used books. Online bookstores may buy them in bulk, sort through them, and resell as ânewâ the least damaged through Amazon.
Publishers sell books to international wholesalers at large discounts on a non-returnable basis. By contract these books must be sold abroad, but wholesalers could quietly dump these books in the American market through a third-party seller on Amazon, cheating the publisher.
Print-on-demand has created a new unscrupulous enterprise, that of counterfeiting books. These books look perfect; there is no way for the customer to tell they are illegal.
And finally, a number of review copies are sent out free to media outlets. They are not supposed to be sold. Some book sellers apparently have standing arrangements with magazine conglomerates and television networks to bulk purchase all the review copies they receive, which they could presumably then sell on Amazon. While this isnât strictly illegal, it is unethical â and terribly unfair to authors and publishers.
These third-party sellers may not always be selling ânewâ books, according to Amazonâs own published definitions on its website, which, in part, read:
âNew: A brand-new, unused, unread copy in perfect condition. The dust cover and original protective wrapping, if any, is intact.â
âUsed â Like New: Dust cover is intact, with no nicks or tears. Spine has no signs of creasing. Pages are clean and not marred by notes or folds of any kind.â
In many of these sales, the author gets zilch, or close to zilch. And, according to the Independent Book Publishers Association, which has been conducting its own research into the issue by purchasing books on Amazon, the customer is sometimes sold a used book under false pretenses.
Publishers and authors, deprived of income and royalties, have long worried about this gray market. Amazon, to its credit, quickly tightened up its definition of a ânewâ book, to the one cited above. These definitions make clear that remainders are not regarded as ânewâ books, and the company insists that it follows a strict policy as to what qualifies.
âOnly new books are eligible to be featured in the U.S. Books New Buy Box and be the âprimary offerâ on a bookâs detail page, whether offered from third party sellers or Amazon,â a company spokersperson said. âWe move quickly to address any violations. These recent changes mean that our U.S. online bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon.com, where third party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items.â
The Authors Guild has urged publishers to keep better track of remainders, overstocks and excess-discount sales, and some publishers have responded. But the cost of policing the market, marking and tracking books, and suing malefactors has proved daunting. Remainder overstock sales bring some revenue for publishers, but the authors receive little to no royalties.
Amazon, in its drive to take over the book market, has made a change that, at least inadvertently, can mislead its own customers and be hurtful to authors. The Amazon action comes at a time when authors are struggling more than ever to make a living in the harsh economics of the digital marketplace. Amazonâs policy will help undermine authorsâ incomes even further if it directs customers to ânewâ books for which the author receives no royalty.
Comments posted online by buyers of everything from camera equipment to fountain pens suggest that Amazonâs third-party sellers sometimes operate in a broadly gray area, failing to disclose provenance before a sale. Only after buyers try to repair broken items do they learn warranties arenât honored because the goods are gray.
Amazon does what it can to rein in bad actors but it is at the top of a slippery slope in turning over its main buy button for new books to third-party sellers. This policy is bad for books, bad for authors and bad for Amazonâs customers.