Lately Amazon has been in the news a lot because of a huge influx of Kindle spam and shutting down affiliates in states like California that are trying to apply the “affiliate tax.” Many California affiliates who have supported Amazon for years were ditched and left out in the cold with exactly one day of warning. Readers trying to find quality books on the Kindle have been frustrated wading through piles of drek to find something to read.
Now print book readers have a new source of frustration. Many people wouldn’t notice, but there’s a whole slew of books on Amazon.com that now show 2-3 week availability, instead of being listed as “In Stock” as they have for years.
These books are ones that appeal to niche markets like my book Funds to the Rescue: 101 Fundraising Ideas for Humane and Animal Rescue Groups. The books are printed on-demand through Lighting Source (LSI).
For years, the way the process worked was thanks to a concept called “virtual stocking.” Lightning Source is owned by Ingram, which is a huge book distributor. In the Ingram database, LSI books show a quantity of 100 books “in stock.” Because LSI can print and deliver a book within 24 hours, the agreement with Amazon and other online booksellers has been that the book is essentially perpetually in stock and available immediately for purchase by customers.
This virtual stocking means books were printed only as they were ordered. It reduced a lot of waste in the book supply chain and meant that books didn’t need to go out of print, because warehousing costs became a thing of the past.
That’s the idea anyway. Except apparently, Amazon has changed it’s mind about the agreement. From the outside, it appears that Lightning Source and Amazon are fighting. There’s no way to know what’s really going on, but whatever it is, readers and small publishers like me are the losers.
Virtually Stocked Books Should Never Be Out of Stock, But They Are
My books are all printed by Lightning Source. About a week ago, I noticed that on Amazon my books were showing either 2-3 week delivery or that they are running low (e.g., only two copies left). The low stocking seems to be the precursor to the 2-3 week delivery. The books show in stock and available at other sites like Barnes & Noble; it’s only Amazon.com that has a problem.
I asked my Lighting Source rep, what was going on. The official response from the Lightning Source marketing department is:
“Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We are aware that Amazon has changed the availability of some LSI titles resulting in 1-3 week delivery status. Currently, we are looking into the issue and evaluating our options to address it. We will update you as soon as we have more information.”
When I asked when this problem might be resolved, the answer was:
“Sorry, I can’t give you a timeframe in which this will be resolved. I know our executive team is aware of the loss of sales and is working with Amazon to resolve this.”
One theory is that Amazon is treating print-on-demand titles as if they were truly stocked in physical inventory. That means if you have a book that starts with 100 (virtual) copies, they just slowly run down to zero. For a slow seller, it could take several months for the publisher to discover the problem. Amazon has always kept a few copies of popular print-on-demand books literally in stock in their warehouses, so it may actually be worse for books that are slightly more popular. In my case, Funds to the Rescue is the title currently selling best, and it ran out first.
People who don’t use the print-on-demand option, carry their own inventory, and use Amazon Advantage have often complained about how Amazon places “onesey-twosey” orders and constantly lets a book go out of stock before reordering. (Obviously, stocking problems are terrible for sales and a prime reason why Amazon Advantage is NOT an advantage for many small publishers.) It appears from the outside, Amazon is now doing the same thing with LSI titles. In fact, publisher Aaron Shepard reports that the “party line” from Amazon is:
“Please note that making your titles available through a wholesale vendor and/or distributor does not guarantee an ‘In Stock’ availability message on our site.”
Watch Your Book Sales Go Down the Drain
Obviously, no one wants to buy a title they can’t get for 2-3 weeks, so my sales of Funds to the Rescue in June were terrible. Although sales often drop off a bit in the summer, it’s never been this bad. Plus, I didn’t really think about it at the time, but we got quite a few more orders through our own online store. Usually people only order directly from us if they want autographed copies because our shipping costs are higher than if they purchase from Amazon.com.
Once I realized what was going on, I went to an online print-on-demand publishing discussion group I’ve been a member of for many years. There I discovered I’m not alone. Many other small publishers are affected by this Amazon stocking problem.
Since big companies move with glacial speed, I have no belief that this problem will be fixed soon. And possibly never. So my response has been to:
2. Sign up for CreateSpace (CS) and load my titles in there. Not surprisingly, Amazon has no trouble keeping CreateSpace books “in stock,” since they own the company.
The cynical among us tend to think this “stocking problem” is really just a money grab by Amazon to force more small publishers into using CreateSpace and KDP. Personally, I’m not sure they care that much about “little guys” like me, but given past lawsuits against Amazon for anti-competitive behavior, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise either.
The good news is that unlike Lightning Source, CS doesn’t have a setup fee for books. And I can load my titles into CS without having to touch anything in LSI. In the background, by NOT signing up for Expanded Distribution in CS, Lightning Source will still be supplying all the other booksellers.
The bad news for me as a publisher is that CreateSpace requires a higher discount than Lightning Source. (This article has more information on discounts and why it matters.) Plus, I have to pay $39 for the Pro Plan to get the best rates. I also have to resize my covers slightly because they use thicker paper. However, by keeping the same ISBN and trim size, once the book is set up in CreateSpace, it should just magically appear as available on Amazon again, so customers can buy the book.
Sadly, I won’t make as much money on my books and questions still remain relating to the quality of the printing. I haven’t seen a proof of the book yet and some people have said that the quality of the books printed by CreateSpace just isn’t as good as ones from Lightning Source.
However, earning less money is better than earning no money because the book is perpetually out of stock. And if the Lightning Source vs. Amazon fight gets resolved, I’ll pull my books right back out of CreateSpace as soon as I can.