Long-time blog followers will remember me mentioning several months ago I had to unpublish Yampellec’s Idol completely on Kindle and paperback in the US store to get a pricing issue fixed. I’ve been meaning to talk about this since then, as I figured out a few more details since that time about what the fuck was going on.
This gets a little complicated and some of you might be curious but not know much about it. I’m structuring this with a quick primer, a recap of the problem, what KDP told me, my recourse, a detour to talk about paperback returns, and what I actually figured out on my own (along with what this means).
Primer of Terms
KDP = Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s a self-publishing branch owned by Amazon. It not only covers Kindle (ebooks) but also their paperback and hardcover options.
My ebooks are widely available, which means I put them at every store where I can sell them. My paperbacks and hardcovers are exclusively through Amazon for the simple fact of: it’s free for me to list them. I don’t sell enough (more in a moment) to justify jacking the price up to distribute elsewhere or go through other popular printers that distribute to more stores. If I could not do interior formatting and cover wraps myself, it wouldn’t be worth me offering a print option at all.
POD = print on demand. I don’t really use that term in this post, but it’s relevant if this is all new to you. My books are printed when they’re ordered. There’s no print run of several thousand sitting in warehouses: you order a book, it gets printed, bound, and sent to you.
Printing cost = how much it costs Amazon to print the book. That’s not the minimum price as they still want to make money on it, and then I set the price based on that. (I usually make about $2 – $2.50 per paperback.)
ETA: Also relevant, I buy “author copies” at the printing cost (plus shipping, believe me it does not work out to much more than buying them new). I mention that below. I also bought a couple of retail copies to confirm things. Author copies do not show up on my sales dashboard because I don’t get paid for them; I’m only paid for sales through retail channels.
There is also a lot of secrecy around KDP practices. If you go back through public conversations between writers like myself, you’ll find all kinds of rumours of things reps have supposedly said about their practices. At the end of the day, though, there is very little transparency.
Recap (with Math)
I noticed in September that the paperback price of Yampellec’s Idol was down to $4.66. That struck me as bizarre because this book is nearly five hundred pages and retails for $14.99 USD. The printing price is $6.61. I can’t sell it for that, though–Amazon needs to make a few bucks on it, so of that $14.99 I make $2.38. The difference between the print price and what I make is what Amazon pockets.
What bothered me, though, was that the ebook was priced to match. Normally it’s $5.99; it was priced at $4.66.
I sell so few on Kindle, it didn’t seem like it should be a big deal, right? (I mean…making a couple bucks less does matter to me, that can buy a tin of cat food, but anyway…) But the biggest problem is potential price-matching.
Price-matching is great for readers, I know. I don’t begrudge that–if Kobo is running a sale and you see Amazon has price-matched, go for it. (Trying to get Amazon to restore my retail price later is another issue, but not a reader concern.)
But you can also get locked in a loop. This happened to me back in the Fictionwise days–I don’t know who did it first, but Fictionwise and Nook had River priced at like a dollar or something and neither would restore the price. This went on for months. I sold a bunch of books, but I literally made pennies. So it’s something I’m always braced for, and I’ve had to fight with Amazon many times to restore a price after price-matching.
I do not want to be in a loop like that again. I reached out to Amazon to get my price restored because despite checking everywhere I could not find the ebook listed for that price at any other store.
What KDP Told Me (Part 1)
I dealt with multiple Amazon reps. I was told multiple things.
One said that I would be paid based on my retail price for discounted ebooks.
Another said I would be paid based on the new price.
The one thing they agreed on was something every writer using Amazon knows but that readers might not realize: Amazon can price things however the fuck they want, pay me whatever the fuck they want, and I have absolutely no recourse other than to not publish with them.
People who don’t work in publishing are baffled by this–this is a printer and distributor, nothing more. But Amazon’s focus is on making customers reliant on them for everything. Prime subscriptions, Audible subscriptions, Kindle Unlimited Subscriptions. Selling everything under the sun and taking a loss on shipping just to make people reliant on you for all their shopping. And drastically dropping prices is part of that: the customer is happy. (I am not making a moral argument here either; I’m rural and don’t drive, so I absolutely use Amazon for things I can’t easily get elsewhere. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, you just do what you can.)
So if you want to set up your lemonade stand at their playground, you have to agree to their rules, which are that they make the rules and they can change them at any time. That playground has the largest share of lemonade stand visitors, so we all feel forced to participate there.
Per that blog post I linked to, you know that I just unpublished the paperback and ebook in the US store for several days.
It can take a week, but that seems to be what resets their system to restore the price.
This did not solve the problem in the first place–how can I prevent this? WTF is going on? But then I had another issue I didn’t realize it was connected until I dug a little deeper.
Not Getting Paid for Paperbacks?
Here’s another issue I encountered around the same time.
A friend bought five paperbacks in August. I saw a couple of the sales in my dashboard but not all of them. Usually this shows right away but after a while I still didn’t see those sales show up.
Once again, Yampellec being dropped so low in price, and because I was curious, I bought two copies for $5 in print (via the retail store) and shipped them to my friend Dina. Those sales never showed up in my dashboard.
So after over a month, I contacted Amazon and said hey, I have verified paperback sales here. WTF.
They had me look at the books product numbers.
Now, referring to things being printed on demand as I mentioned at the start, that means every single copy printed has a product number on the last page along with the date and location when it was printed. I dug out those numbers from Dina’s copies and my other friend’s (and, I noticed weirdly, these numbers were sequential–but we’ll get to that in a second). A couple of the books, but not all, had “RR” stickers on the back, which indicated they were “returns”, and the books showed obvious wear and tear on them, although strangely Amazon is claiming to readers that these books are “new”. These RR numbers were also sequential, so who bought and returned two copies of Yampellec in a row?
What KDP Told Me (Part 2)
I gathered all these product numbers and spoke to an Amazon rep. I briefly got someone higher tier who gave more than cut and paste answers, but when he didn’t reply, I got bumped to someone else with stock answers.
The claim is that all these books are returns that I was already paid for, so they put them back on the shelf and sent them out when ordered again.
This is…very suspect to me because, especially late in a series, the only people buying paperbacks are die-hard fans. If I’ve sold eleven copies total, in the entire lifetime of a book, it is not realistic for me to have four or five (at least) returns. Like wtf.
Two claims here, I’ll note: one was a cut/paste Amazon reply claiming that if an order was cancelled after it was paid for, that would count as a “return” but I’d still be paid. This is odd to me because Amazon famously does not charge your card until they’re ready to ship, and they won’t print if you cancel a pending charge.
The second is that years ago there was a rumour supposedly confirmed by an Amazon rep that when a book was bought, they’d automatically print and pay the author for two, and keep one on the shelf so it always looks like it’s “in stock”. That would explain, theoretically, why these books all have sequential numbers, but it’s still odd that other copies had sold in the meantime yet not a single one of these already printed books were used for the shipments. And also, you’d think my dashboard would then show two sales on the same day, which it does not.
Amazon closed my inquiry while continuing to be shady.
The Shenanigans I Figured Out
So first of all, regarding the ebook pricing: here is what they’re doing.
They’re selling used books as new. Look at that copy: no matter when it was printed or if it went to someone’s home or not, that is a battered copy that should not be sold as new. But they’re selling a used copy as new and dropping the price to used-book prices.
Because they advertise Kindle as being equal to or lower than print prices (look up any of your favourite books on Kindle–on the right there’ll be a slashed out hardcover or paperback price, to suggest you’re getting a “deal” with the Kindle copy), they then use that to justify dropping the ebook price down to their artificially set paperback price for a used/returned copy.
To be clear, there is no one polishing their mustache and cackling over this–it’s just how their pricing algorithms are set up. Because what keeps customers coming back is a perceived “deal”.
But it gets a little more insidious that that.
Because, you see, I ordered paperback copies of Witch Hunt in the fall. Just five, “author copies” at my discount. I keep a couple on hand for direct sales and Etsy.
Right before they were due to arrive, I got a notice that the package was damaged, I was being refunded, and I’d have to reorder. Which I did, but I remembered something else: this happened once before, in 2021 when Yampellec’s Idol came out.
I’d ordered a handful of Yampellec along with a couple of Blood Ties and a couple of Hauntings. The order was split into different boxes and one of those boxes–containing a few copies of Yampellec, Blood Ties, and one of Hauntings–was listed as damaged and refunded to me immediately as they were shipped. Again, these were “author copies” I get at a discount and aren’t paid for.
When did I order them? May 5 2021.
When were they printed? May 15 2021.
When were they shipped? May 16-18 2021.
To confirm this, I ordered a discounted copy of Blood Ties and Hauntings on Amazon and sent them to Dina. She confirmed they also have the same sequential product numbers and the same May 15 print date. I dug out the copies on my shelf and that I haven’t sold yet and compared the product numbers and location/shipping dates on all of these. They’re identical (or sequential in the case of numbers) to these supposedly returned copies I wasn’t getting paid for. Skiptracing these books and looking at all these numbers, my sales dashboard, and other details, and this is what I’ve determined.
So To Recap
Amazon refunded me author copies I’d ordered as the package was “damaged” and then put those books back on the warehouse shelf.
Amazon then listed these books as “new” with used book prices.
Amazon occasionally paid me for these books (I was paid for the Blood Ties copy my friend bought, but not these other books) while didn’t pay me for others. In some cases did someone buy my “damaged” copies, return them, and then Amazon resold them? Maybe! It’s impossible for me to know because unlike in other industries, in publishing you can’t trace all this.
Amazon is using their discounted prices they stuck on the paperbacks from my “damaged” order to justify dropping my ebook prices.
Again, why does this matter? It wasn’t just Yampellec. I had remove Blood Ties from sale because they were selling the paperback for $3 and dropped my $4.99 ebook to that to match. I’ve currently unpublished River because they’ve got both dropped far below retail again.
I sell Livi on Kindle US maybe once a month, twice if I’m lucky. River sells a couple copies maybe twice a year. Blood Ties just a handful. But because I sell well on Kobo, I can’t risk getting stuck in a price-matching loop because of this fuckery.
What Does This Mean for Paperbacks? Or Kindle?
It means I will periodically have to unpublish books for a week or so to get their prices restored.
And since the problem is paperbacks, what it might mean is arranging a Disney-vault kind of situation with paperbacks, where a couple of times a year the vault opens and you can get paperbacks, and then the vault closes again.
I don’t like having to do this kind of thing. I have 2-3 regular paperback readers, and I want to keep this option available for them.
But this is fucked. Completely. And literally the only recourse I have available to me is to just not sell on Amazon. I don’t want to pop over to D2D for paperbacks and expanded distribution and bump my prices up by several dollars just to continue to make my two bucks per book (I investigated, it’s not feasible). I cannot justify the cost of uploading to Ingram Spark ($49 per book; I will not make that back in print sales).
So here we are.
If you’re a writer: this is a thing you have to watch for. If you’re a reader: this the kind of bullshit we have to deal with.
I have no solutions, just to make the best decisions I can for my income. So in the unlikely event you want to read River, try next week, I guess! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Quick follow-up here.