“Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company” – more fun and games with Amazon

Imagining A Murder by Stockton Heath

Being an independent author is a tough gig at the best times: not only do you have to write, edit, proof-read and typeset the manuscript without assistance (unless you have contacts willing to help), but if all that wasn’t bad enough, once all that is done you also have the daunting task of marketing your masterpiece. That’s when the real work starts. For an indie that means one thing: dealing with Amazon.

Readers of Going Postal might already be familiar with my previous clashes with Amazon. After daring to write a critique of the BBC, the tech giant threw all sorts of stones in my pathway as I battled to promote the book on its ubiquitous platform. One of its less subtle tricks involved delaying my review copies. As an author, Amazon allows you to purchase ‘author copies’ at cost price. These copies can be used to send out to potential reviewers – a crucial tool for the indie author. Having ordered a dozen review copies to be sent to various individuals, six weeks later I was still waiting for a review to surface. This I found perplexing. What was taking them so long? When I checked with Amazon I was informed that the order – all 12 copies – had been ‘inadvertently cancelled.’ By who? Amazon couldn’t say, because they didn’t know . . .

I had no choice but to re-order. When the reviews did finally come through – months after the book’s publication – the window of opportunity had long since gone. The book’s launch had flopped. Despite Amazon’s best efforts however, the book sold reasonably well – thanks largely to promotion from alternative media where the appetite for such a book was apparent.

When it came to publishing my most recent book, I had many misgivings. After what happened with my BBC book, could I trust this slippery customer? I had no choice: according to estimates, 80% of world book sales are conducted nowadays via Amazon. And anyway, the book is an account of an unsolved murder which occurred in 1973. Categorised as True Crime, political it is not. There shouldn’t be any trouble publishing this title, or so I thought.

After 12 months of research, in June this year I was ready to publish the book. Everything that could be done to ensure the final book was flawless had been done: I’d paid a talented designer based in South America to produce a striking front and back cover; I’d double, triple checked all my references; I’d proof-read the darned thing so much I could almost recite entire pages by heart! ‘This is my magnus opus,’ I told myself as I uploaded it to the Amazon website, ‘the finest book I have ever written.’ And hey presto, a couple of days later there it was available for sale on the Amazon website: ‘Imagining A Murder: the Cartland case revisited.’

Launching a book is a nerve-wracking affair for a writer, especially when you’ve slaved 12 months over it like I had. Nonetheless, I was feeling bullish. Fascinated by the human capacity to commit violence, the True Crime genre is and always has been popular with the book-buying public. As a fan of the genre myself, I can appreciate the vicarious pleasure of reading about some poor soul’s last hours on this earth – especially when the perpetrators are tracked down and face justice. I was relatively relaxed about the book’s launch telling myself that cream always rises to the top.

Uploading your own title to Amazon means you have the facility of checking sales, hourly if required. Upon logging into my dashboard that evening I received a shock: the book hadn’t sold a single copy on this, it’s launch day. To put that into perspective, it’s not uncommon for books to sell hundreds if not thousands of copies on launch days. But my book? Zero. Nada.
What the hell was going on here?

I checked everything I could: the book’s formatting, the upload, the keywords, titles, images etc. Everything was as it should be. ‘Calm down’ I told myself. ‘Give it a few days.’ So, that’s what I did. In the meantime, a few friends called to congratulate me and inform me that they were proud owners of my book. It seemed as if the snowball had started to roll. So, later that week, I checked the sales dashboard: just 4 books sold – presumably to the quartet of friends who told me they had made purchases.

Wow. By now alarm bells were ringing. I went to the book’s sales page on Amazon’s UK website. Immediately, I noticed a section towards the middle of the page entitled ‘Products related to this item.’ This feature allows Amazon to promote similar products to its customers – a sound enough idea. It’s an invaluable promotional tool, one that tremendously aids the visibility of a book and therefore helps to kick-start and increase sales.

Scrolling through these items, I counted 240 books themed around murder and crime. Next, I checked the first half dozen titles supposedly related to my book. Presumably, if these books and mine were indeed related thematically, then by the same token my book ought to appear as a ‘related item’ on their pages, well, wouldn’t it? No chance. I checked and checked. My book did not appear once in the 240-50 ‘related items’ for any of the six books I checked. While my sales page promoted them, the favour it appears had not been reciprocated. How nice.

And then there’s the question of categories. According to Amazon, a category is where a potential buyer would go to find your book in a physical book-shop. Each of these categories not only has a top 100 sales rank, but also a ‘New Release’ section to enable those interested to see what’s new. Checking this ‘new release’ feature for each of my six categories (True Crime accounts, murderer biographies etc.) yielded a blank: for reasons best know to itself, Amazon had decided not to tag my newly-released book as a ‘new release’ an absolutely indispensable marketing tool for independent authors. Thus, interested parties would have no idea that my book was out and available to purchase. Was that the objective? Were Amazon doing all it could to prevent potential customers seeing my book?

Upon checking the category ‘violence in society,’ (one of my six categories) I observed just 23 ‘new releases’ but no sign whatsoever of my book amongst them. Even then, Amazon could not find it in themselves to augment this category to 24 by adding my newly-released book in the category of ‘violence in society . . .’

Thanks to Amazon, after 5 weeks on their platform I had still sold a desultory 4 books – to those same friends. The problem was obvious: Amazon had ensured the book was invisible on its platform. Correction, the book is not invisible provided you type in the full title in the search bar. Then and only then will it appear. Imagine going to the supermarket. As you push the trolley around, you’ll see 100s of products, what you won’t see are those products at the back of the store, in the warehouse. Amazon had confined my book to its own virtual version of a warehouse – a place that no customer would be ever expected to visit – not unless they had a very good reason for doing so.

Amazon customer assistants tell me it’s all down to mysterious “algorithms” – nothing they can do – admitting in the process, albeit inadvertently, that the book is indeed invisible throughout the entire Amazon platform. Occasionally, they’ll change the script from “algorithms” to “key words.” As if there’s some magic formula out there – a three-word phrase – that if only one could discover it would catapult the book from invisibility to visibility, just like that. Listening to their twists and turns, their contradictions ought to be amusing; it’s not: it’s infuriating.

But Amazon doesn’t deal in truth It deals in deception. I’d much rather one of these sweat shop workers in its call centre say something like the following to me: ‘Sorry old chap, but you wrote something disparaging about the BBC once upon a time, and Mr Bezos thinks that might make you a wrong-thinker, so we really don’t want to publish your book. Thanks for calling Amazon. Have a nice day.’

That would be preferable to being given the run-around by this not-so-very-smart company. Having just informed me that Amazon would “never dream” of suppressing products, five minutes later one customer assistant with an apparently terrible memory also told me not to worry because my book was not the sort of product Amazon “typically suppressed . . .”

It just goes on, back and forth. It’s a losing battle I know, but something is driving me on. In fact, I’ve lost count of the number of emails I have received from various Amazon off-shoots over the past few weeks responding – attempting to respond to my ‘concerns’. Oh, the visibility of the book? Oh, that’s just . . . algorithms, innit? I think that answer is supposed in some way to allay one’s fears – I think I’m supposed to respond: “Oh right! Then that’s ok! For a moment there I thought it was a deliberate ploy to make the product invisible to customers, but now I know it’s entirely accidental, I shall sleep much better tonight. Thanks awfully.”

The cream on the top of this unsavoury cake comes with the little message invariably attached to such emails which reads: “Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company . . .”
So, just how do you deal with such an unethical, dishonest operator as Amazon? As a full-time writer, this company have effectively ruined my livelihood with its dirty little tricks. I know it. They know it. And worst of all, both they and I know there’s not a thing I can do about it.

‘Imagining A Murder: The Cartland case revisited by Stockon Heath (David’s pen name) is available on Amazon in both paperback and ebook formats. Thereafter an ebook version will be available via Draft2Digital.com

David’s books on Amazon

David on Comment Central

© David Sedgwick 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file