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Authors, Publishers Protest Amazon's New Strategy for Selling Used Books

Internet: The online retailer defends its customer-to-customer marketplace, saying increased sales benefit everyone, despite the reduction in royalties.

November 24, 2000|DAVID STREITFELD | WASHINGTON POST

In its quest to be a universal marketplace, Amazon.com is running afoul of two of its core constituencies--the people who write and publish the books it sells.

The two groups, which had tended to be devout Amazon fans, are upset that the online retailer is making it easy for customers to buy and sell cheap secondhand copies of recently published books. Because neither authors nor publishers get royalties on used volumes, they say Amazon is threatening their livelihood, or at least being obnoxious.

"It's so irritating," said Michael Chabon, author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." On the Amazon page for his novel, right beneath the cover photo, is a box touting two used copies from somebody in Michigan with the online name "baboonee." Both copies cost at least $4.50 less than the regular Amazon price.

"Do they have to put it on the same page?" Chabon asked. "Couldn't they make it a little harder to find?"

Whether through auctions or its specialty division ZShops, Amazon has been selling secondhand and rare material for years. But when the company launched its Amazon Marketplace early this month, old and new were intermingled as never before.

"I'm not opposed to used bookstores," said Fran Baker, a small-press publisher as well as a writer. "That's where you can pick up readers for your new books. But to put a used-book button on the same page as a new title makes no sense. This is bad business for everybody."

Amazon acknowledges that it is getting some complaints, but it is holding firm.

"Anything that helps build the vitality and overall appeal of our store as a destination is good for authors and publishers everywhere," said spokesman Bill Curry. "This is a great way for people to discover a new author or a new kind of literature."

He added that a number of traditional bookstores sell both old and new books, most prominently Powell's in Portland, Ore., one of the largest stores in the country. With the exception of Powell's, however, most stores that sell both new and used books tend to sharply segregate them--the way Amazon did until this month.

Here's how it works now: On most of Amazon's new-product pages--selling not just books but DVDs, videos, video games, CDs and cassettes--there is a prominent box asking, "Already own this item? Sell yours here."

Listing is free. When an item sells, Amazon takes a fee of 99 cents plus 15%. Sellers are responsible for shipping the items in a timely fashion, although they get a shipping credit to help cover costs.

The innovation blends elements of Amazon competitor EBay (without, of course, the variable pricing of EBay auctions) as well as Half.com, an increasingly popular trading post that people use to unload unwanted tapes and books. Half.com was recently bought by EBay.

Amazon probably isn't doing this for its bottom line, said Robert Spector, author of "Amazon.com--Get Big Fast: Inside the Revolutionary Business Model That Changed the World."

Spector noted that Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos "speaks ad nauseam about being a customer-centric company."

"The companies that are going to succeed online must continually add new features and offerings. This is one. Whether it makes money is secondary compared to whether it draws more people to the Web site."

And how did Spector feel about the fact that there was a copy of his own book being sold by someone named "parrot9302" for $16? That's significantly cheaper than Amazon's price of $21.60. Condition wasn't an issue: Parrot9302 promised his copy ("Ordered two by accident," he explained) was brand new.

"I don't like it," Spector said. "But other than having some sort of book police out there, I don't know what you can do."

Others are annoyed enough to try to do something. Cissy Hartley, founder of Writerspace.com, a designer and host of author Web sites, said she had her first two clients pull their sites' links to Amazon. Thousands of writers' home pages send would-be book buyers directly to the relevant spot on Amazon.

Unless Amazon changes its policy, Hartley said, more cancellations will follow. "I think most people don't quite know yet what's going on. It's still in the rumbling stage."

There's also the possibility that Amazon may be hurting itself by sending a mixed message to customers. "People might well forgo buying a book in the hope that if they wait several days a secondhand copy will become available," said Jack Shoemaker, publisher of Counterpoint Press in Washington.

Amazon made its reputation on customer service, he said. But when customers start selling to other customers, quality control is more difficult. This is a problem that EBay is constantly having.

"I wonder how Amazon is going to control the idea that their customers may be selling books through the site that may not be as represented," Shoemaker said. "Let alone what happens when someone takes an order and doesn't ship it out."

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