Very recently, Amazon made a small, barely noticeable tweak to the way it sells books. And that little tweak has publishers very, very worried.
The change has to do with what Amazon calls the “Buy Box.” That’s the little box on the right-hand side of Amazon product pages that lets you buy stuff through the company’s massive retail enterprise. It looks like this:
It used to be that when you were shopping for a new copy of a book and clicked “Add to Cart,” you were buying the book from Amazon itself. Amazon, in turn, had bought the book from its publisher or its publisher’s wholesalers, just like if you went to any other bookstore selling new copies of books. There was a clear supply chain that sent your money directly into the pockets of the people who wrote and published the book you were buying.
But now, reports the Huffington Post, that’s no longer the default scenario. Now you might be buying the book from Amazon, or you might be buying it from a third-party seller. And there’s no guarantee that if the latter is true, said third-party seller bought the book from the publisher. In fact, it’s most likely they didn’t.
Which means the publisher might not be getting paid. And, by extension, neither is the author.
Understandably, both publishers and authors are deeply unhappy about this change.
Who gets to be the default seller in the Buy Box?
Amazon calls the default seller in the Buy Box — the one who gets the business when a customer clicks “Add to Cart” without looking for more options — the “Buy Box winner.” It uses an algorithm to choose a Buy Box winner for each product it sells, prioritizing sellers who offer low prices, use Amazon Prime, have good customer feedback, and keep their items in stock. It also requires that items sold by its Buy Box winners be new, not used, and only approved sellers may compete for the Buy Box. Sometimes Amazon itself wins the Box, and sometimes third-party sellers do.
When I asked Amazon about winning the Buy Box with regard to books, a company spokesperson sent me this statement and requested it be printed in full:
We have listed and sold books, both new and used, from third party sellers for many years. The recent changes allow sellers of new books to be the “featured offer” on a book’s detail page, which means that our bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon, where third party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items. Only offers for new books are eligible to be featured.
However, the Authors Guild points out that “Amazon does not sell or stream copies of movies and television programs that are distributed by anyone other than the authorized distributor,” so the bookstore isn’t working exactly like the rest of Amazon.