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Book-Swapping Sites Stealing Buyers?

Some sellers suspect that the growing popularity of book-swapping sites such as PaperbackSwap.com, which has over 1 million books listed, are cutting into sales too. Certainly, many of the books popular on the swapping sites would be the same ones that are oversupplied on Amazon and selling for pennies. But still, if these readers are spending all their time borrowing and swapping free books, that's less time they have to spend money at Marketplace.

Paperbackswap.com is the most popular, but not the only book-swapping site. Other popular sites are BookMooch, Bookins, and TitleTrader. If you're patient, every once in a great long while you can find a book worth $20 to $40 on these sites.

And of course, there's Kindle, Amazon's wireless e-book reader it introduced at Thanksgiving time - and sold out shortly thereafter. It will be years, if ever, before e-books make a dent into paper-bound book sales. Nevertheless, it's one more thing keeping booksellers awake at night.

The Crummy Service Theory

One more popular explanation for the dip in sales to third-party merchants: New, irresponsible sellers have ruined the business for everyone. The theory goes that the typical amateur Marketplace seller delivers substandard merchandise and service, and that once a buyer has been burned, they never consider buying on Marketplace again.

Certainly, there's no barrier to entry at Amazon. There's no application or interview process, and so anyone who can read a bit of English can get started. The free-for-all will probably continue until the day comes (if it ever does) that a business license or tax ID is required for online selling. If the politicians ever get around to doing this, the ranks of part-time online sellers would be reduced drastically. Would this be good or bad for the market?

Providing superior service isn't getting any easier, even for conscientious sellers, thanks to the barriers Amazon continues to build separating sellers and buyers. In the spring, Amazon stopped providing buyer e-mails and shipping addresses in its "Sold, ship now" e-mails. Although sellers can still retrieve this information by jumping through some additional hoops (your Amazon Payments account or the software called Amazon Service Order Notifier).

Officially, Amazon explains that the changes aim to "protect the privacy of our customers and sellers."

Zero Tolerance on A to Z, Feedback Tweaks

Another sore spot that popped up with sellers during 2007 was a new get-tough policy on A to Z Guarantee claims. Previously, when sellers provided proof of shipment, Amazon usually paid the claim itself instead of deducting the amount from the seller's account. Now, Amazon debits sellers for claims, even when tracking shows the book was delivered. So, not only are many sellers struggling to get by on fewer sales, but they're losing the funds from some of their remaining sales through no fault of their own.

In the fall, Amazon debuted a new feedback page where Marketplace buyers are asked for more details about their buying experience. Nothing wrong with that, except that it continues a trend of emphasizing a short time window for Media Mail orders - and as we all know, the good old Postal Service is still taking its sweet time delivering most of these packages.

Yet Amazon is inviting buyers to zap up with negative feedback when USPS isn't prompt. When Amazon implies that something was substandard about the order, the implication is that it was the seller's fault, and all too often, the "remedy" is negative feedback.

The new page prompts buyers to criticize sellers for factors beyond the seller's control - even if the buyer was satisfied with the purchase. Some Amazon watchers believe the feedback changes were in response to eBay's new "Detailed Seller Ratings," which enables buyers to rate sellers anonymously on several criteria. In addition to eBay's longtime feedback system of simply positive, negative or neutral ratings, now buyers are also invited to give sellers ratings on a 1 to 5 scale on "Item as described," "Communication," "Shipping time," and "Shipping and handling charges." Amazon, in addition to asking buyers for an overall rating, now presents a series of "optional" questions, including: "Did your item arrive by X date?," "Did your item arrive in the condition as described by the seller?," and "If you contacted this seller, did they provide prompt and courteous service?"

Considering all that can go "wrong" with a transaction, it's hard for sellers to emerge from that series of question unscathed. On the other hand, I suppose Amazon's new design will reduce the amount of buyers who leave feedback or comment about a book's contents. This page design makes it more obvious than ever that the buyer is being asked to rate the transaction, not the product. But here's my take: Amazon redesigned the feedback form so that buyers can vent immediately using the feedback form, take out their frustrations on sellers, and consequently Amazon will receive fewer Marketplace order inquiries and complaints.

Since Marketplace has been such a crucial profit center for Amazon, let's hope that the company recognizes some of the problems small sellers are having these days. Perhaps there's hope that some of these woes can be corrected during 2008.

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