A bestselling self-published novel – Sugar & Spice by writing duo Saffina Desforges – disappeared from Amazon UK 18 days ago, with no reason given to the authors. Repeated requests to KDP UK have failed to elicit an explanation, let alone a solution, costing the authors significant lost sales.
But before I get to that, a lengthy – but necessary – disclaimer.
When I praise Amazon, I get comments claiming that I’m some kind of acolyte, naively placing my trust in someone that will eventually crush me, without blinking, if they can make a dollar out of it.
When I am critical of Amazon, I get accused of biting the hand that feeds, causing trouble for the sake of it, or of having some kind of grudge against the company.
Amazon provokes diverse, passionate reactions – especially in the publishing business. To avoid comments of either stripe diverting attention from the issue at hand, I will state my position clearly.
Amazon is a corporation. Like all corporations, its primary goal is to make a profit. Unlike many corporations, Amazon consistently sacrifices short-term profit for market share (which, in turn, aims to provide greater long-term profit).
While individual actions or policy changes may prove beneficial or detrimental to self-publishers, I don’t think helping or hurting self-publishers is an aim we can ever ascribe to Amazon.
I think that self-publishers’ business interests can be aligned with those of Amazon (and I think they are largely aligned now), but I don’t think there is anything permanent in that arrangement, or anything which feeds into that calculation other than Amazon’s own goals and aims.
Like every corporation, Amazon looks out for their own interests. In fact, that is their legal and financial duty to their shareholders.
Having said all of that, I think that Amazon is the most “indie friendly” of the major retailers. I mean this in a relative sense.
Amazon don’t massage their bestseller lists to prioritize trade-published books (like Barnes & Noble are suspected of doing), don’t build storefronts for books from large publishers (like Apple are planning), and don’t discriminate against self-published titles by actively reducing their visibility (like pretty much all the other major retailers do).
I don’t think Amazon does this out of any special love for self-publishers. Rather, I believe that the level playing field we are afforded is a happy symptom of Amazon’s mission to always display customers the books they are most likely to purchase whoever the publisher is.
I think that Amazon (currently) provide the best service to self-publishers. KDP is the most open, inclusive, user-friendly self-publishing platform. It’s also the most powerful, allowing us to reach readers across (most of) the world, and gives us the tools to present our work in the most professional manner.
Most importantly for me, the level playing field allows me to sell (a lot) more books than anywhere else. My monthly checks from Amazon dwarf what I earn on the other retailers.
I have a positive disposition towards their publishing imprints, and also the company as a whole from the perspective of a consumer.
None of this, however, blinds me to what I perceive as their faults, or any mistakes I feel they have made along the way.
For example, I think the $2 surcharge Amazon applies to e-books purchases in large swathes of the world is regressive and unfair, and slows the growth of e-books in those countries. I can’t understand why Amazon doesn’t sell e-books at all to residents of many international countries like, for instance, the predominantly English-speaking Singapore.
Also, while the service I have received from KDP US has been (mostly) excellent, I have heard mixed reports for authors using KDP UK. This latest incident, however, is by far the most serious.
“Saffina Desforges” is the pseudonym of a pair of British self-publishing writing partners. Their debut novel Sugar & Spice was a huge hit, shifting around 100,000 copies – mostly on Amazon UK, largely earlier this year.
Their issues with KDP UK started in the summer when Amazon began cracking down on what they felt were extraneous sub-titles to novels. Without warning, or requesting the authors to make the change themselves, Amazon removed their subtitle – which was something along the lines of “the controversial psycho-sexual crime thriller”.
Amazon don’t have any clear guidelines for sub-titles, and while some authors/publishers may have strayed into a gray area by mentioning things like competing authors or titles in their sub-title, that was not the case here.
The effect of this sub-title alteration was to put the book back in “publishing” mode. This also coincided with a huge drop in both sales and ranking, costing them the hard-fought #2 spot in the overall UK Kindle Store and – they believe – significant sales (they were shifting over 800 copies a day at the time).
There are any number of reasons why a book can suddenly drop in the rankings. Amazon regularly tinker with their algorithms – and the content and presentation of information on a book’s product page – which can have a dramatic effect (in either direction) on a given title’s visibility throughout the site, its sales and, ultimately, its ranking.
In this case, however, Amazon made repeated changes to their subtitle throughout the summer, and the same pattern was observed: the book slipping into “publishing” mode, and an ensuing drop off in sales and ranking until the book went “live” again and gradually recovered position.
While I have no official confirmation of the effect of “publishing” mode, this tallies with a number of reports I have heard with regard its negative effect on sales and ranking, and, indeed, my own experience.
On each of the three occasions I launched a title, I subsequently uploaded a revised version a few days later to correct a typo or to add something to the back-matter that was missing. Each time, when the book went into “publishing” mode again, the launch momentum of the book was stopped dead in its tracks, and sales and ranking plummeted.
This sub-title issue, however, was only the beginning of the problems with Sugar & Spice.
18 days ago, Sugar & Spice disappeared from Amazon UK altogether. The book is still on sale on Amazon US, but the address where the book should appear on Amazon UK leads to a generic page indicating a broken link. UK sales, obviously, have ground to a halt.
To be clear, the authors didn’t un-publish it, and no notice was served by Amazon regarding its removal. Indeed, KDP UK have been unable to ascertain the reason for the book’s disappearance, or resolve it, and can only confirm that they are still “investigating” the matter – 18 days later.
Needless to say, the authors are upset. I contacted Mark Williams (one half of the Saffina Desforges partnership) after he blogged about it this weekend, and he estimates the loss of sales in this eighteen day period as being in “four figures.”
It’s hard to believe that the book may have been removed deliberately (for whatever reason). While some books have been removed in the past for – amongst other things – content violations, this is a book which has sold more than 100,000 copies over a period of eleven months without any such complaints. In any such cases that I am aware of, the publisher was always notified. Indeed, the (same) book is still on sale on Amazon US.
Mark Williams also confirmed that Amazon have failed to give him (or his co-author) any reason for the book’s disappearance – over a succession of emails. He believes that their responses to him indicate that this is a technical issue which they have been unable to discern or resolve.
On a site with millions and millions of products, it’s only natural that technical issues will occur from time-to-time. I can accept that book listings will go down on occasion. But an 18 day (and counting) delay is unconscionable.
I don’t know if the authors will have a case for compensation for all these lost sales – I’m not a lawyer, and I’m in no position to judge their rights of redress under the terms of the KDP contract or UK law. Their priority right now, understandably, is getting the book back on sale.
I sincerely hope that this matter is resolved to their satisfaction, and soon. A good first step from KDP UK would be to make this issue a priority, and get Sugar & Spice back up on sale as soon as possible.
Whatever your feelings on Amazon, I hope this is something we can all agree on.
UPDATE (MON): I have now seen several of KDP’s emails to the authors. From my reading of them, two things seem clear. First, Amazon did not pull the book intentionally. Second, Amazon have said that they think it is a technical issue (perhaps a database issue, or something to do with an automated process that populates multiple pages from a database, I’m not 100% sure.).
I have also seen emails saying that the technical team is looking into it, and that they are attempting to resolve it. They make multiple references to their attempts to fix the issue, and repeatedly pledge to do so shortly.
UPDATE 2 (TUES): The book has now been restored, with all 241 reviews still intact, and the book is climbing the charts once again. I don’t know if the public pressure was a factor (the timing is coincidental at least), but thank you to huge amount of you who spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.