The Small Press Conundrum: Amazon vs. Purple House Press
We’re all well and truly familiar with the story. You have your small independent little guy and then there is the big business that just railroads them. We’ve even seen it in terms of Amazon vs. brick and mortar bookstores. But how does Amazon treat small independent publishers? And what can that do to those publishers’ overall sales?
Not long ago Purple House Press founder Jill Morgan found herself unwittingly in that very situation. I was able to ask her some questions recently about an incident that arose with Amazon. Take note while you read of precisely how much power we’ve handed to Amazon slowly over the years. Of course Jill can speak to that better than I.
Betsy Bird: Jill! Thank you so much for joining me here today. Before we get into any details, I’d love it if you could tell us a bit about Purple House Press. What do you publish and how long have you been publishing?
Jill Morgan: Purple House Press has been around for over 22 years! We reprint classic children’s books from the 1920s all the way up through books published in the early 2000s.
It all started back in the mid-1990s when I was an out-of-print children’s bookseller, I noticed many of my customers were looking for the same core of books. So that put the thought in my head that someone should reprint them.
Then in 1998-99 I saw the book Mr. Pine’s Purple House by Leonard Kessler was being sold online for $300 and up. It was serendipity that I found it for a dollar in my hunt for used books, what a rush of memories it brought back. My favorite childhood book! Me sitting on my dad’s lap at age 3 while he read it to me, I remember waiting for certain pages where we could count the houses to make sure 50 were there.
That was the catalyst, I decided to start a publishing company to make these books affordable again. I found Leonard Kessler, what a delight he was to work with! Over the years he became my mentor and surrogate grandfather all wrapped up in one. And he did tell me that he was careful to make sure Vine St showed 50 houses, as mentioned in the book, because some child would be sure to count them all! We kept in touch until this year when he passed away at 101. Take a look at the marvelous piece the NY Times did on him in February.
So that was the beginning in 2000. We released three books that year, Mr. Pine’s Purple House, David and the Phoenix and Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat.
As a side note: each of those books was the favorite childhood book of someone famous and it helped us tremendously.
Mr. Pine was Jeff Bezos’ of amazon fame.
David and Phoenix was author David Weber’s favorite and we gave him permission to weave that story into one he wrote about Honor Herrington, At All Costs–it was her favorite “ancient” book and she read it to her son. He wrote an afterword about D&P being his childhood favorite and even mentioned us!
Mr Bear Squash You All Flat was Gary Larson. I got to work with him by fax back in 2000! It was so exciting since I was a huge Far Side fan. He wrote an afterword for us.
Too much info? I could go on and on about our books….we have over 150 in print now, including the three we started with 22 years ago.
BB: Yeah, as far as I’m concerned one can never have too much info. Could you talk a bit about how small presses like your own rely on Amazon for their sales. When you started the company back in 2000, Amazon was alive and well but hardly the behemoth it is today. What has your relationship been with the company, historically?
JM: In the beginning we sold nearly all of our books wholesale through Ingram. Facebook wasn’t around so we had very little contact with our customers unless they emailed us. Our website was mostly for information to list our books. amazon was just one of the places that sold our books along with B&N, Books A Million and so on. We had no contact with amazon.
amazon forced us to work with them directly so they would get a 55% discount instead of Ingram’s 40%. This happened back in 2010 or so: all of our new releases (via Ingram) were listed on amazon but they only listed the title and the price. No author, no cover, no description and of course nothing would sell that way. Ingram said all info was being sent to amazon but that they couldn’t force them to display it. That’s when we opened an account to sell directly to amazon for the books which we warehouse. It has never been pleasant working with them, they are very underhanded about many things and do not treat their vendors fairly. But they are amazon and sell 75% of our books.
BB: Now can you talk about the recent changes? I’ve seen how it played out on Facebook and Twitter, but I’d love it if you could give us a play-by-play of what exactly happened with Amazon and when.
JM: Last year I decided to move some of our books from being warehoused to print on demand. I opened an account with IngramSpark and then with kdp because they were cheaper. Everything was fine for nearly a year, I released about 30 books.
Then May 3rd I got a terse email from kdp saying my account was terminated because I didn’t have rights to Bargain Bride by Evelyn Sibley Lampman. Well I did! We’ve have worked with her family since 2001, I had a contract for the book and a reversion letter from S&S. Sent them to kdp to prove I had rights to the book, got back a terse reply: We stand behind our original decision. This went on for two days, I appealed fives and lost each time with them only saying they stood behind their decision.
So I took to Twitter with my nearly inactive account of 20 followers! I tweeted a picture of Jeff Bezos with a picture of his favorite childhood book–Mr. Pine’s Purple House–the book was about 10 feet tall behind him on a movie screen, he asked for permission to use it in a press release in 2014. We’ve got several quotes from him, from that press release video, the nicest is him thanking his mom for reading this book to him hundreds of times as a kid. The book is about being yourself, daring to be different.
15 minutes after that tweet, amazon miraculously apologized for making a mistake by terminating our account and restored it. Yet two days later another bot terminated it since I had two accounts, the second account was inactive and I’d completely forgotten about it. It had never published a book or earned a cent. Of course I appealed it, they said they’d look into the matter and get back to me in 5 days. Our account was still terminated four weeks later, but they did unban many of our books and are selling them via IngramSpark. Some are still banned and they won’t reply to my case. Three times I asked them for a decision and got nothing back. It took six weeks for them to reply and tell me the termination was lifted.
Our books were in limbo. They basically don’t care if they crush us, a small family business, by impacting our income. We never realized they could cut us off and ban our books.
We do have some wonderful people rallying around us and our plan is to now try to bypass amazon, using Facebook to reach our customers and sell to them directly. What else can we do to stay in business?
BB: What do you ascribe to this? Why did it happen? Have you heard from other publishers suffering the same problems?
JM: I feel some sort of flag was triggered for the book Bargain Bride by Evelyn Sibley Lampman, and a bot terminated our account. amazon is too big, they make many mistakes and it can be very hard to get them to correct those mistakes. For another book we have rights to, I submitted it and they rejected it because I “claimed to have rights when the book was in the public domain.” It’s not in the public domain, I sent them proof (the copyright registration number and its renewal number, plus our contract). It took them well over a month to decide I was right. But why was it listed as a public domain book when it clearly wasn’t? Just another of their mistakes.
Yes I have heard from several self-published authors and other small presses who have been treated this way. All have persisted and finally won. But at a great cost and huge loss of income. Why?
BB: If you could send a message to Jeff Bezos right now, what would you tell him?
JM: I would tell him to be kind to his vendors, treat us with respect, assume we have integrity. Don’t assume we are guilty until proven innocent. My gut reaction to the first termination was that 22 years of hard work with integrity had been flushed down the toilet and our good reputation was gone.
If something looks fishy amazon should ask for proof that the book is allowed to be published. Ask for agreements and reversion letters before terminating accounts and banning books. When amazon bans a book from its site, they will not display it for sale at all, even if it’s available from another source like Ingram. Basically our “banned” books have zero sales worldwide.
If a publisher can’t prove they have rights to a book, then ban the book. Have a three strike rule, once could be an oversight or an error. Three times shows a pattern, then terminate the account. We have rights to all books we publish, unless they are public domain, we have integrity and we have been standing behind that for over 22 years.
Yes this is more work for amazon, which is most likely why they don’t do it, but in the meantime they are causing hardships for their publishing vendors and it’s quite possible that they’re putting some of us out of business because of being unable to recover from the loss of income. amazon controls over 75% of all book sales in America. With the pandemic and worldwide inflation, small businesses need to be treated fairly in order to survive. I’m not asking for handouts, I’m asking amazon to act with integrity and do what’s right: unban all of our books and take all restrictions off our account.
Did you know that an entire industry has sprung up to help people because amazon unfairly terminated their accounts?
We were first terminated on May 3, days before the biggest sale we’ve had in 22 years. Based off of what we sold from our warehoused books, I estimate we lost the sale of a minimum of 1000 print on demand books. Wouldn’t it be nice if amazon compensated us for the lost income…
Honestly, we now feel our best and safest future is to try and reach more people directly so they know who we are, why we are reprinting old books. They’ll want us to stay in business, releasing more of the old books they like and that will happen if they support us directly rather than through amazon.
I’d like to thank Jill Morgan for speaking with me today. You can learn more about Purple House Press at www.purplehousepress.com.
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