Amazon smacks little people with BookSurge
On-demand Battle of the Bulge
Amazon has told print-on-demand book publishers that they better start using the retailer's print-on-demand service if they want their books sold on its website.
In 2005, the world's largest online retailer purchased a print-on-demand operation known as BookSurge , and over the past several weeks, BookSurge sales reps have adopted a new, um, sales pitch.
"They told us that if our books are not converted to BookSurge, they would turn off our 'buy buttons' on Amazon," says Angela Hoy of Booklocker , a tiny publisher based in Bangor, Maine.
Hoy also runs WritersWeekly , an e-zine dedicated to freelance writing, and late last week, she leaked word of Amazon's new policy to the web at large. Within 24 hours, a story turned up in The Wall Street Journal .
Countless other publishers have received a similar ultimatum from BookSurge sales reps, and in the case of PublishAmerica , Amazon went ahead and turned off those buy buttons before the publisher had a chance to answer.
With print-on-demand, publishers needn't print a book until a customer actually orders one. This means that smaller outfits like Booklocker and PublishAmerica can market titles without spending countless dollars on copies that may never sell.
In the past, Booklocker did its print-on-demand printing through BookSurge. But the company now uses Lightning Source, a BookSurge competitor owned by Ingram Industries Inc. "BookSurge was the first printer to print our books, and they were horrible," Hoy told us. "We lost authors because of them. We had upside-down pages. We had missing pages. We had broken bindings. This was a while ago, but things got so bad, we fired them and hired Lightning Source."
So, when a BookSurge rep started emailing the company in recent weeks, the messages went unanswered. Then Hoy heard a rumor that BookSurge was attempting to, shall we say, leverage the influence of its parent company. "So I asked the rep what was going on," Hoy said. "And he confirmed the rumor."
The rep said that Amazon will continue to list Hoy's books if she doesn't switch to BookSurge. But customers will have to visit third-party sites if they want to actually buy them.
Nonetheless, Hoy and Booklocker are sticking with Lightning Source. "There are a list of us who are not going to sign Amazon's contract, who are basically telling them to go to hell," she said. "We will take an initial hit to our revenues. But the sales of self-published books are typically generated by the author's marketing efforts. If someone goes to Amazon to buy one of our author's books, it's because that author told them to buy it there.
"Our authors are now changing all their links on their websites, their e-zines, their blogs. If they say their books are available at Barnes and Noble or Chapters, that's where the customer is going to go."
For the moment, you can still buy Booklocker books from Amazon. But mega-online-retailer has already made good on its threat to PublishAmerica - and then some.
PublishAmerica is also a Lightning Source customer, and a BookSurge rep told the company that Amazon would remove its buy buttons if it didn't switch to BookSurge by April 1. Then Amazon started removing the buttons several days early.
Willem Meiners, PublishAmerica's co-owner, responded by sending the following email to Amazon:
This is to let you know that, as far as PublishAmerica is concerned, your company's recent strong-arming tactics are having the opposite effect.
Quite some time ago, sir, long before you were born, American soldiers fought the Battle of the Bulge in Europe. When the 101st Airborne Division found itself surrounded by the enemy, the Germans presented U.S. general McAuliffe with a piece of paper that demanded his surrender.
McAuliffe looked at it, borrowed a soldier's pen, wrote in caps, "NUTS!", then proceeded to win the battle.
There's our answer, sir. Couldn't have said it any better.
We'll be happy to work with your company again, as soon as you are ready for business as usual. Meanwhile we will continue to make our almost 30,000 titles available to Amazon as we always have, in ways that have always worked just fine. But PublishAmerica will not surrender to your bullying and your ultimatum.
When Amazon comes to its senses again, please let us know.
Enjoy your weekend.
Amazon did not respond to our request for comment, but it did toss some words to The Journal, and it posted letter  to print-on-demand publishers. The company called its new BookSurge policy a "strategic decision...What we're looking to do is have a print-on-demand business that better serves our customers and authors," Amazon spokeswoman Tammy Hovey, told The Journal. "When we work with some other publishers, it's not truly a print-on-demand business."
But Angela Hoy sees thing a bit differently. "Our printer - Lightning Source - drop ships books directly to Amazon customers, with an Amazon.com return address sticker," she said. "Our BookSurge sales rep told us that it takes so long to get books from the printers to Amazon - but that's nonsense."
Like other publishers, Hoy says that even if she wanted to keep her Amazon buy buttons, she couldn't spare the time or money. "They're giving people an April 1 deadline. But it would take us months - if not years - to open up and convert the files on every book we've published. And I can't even imagine how much money that would cost us."
Amazon does provide another option. Print-on-demand publishers can keep their buy buttons if they ship Amazon a few copies of their non-BookSurge books ahead of time. But Hoy says this doesn't work either.
"We would have to pay to ship the books to Amazon. And Amazon wants 55 per cent of the list price. There's not 55 per cent less to give to anybody. We would have to raise our prices across the board - and that would end up affecting the readers."
So Amazon has given countless publishers little choice but to bad-mouth Amazon. ®