Periodically I figure I should work harder at the conundrum of how to sell books.

Periodically I figure I should work harder at the conundrum of how to sell books.

When I first started publishing, the process of registering the publications with Nielsen Bookdata (which is required by law for anything with an ISB number) had a magical outcome. The pamphlets used to appear in the Amazon website just like that, with cover images too, provided I’d also sent them in.

Hardly anybody ever ordered through that means. Just occasionally an order would come through one of the distributors – Gardners or Bertrams – that had probably originated in an Amazon request. Here, for example, is Jennifer Copley’s Living Daylights. It comes up as ‘not in stock’ but they may get it for you (they won’t, trust me). Usefully, there’s the chance to get a second-hand copy. I like that thought.

Latterly, some of the publications started to come up as ‘out of print’, which they weren’t. When I published Gerry Cambridge’s book Notes for Lighting a Fire (I am linking you to the Amazon page but please don’t order one from there), I ordered one myself to see what happened. Which was precisely nothing. It went into my Amazon orders and stayed there, unactioned. As purchaser, I received no message to tell me there was a problem. As publisher, I received no request to send a copy. Until . . .

I had a conversation with Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves. Ross said they shifted some titles through Amazon Advantage, which, he told me, was referred to by most publishers as Amazon Disadvantage because the cut is 60% (there are other drawbacks too, which I’ll come to shortly).

I thought it would be good for me to try it. I have in mind that one day the world of poetry will transform and some titles will sell in mammoth quantities and I will need all the advantages I can get. Cue song.

So I registered. I clicked to agree to a whean of interesting points, including:

All items must be properly packaged for protection against damage or deterioration that may occur during delivery, handling or storage. You must prepay all shipping charges. . . .

We may reject any Copy if it is defective, damaged or overage (meaning that we did not order it from you) or lacking a bar code. If we reject any Copy for any reason, we will return it to you at your expense. (Sob)

We will determine, at our sole discretion, the price at which we sell your Titles to customers, which may differ from the Specified Price you choose (I think they meant chose) when registering the Title.

We may amend any of the terms and conditions contained in this Agreement at any time and solely at our discretion.

From time to time, you may receive an email order. If you receive an email order, please follow the instructions on the email . . . All POs received via email must be confirmed within 24 hours.

I’m pretty sure I also agreed not to reproduce any of the content of the copy on the website anywhere whatsoever, so I am probably in breach of that on this very page. However, I do not think the giant Amazon will notice a microbe crawling over its feet. Visit me in jail next year.

What all this means is as follows. I priced Gerry’s book at £10.00, which is a very nice round sum for working out percentages and losses. It is easy to deduce that for each copy priced at £10.00 (which you will see Amazon is now selling at £9.00 on one page and £8.99 on another, Amazon pays £4.00. Their £4.00 copies are supplied to them free of charge, because I have to pay to post and send them.

It costs me at present £1.60 in stamps to post one copy first class, plus about 10p per padded bag. So, let’s say £1.70. I’m on to reprint copies now, for which the print cost is £2.30 per copy because this is print on demand and there’s no setting up fee for what is now the third order. Doesn’t that sound amazingly cheap for such a lovely book? But look—£2.30 plus £1.70 adds up to . . . oh dear, £4.00, which is what Amazon is paying me for each copy.

Or they would be if they were. That is to say nobody has paid me for anything yet, although I’m pleased to say I have received the copy of the book I ordered from myself through Amazon for £10.00. It cost me £10.00 plus £2.80 UK delivery. A snip.

I went back to the complicated vendor website to see how I get my four quid for the book I supplied to send to myself. I found none of the tabs on the Vendor Home Page worked for me, so I couldn’t click on payments or on reports because the tabs wouldn’t activate. I clicked on contact us which is what you’re supposed to do if you have a problem. However, contact us came up with inactive drop-down options. I couldn’t select anything. I couldn’t contact anybody. However, there was a friendly little note explaining that if I happened to be working from a Mac and using Safari that could be a problem. I might need to change to another browser – they suggested Firefox.

Actually, I was using Firefox.

Out of curiosity, I tried Safari. This time the tabs worked. I discovered the page that tells me I have to click a button that says ‘Submit’ each month in order to extract a BACs payment. So far nine copies have gone from me to Amazon, which might, you would think, mean a payment of £36.00. However, they are working in some kind of arrears arrangement which suggests at present they owe me only £20.00. I wonder when the money will arrive.

So latterly, when dispatching copies of Gerry’s book, ordered through the HappenStance online shop, I have been particularly thanking people for not ordering through Amazon. When I originally set the price of the book, I set it fairly low, because it was more important to me to get the book out there and find good readers, than to focus on profits. But that’s stupid really. Amazon works on the basis of the cover price set at registration, and if you look around, you’ll find the cover price is rarely the price the book is sold at – even if you go direct to the publisher. Which you should, if you possibly can. It’s like a Farmers’ Market: get your beef from the woman who fed the cow.

I don’t mean to make Amazon into the meanest exploiter of all time. The business model is complicated. They are employing staff all round the world, funding warehouses, systems, Lord knows what – and selling very many items. There is an enormous new Amazon warehouse in Fife, so my fellow Fifers are being employed by this giant. Books are the least of what they pack up and send out. But books are not a very effective product, poetry books, anyway. I can’t see that I can make this work commercially ever, though I can see that Amazon Marketplace is probably a better bet than Amazon Disadvantage. But that’s for my next foray into sales and selling.

For the moment, I continue to be quietly curious about the way Amazon sells. Gerry’s book, for example, is available new, on Amazon, not only from Amazon but from a seller called Jim Lewis. Who is Jim Lewis? So far as I can see, Jim Lewis is Jim Amazon, just as the Book Depository is now Book Depository Amazon. Presumably, research shows that many purchasers will select a human being name, rather than a massive organization.

I buy a huge amount of books through Amazon myself. But Jim Lewis is off my list.