Problems with Amazon as an Antiquarian Seller Site

What is wrong with Amazon? This is a question that is not possible to answer with any degree of objectivity for either buyer or seller since Amazon is a megamarket for an enormous variety of goods and services.

So this, for what it’s worth, is the view of a bookseller. Or, to be more precise, an internet-only bookseller of vintage and antiquarian books.

It should be stated right at the top that Amazon is one of the best known online markets in the world. If it has not already, it will certainly soon be replacing eBay as the foremost. In its early days it went deep into the red spending hundreds of millions on advertising, and has only recently achieved profitability.

Part of the reason for its success has been the diversification of product lines since its origins as a seller of new books, and its highly proactive stand on customer service.

Amazon is a large publicly traded corporation, and as such perhaps the most notable flaw is its inherent bureaucratic inertia and primary focus on shareholder approval. This means it is slow to respond to market dynamics, and when those changes come the first priority is short term profits rather than long term strategies. But most importantly, its corporate mindset has often led to the creation of general policies that do not fit particular situations—the classic “cookie-cutter” approach. More on that later.

As a website, Amazon is well designed with the classic triple columns, and there is a lack of technical gimmicks (a good thing). It is a bit cluttered though, as it takes full advantage of the latest in targeted marketing by trying to sell you things that are even remotely related to your past purchases. This can become very annoying, when it is not humorous. Amazon is currently trying to sell me three CDs in three foreign languages I do not speak and have never browsed in. I have never even bought a CD from Amazon, and the ones I sold were all in English. It is also trying to sell me hand tools and things I will never use, like the ubiquitous (on Amazon) Kindle.

Perhaps Amazon’s worst flaw is its horrendous search function. When I key in JOHN DICKINSON LETTERS into the default search bar I get 390 results with everything from CDs to legal pads, all jumbled with books, in no discernable order. Even the many duplicate titles are not sequential. Most do not even contain all three keywords in the title.

But most troublesome and annoying is that Amazon insists on displaying items that are not in stock, effectively wasting everybody’s time.

And for books there is that ever obnoxious “UNKNOWN BINDING” designation. For some reason I cannot upload listings without a stated binding, but others apparently can, or if grandfathered, there has never been an attempt to clean these listings.

Particularly vexing is the lack of an Advanced Search link on the main page, until one clicks on an actual book in the search results. Here my above-mentioned search terms bring up only eight listings. Three are the same title, and five are unavailable, with only two actual choices.

If I click on one of those titles I am brought to a Product Details page in which an image, if it exists, will be the one uploaded by Muse (or a related service) if it is ISBN, or by anyone if it is pre-ISBN. And there is no clear way to indicate exactly which book this is on the Product Listing pages. This is the One Picture Fits All method of selling books. This is clearly dysfunctional for the antiquarian market, where a single edition may have multiple varieties of bindings.

Even worse is that the product description on the Details page is determined by whoever was the first one to upload it. This is not a problem for newer books with their publisher-supplied descriptions, but it’s a clear problem for pre-ISBN titles where the description may be simply wrong, but most frequently is mercifully omitted.

This page also gives customers the opportunity to rate the title, to write and vidcam reviews (often supplied by commercial services for newer books), and even to start a discussion about it. This may be a positive thing, but gives the appearance of unnecessary clutter for older books where these are rarely if ever filled out.

The link for the offerings is in a small font, and when clicked will bring up all listings (with optional tabs for NEW, USED, and COLLECTIBLE)—cheapest (including shipping) first. Amazon always encourages third party (3P) sellers to list cheapest (more on this when we get to selling).

This is the page where Amazon falls flat on its face as a bookseller, and where the cookie cutter approach creates problems for buyers and sellers alike. Newer books sometimes share ISBNs. Older books are occasionally incorrectly bundled under an incorrect ASIN, Amazon’s kludgy part number for items without ISBNs. Basic bibliographic information such as Title, Author, Publisher, and Date are not included on the listings page, unless the seller uploaded in UIEE, in which case the listing will be missing the Title and Author. Descriptions, called “Comments” by Amazon, are completely optional. Many vendors do not even use them. And those which are supplied display only around 150 characters (out of 1000 allowed) before the customer must hit the >>MORE button to see the rest. As a result the typical description on Amazon is pathetic by any industry standards.

Amazon is more interested in displaying vendor ratings and shipping options than encouraging sellers to display a working knowledge of their products. It is a method great for selling toothpaste, but miserable for selling books from 3P vendors who are not selling brand new items.

From a seller’s perspective, Amazon is, simply put, annoying. Its fees aren’t too bad for Marketplace vendors (“rent” is not based on quantity, and the commission includes credit card purchasing), but the $1.35 shipping skim, now called by another name for legal reasons, significantly adds to their slice of the pie for lower end items. In fact, by encouraging penny sellers it is the sole commission from them. However, this can be compensated for by raising prices there.

Amazon has about a half million “booksellers” out of a seller total of around 1.5 million, but from general observation and from the message forums it appears that the vast majority are simply hobbyists or those persuaded to hit the “Sell Yours Here” button based on a desire to clean out their basement. Perhaps no other market is so utterly deluged by so many who are so clearly clueless about the nature of their product.

Sellers are encouraged to undercut. The first thing Amazon displays when a seller goes to list a book is the lowest price, independent of condition or other information about it. A beat up uncollectible copy of Harry Potter may well be fairly listed at $2 or so, but the next person listing the title will be encouraged by Amazon, albeit implicitly, to list their Near Fine copy at $1.99, with the inevitable result that the book will sooner or later descend to a penny.

And then there is automated repricing software like Monsoon. When two sellers are using Monsoon at the same time for the same book, the price will tank. As they are undercutting each other, anyone else listing the same book will likely undercut them, and within a short time the perceived value of a normally fairly priced item will become worthless. This is not such a problem for items that are desirable as they will quickly be bought up, especially by dealers, but for scarcer items on the long tail where two megalisters who don’t even own the book in question still list it, the price stays wrecked.

Books are divided into two broad categories: USED and COLLECTIBLE. Amazon has decided that no ex-libs can be collectible, and that they cannot be listed under $10. And that designation cannot be edited online or in any manner except by uploading through Amazon’s native CSV format. Amazon does not accept its numeric condition codes in UIEE.

But most amazingly is that Amazon has never bothered to release a simple database conversion utility to convert standard book database formats such as HomeBase or UIEE into its native format, and indeed the instructions for doing so in Excel with a CSV export are only available when requested directly through their (excellent) customer service department.

The result is that sellers who find the categorization useful (we do not) have traditionally been forced to purchase somewhat expensive commercial software or services. BookHound is now available free through Biblio, but it is somewhat hobbled by its system requirements (XP+) and lack of network capabilities.

Amazon now requires, at least from smaller listers using either online listing or UIEE (as we do), that all major bibliographic fields be filled in: Author, Publisher, Date, and Binding. This is problematic for titles published without dates, or authors, and where Amazon does not bother to learn bibliographic terms such as ¾ leather, or comb bound. Fortunately dummy values can be inserted either online or in export files, and bindings can be replaced to either softcover or hardcover.

It is particularly troublesome that Amazon does not allow FTP uploads, so a simple script cannot upload deletes to it as part of a normal data management routine that can be used for other sites. But worst of all is the fact that Amazon will parse the file uploaded through its web site and reject any listings with missing fields before looking at its availability status. In short, this means that a file of deletes will include some that are not deleted because they have been rejected before the sold status was even evaluated.

Not all books uploaded will be accepted by Amazon. Other than problems with fields, it also has problems with certain characters like ampersands. Incredibly, if a book is already listed on a foreign site it will be rejected by Amazon, for no known reason that makes any sense. Amazon also has its version of political correctness and will bar certain listings. It will accept most ARCs but later delete them and issue warnings.

Another irritation is that for listings with descriptions of over 1000 characters it deletes the entire description rather than simply truncating it. Titles are truncated at 80 characters, yet some at the site have around 150.

Amazon has a quality control algorithm that appears to be aimed at smaller sellers. Megalisters often get by with lousy feedback, while smaller listers with higher than 5% refunds get “warned.” The screws have been turned recently and now problem orders will generate that warning at 1%.

Amazon is doing everything possible to hide email addresses from sellers, who are forced into using an obnoxious form in which the actual message may be hidden behind a fear inspiring tirade by Amazon to try to prevent direct transactions. This has effectively eliminated shipping emails from us. They have an automated software order retrieval which will show emails but it is, for us, impossible to use when tried on three machines and two operating systems.

The Phantom Bookseller cannot be contacted.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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