Amazon – A Failing Bureaucracy

There have been quite a few strange stories about Amazon in the past week or so, and corresponding confusion and outrage online. Having had to deal with Amazon as a publisher, this sort of thing doesn’t surprise me much any more. I can’t claim to have any insight as to what they are actually doing, but I think I can make an educated guess.

My own troubles are a result of Wizard’s Tower being exactly the wrong type of company to be selling on Amazon. Most of the books that I sell are ebook reprints of books that were sold on paper by someone else. As a result, Amazon are always suspicious about my right to sell the books. This is really quite worrying. I’ve had rude emails from Amazon essentially accusing me of theft, and threatening to close down my account. Oddly they didn’t seem to want to talk to Ben or Juliet, or indeed look at any evidence that might prove my innocence. Nevertheless, I managed to satisfy them. I’ll explain how later.

In their defense, there are indeed still people who think that they can get away with stealing other people’s work, packaging it up as their own, and selling it. There’s this case, for example. Amazon seems to be acting on that now, so the link may go away. The story is that Ilona Andrews published an ebook of The Questing Beast for free on her website. Someone else downloaded that book and began selling it on Amazon for $5.99. As Andrews (a pen name for a husband & wife team) is a very well known writer, it sold well before the theft was noticed. See here for the author’s outraged response.

So Amazon do have a problem. As you may recall, they also have a problem with authors reviewing their own books using sock puppet accounts. That’s presumably why Steve Weddle had his reviews of a friend’s book taken down. Amazon obviously want to police fake reviews, but take a look at the text of the email received by Weddle:

We have removed your reviews as they are in violation of our guidelines. We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

Now check out this story abut a Kindle customer from Norway whose entire book collection was wiped because of an alleged malfeasance. The Amazon email read:

While we are unable to provide detailed information on how we link related accounts, please know that we have reviewed your account on the basis of the information provided and regret to inform you that it will not be reopened.

In both cases Amazon staff have told a confused customer that they have done something wrong, but they won’t be told what they did, nor will they be given any chance to defend themselves. They will simply be punished.

Does this remind you of anything? Because it sounds to me very like my interactions with US Customs & Border Control. And that gets us to the point of the title of this post.

Amazon are very good at making their websites easy and convenient to use. That’s one of the main reasons why the company is so successful. However, their customer service often sucks. That’s because it is a job that is done by people rather than software. People are expensive, and occasionally incompetent. They company probably doesn’t have many of them, doesn’t train them very well, and expects them to make mistakes. So rather than being transparent and responsive, Amazon have taken the path followed by incompetent government bureaucracies down the centuries and are hiding behind regulations. Decisions are made, and no one gets to question them unless, like Linn from Norway, you can get the mighty Boing!Boing! to take up your cause.

In my case the solution to the problem was simply a case of thinking like a lawyer rather than thinking like a business. Amazon don’t actually care whether the books I publish are stolen or not. They certainly don’t want to waste time reviewing evidence. All they actually wanted was for me to send an email containing specific words that, should the issue ever come to court, would allow them to claim that they did everything that they could to ensure that they are behaving ethically. I do the same sort of thing. Before I published Colinthology, I insisted on getting contracts from all of the writers assuring me that they owned the rights to the stories that they submitted.

The difference is, of course, that if problems do arise I can afford the time to work with those involved to sort out the issue. Amazon can’t. The company is just too big, and too successful, to deal fairly with those legitimate errors that turn up in the probable flood of attempts to scam its systems. We, as individual customers, authors and small presses, are too small for them to care about. Eventually, one hopes, they will annoy sufficient numbers of customers that their position as market leader will be vulnerable, but until then I think we just have to treat them as a blind and foolish monster than is likely to blunder around crushing the innocent by mistake.