Updated, see below.

Here’s a story I first noticed a couple of days ago when Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader covered it. Amazon is once again ruffling publisher, author, and Authors Guild feathers by toying with the “Buy” button. Rather than tagging the Buy button on its books automatically to the copy of the book it obtained from the publisher, Amazon is now linking it to the cheapest new copy of the book available from one of its Marketplace vendors.

Customers can still buy the “official” book if they want, but they have to select it specifically from the list of sellers rather than just automatically clicking “Buy.” Amazon doesn’t really make it easy to tell which one, but it’s usually the one listed as “sold by Amazon.”

Nate has some great defenestrations of some of the most heated rhetoric surrounding the move—that Amazon is “once again[…]attempting to drive down the value of books” and so forth. He does it so well that it feels redundant to repeat it. So, instead I’ll throw it into a little context.

Amazon: Proudly Aggravating Publishers for Years Now

This is, of course, not the first time Amazon has pulled hanky-panky surrounding the “Buy” button. Back when Macmillan first imposed agency pricing, Amazon yanked the button altogether from Macmillan titles for about a week. Subsequently, it pulled the button from Independent Publishers Group titles in a contract dispute. In the Hachette contract negotiation of 2014, it didn’t pull the buy button, but did add substantial shipping delays to most “Buy” button orders of Hachette titles by reducing its on-hand inventory. In another contract dispute, it removed the pre-order button for Warner Home Video DVD titles.

I’m sure there are plenty of other instances of Amazon using the “Buy” button to throw its weight around that I didn’t even notice. But it is also amusing to note that all this comes just a few months after the big commotion over the fact that Amazon doesn’t always tag the “Buy” button to the lowest-priced Marketplace item. If you’re Amazon, I suppose you’re damned if you do but also damned if you don’t.

Nor is it the first time Amazon’s actions have thrown the publishers and their advocates into tizzies. Remember when Amazon first started listing sales of used paper copies alongside new? I can’t immediately locate articles pertaining to the matter from back then, but from what I remember, you’d have thought the world was going to end. And then there was the whole furor over Amazon “devaluing” ebooks with its $9.99 loss leader price point on new-release titles and bestsellers.

But it seems to me publishers have always acted as if they were entitled to have things all their way. Whenever Amazon makes a change that they don’t like, it’s the worst thing ever, because Amazon is obviously evil and trying to drive them all out of business. And they seem to lose all sense of proportion over it–their eventual response to Amazon’s ebook markdowns was to take part in an illegal collusive scheme to impose agency pricing across all ebook sales outlets that was eventually smacked down by the courts.

I do have more sympathy for the authors in all this, as they’re subject to new sales figures and the whims of publishers when it comes to determining whether they sold enough copies to place more books—and there are plenty of stories of publishers not taking extenuating circumstances into consideration. But again, that comes down to the publishers making bad decisions, and they’ll do that whether Amazon is involved or not.

Sinking ARCs

So, where are these cheap new books coming from? For new-release titles, they’re probably Advance Review Copies (ARCs) that the publisher flung hither and yon with the usual mad abandon. John Scalzi posts photos periodically of all the ARCs and review copies he gets—stacks and stacks of them; far more than he could ever read.

Multiply a review copy for every title by every would-be reviewer, and there are tens or hundreds of thousands of free copies of books floating around out there, and they have to go somewhere. (One of the criticisms commonly leveled at late Amazon mega-reviewer Harrier Klausner was that she probably made a good deal of money by receiving 50 ARCs a week and then reselling them on Amazon.) Publishers have tried to lessen this ARC glut by switching over to E-ARCs, which can’t be resold in such a way, but such E-ARCs tend to come with so many extra hoops to jump through that they end up turning would-be reviewers off.

The Remainders of the Day

Update: I was contacted by an Amazon public relations representative, who informed me that remaindered books would not be considered “new” (and hence, eligible for the “Buy” button) by the criteria Amazon uses to denote that category. Specifically, the section explaining what books can be called “new” states: “Books with markings of any kind on the cover or pages, books marked as ‘Bargain’ or ‘Remainder,’ or with any other labels attached, may not be listed as New condition.” Books marked as remainders can be marked as “Used — Like New,” which are not eligible to get the “Buy” button.

The representative noted, “We have listed and sold books, both new and used, from third party sellers for many years. The recent changes allow sellers of new books to be the ‘featured offer’ on a book’s detail page, which means that our bookstore now works like the rest of Amazon, where third party sellers compete with Amazon for the sale of new items. Only offers for new books are eligible to be featured.”

But perhaps the bigger problem for publishers will be the books that have been out for a while, and made their way into those publishers’ inefficient, Depression-era overprint-and-returns policy. These books will have had ample time for bookstores to send back extra unsold copies, which the publishers might then have marked down and sold to remainders dealers in the interest of recouping manufacturing costs and clearing out warehouse space for newer titles.

These are the books you used to see on remainders tables in bookstores like Waldenbooks or Barnes & Noble, with big red deep-discount stickers on them and possibly a new ISBN sticker pasted on so they don’t compete with the new edition in inventory tracking systems. (Before I wrote for TeleRead, I ran across a situation where such a remaindered book had ended up mislabeled to Mercedes Lackey, who had no idea what it was.) Like used books, these remaindered extra books don’t generate royalties for the author through their sale, and they don’t get counted toward the book’s official sales figures for purposes of bestseller lists, author contract renewals, and so on.

These books’ competition with the new edition had been limited for the most part, as they usually hit the remainders tables after the new editions’ sales had waned and they were no longer commonly on the bookstore shelves in any great numbers. And even when remainders were listed alongside new-from-the-publisher editions on Amazon, it was the one ordered from the publisher—which counted toward royalties, placement on bestseller lists, and so on—that got the “Buy” button.

But if Amazon is going to list cheaper remaindered books as new, and give them the buy button rather than the publisher’s version, that could set the fox among the chickens for certain. It could even potentially lead to publishers opting to destroy all unwanted extra copies rather than selling some of them to remainders dealers—a sad waste, especially in an era when people are paying more attention to environmental consequences, but publishers aren’t going to want to take more money out of their own mouths. And there is precedent—in the wake of the Kirtsaeng decision okaying the practice of importing cheap foreign editions to resell on eBay, plaintiff publisher Wiley raised its prices on those foreign editions.

This piece in New Republic suggests that remaindered copies are among those getting the “Buy” button. I haven’t seen official confirmation, but it seems plausible. The Publishers Weekly piece linked in my first paragraph says Amazon’s criteria for “new” copies are “brand-new, unused, unread copy in perfect condition. The dust cover and original protective wrapping, if any, is intact. All supplementary materials are included and all access codes for electronic material, if applicable, are valid and/or in working condition.”

Remaindered books often have a line drawn through their ISBN/UPC, or a notch cut into them, or some other physical means of marking that they’re remainders. Is that sufficient to disqualify them from being in “perfect condition”? If remainders are eligible, then that’s definitely going to change the game.

But Why Don’t Publishers Try to Push Ebooks Instead?

The ironic thing in all this is that publishers could very easily decrease the impact remainder sales have on their bottom line—if not kill remainder sales altogether—if they just got behind ebooks and pushed hard. If they got competitive with ebook prices instead of trying to keep their prices so high that people simply don’t want to buy them, they could sell more non-resalable copies, and perhaps reduce their print runs which would in turn reduce the number of remainder copies.

But it seems that ever since Amazon and the $9.99 new title, publishers’ support of ebooks has been grudging at best—perhaps because they know that print books keep the print bookstores in business, and they don’t want to lose the bookstores that serve as display showrooms for their newest inventory. Hence, they let Amazon undercut them by slashing its own margins on print copies to where they’re cheaper than the ebook.

And Amazon’s latest clever little trick seems to be bringing all this to a head. Will publishers respond by clamping further down on paper ARCs and remainder sales? Or will they react in some other way? That remains to be seen—but whatever they do, expect a lot more bellyaching in weeks to come about how Amazon drove them to it.

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