Since selling our first book on the World Wide Web in October of 1997, AALBC has sold books any way they can be sold, at book fairs, author signings, online through various affiliate programs, and by referring readers directly to author or publisher websites. Of course we fulfill book orders directly or have books shipped to customers on our behalf by our distributor. Far and away, the post popular method of selling books on AALBC has been through Amazon’s affiliate program — a program we’ve decided to abandon today.
AALBC launched as a Barnes & Noble (B&N) affiliate in 1997. The problem with B&N was that they changed their affiliate program 3 times in a period of 10 years. Each time B&N changed their affiliate program, the buy links for every book on the website had to be changed. From the AALBC’s inception until 2016, every web page on AALBC was a essentially a text document; if a change was needed the webpage had to be to opened and edited manually. Everytime B&N changed their affiliate code massive site-wide changes were required.
In 2002, prompted by a B&N buy-link-breaking affiliate program change, AALBC joined Amazon’s affiliate program (Amazon Associates), and linked to both Amazon and B&N, in an effort to provide more purchasing options and to minimize the impact of another B&N change. We were surprised to discover that people purchased more books through the site, now that Amazon as an option. When B&N changed their affiliate program for the third time We simply did not update the links to B&N’s site, which terminated our affiliate relationship with them. Virtually everyone was using Amazon’s buy links, so dropping the B&N buy links had no financial impact on AALBC. Apparently this change did not inconvenience readers — no one seemed to notice and no one complained.
Since joining Amazon Associates in 2002, Amazon has never broken a link on AALBC, and AALBC has consistently earned commissions every period since then. B&N simply could not compete with Amazon’s technical execution. Amazon’s technical prowess, combined with the support of Wall Street investors, allowed Amazon to sell and ship books at a lost until they effectively became a monopoly for the online sale of physical, audio, and electronic books.
Monopolies Do What Monopolies Do
Today online book buyers turn to Amazon first to buy books online — even eschewing Google’s search engine when looking for information on books. With this much power over the online marketplace, Amazon is exerting more control and extracting more wealth out of the book ecosystem. For many independent authors, Amazon is their publisher, editor, printer, marketer, and bookseller (often their exclusive bookseller).
Amazon pushes the eBooks they produced over physical books published by others. I’ve seen the hardcover version of a book flash for a fraction of a second, on the Amazon website, to be replaced by the eBook version.
Third party booksellers feel compelled to sell books on Amazon simply because they know readers default to Amazon when looking for books. Of course these third party booksellers must compete to be seen on Amazon. This results in lower profits for bookseller, higher prices for the readers, or both. In each scenario Amazon makes an ever increasing amount of money by simply becoming an intermediary without adding a commensurate value to the transaction.
Why Has AALBC Dropped the Amazon Associates Program?
AALBC simply no longer earns enough in commissions to justify sending readers to Amazon’s website. This reduction in earning has nothing to do with sales volume. A year ago Amazon simply cut the commissions they paid on books sales in half, down to 4%!
It gets worse. In addition to the dramatic reduction in commissions paid to affiliates, Amazon aggressively pushes the sale of the eBooks they publish, while simultaneously providing incentives to authors to give away eBooks for free and to keep their eBook prices as low as 99 cents, purportedly to increase sales. There have been other technical changes like cookie duration that have also contributed to lowering the commissions AALBC earns from Amazon.
2009 was AALBC’s highest year in earnings from Amazon. Let’s say we earned $1,000 in 2009 (I’m not sharing actual figures on commissions, but the proportions are the same). The average annual earnings from Amazon over the 18 year period, we served as an affiliate, averaged $440. Commissions earned from Amazon for the past 12 month period ending August 22, 2019, was $160!
Again, this has nothing to do with the amount of traffic AALBC sends to Amazon or our sales volume; for 2019 both are much higher than the 18 year average. When you go from earning 8% on a $19.99 book to getting 4% on a 99¢ eBook, it is easy to understand how Amazon changes have adversely impacted the websites who use their affiliate program. Also consider this; Amazon was losing money on the sale of many of the $20 books they sold and shipped below cost, but they earn a nice margin on all those 99¢ eBooks. Readers see this downward pressure on price as a benefit, but low prices, under a monopoly, ultimately come at a cost.
Over the past decade, we have lost a large number of websites dedicated to showcasing Black books. There are fewer brick and mortar bookstores as well. The number of magazines inclined to cover Black books as dropped, and those that remain have reduced their coverage of books. Was Amazon solely responsible for the decline in platforms who cover and sell books? No, but one could make a strong argument that the book industry, particularly as it pertains to Black books, would be much better off in an environment in absent an Amazon monopoly.
Given the dearth of physical bookstores that sell books written by Black people, Amazon not only has a monopoly on the online sales of book written by Black people, Amazon, for all practical purposes, has a monopoly on the all sale of all Black books. As a result, Amazon exerts too much control over the discoverability of our books. This effectively gives Amazon control over our cultural expression. Whenever a purely profit driven entity is given sole control over something so important, the consequences are never good. For this reason alone, I have not been comfortable as an Amazon affiliate for several years. I have considered alternative strategies for years including exploring launching a boycott of Amazon.
Amazingly the strongest opposition given against boycotting Amazon came from independent authors. Some authors explained that Amazon has the exclusive right to sell their books and cutting Amazon off would eliminate their revenue from book sales completely. Others defended Amazon by saying “Amazon published their books when no one else would.” Explaining the difference between traditional publishing where a publisher invests in an author, potentially losing money; and Amazon who’ll publish anyone who pays them is pointless. These authors need options, because of Amazon’s dominance, many do not perceive that there are viable ones.
Years ago we giving readers a choice of buying books directly from AALBC — even if the book was priced lower and autographed — most readers still choose the Amazon option. Of course Amazon Prime and other tactics, like same day delivery, makes purchasing from Amazon more appealing. It is simply not a matter of price alone that compels readers to buy books exclusively from Amazon. AALBC no longer tries to compete with Amazon on price. Book buying readers need a value proposition that makes sense.
AALBC focuses more on what AALBC does best, exposing readers to quality books and writers that they might not discover otherwise — even on Amazon. AALBC has published a bestsellers’ list since 1998, the oldest continuous running bestsellers list focused on Black books in existence. We are also a New York Times reporting store (our Amazon affiliate sales are not reported; only our direct sales are report to the NYT). We publish a wide variety of book lists, track notable books prior to release, and provide services to authors and publishers. AALBC also has a ton of content and 22 years of experience, as a result we have a lot to offer readers, authors, and publishers.
Through our relationships with authors and publishers AALBC can sell books Amazon can’t. Our connection with Blue Nile Press allows us to sell the critically acclaimed, AALBC bestseller, Raisins in Milk by David Covin. We also have several titles from the iconic writer John A. Williams. Williams was an early supporter of AALBC, who recognized our potential before we did. We have a partnership with book clubs, like Go On Girl! who we contribute 50% of our earnings on books to their reading list to their scholarship fund. In 2018 the donation was several hundred dollars. Our relationships extend to institutions like The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Ever College, Black Classic Press, and others. We actively engage in activities covering and hosting events for the sole purpose of promoting Black literature. Amazon will never do this work. In fact, Amazon’s dominance in the sale of Black books makes it more difficult for entities who do this work to survive.
AALBC simply doesn’t need the pittance Amazon pays us to direct traffic to their website. Indeed, continuing to do so will cause more harm than good over the long term. Besides we can sell our own damn books! Given the relatively few titles we sell today, AALBC has already earned more money this month than we will earn sending 1,000s of readers to Amazon’s in the hope that Amazon will actually pay us what we are owed.
The original plan was to drop the links to Amazon after I have fully implemented a solution for AALBC to sell all books directly. However, last night I realized the project to make this happen will take a longer than I expected. I slept on it and determined that I could not think of a good reason to continue supporting Amazon’s website given all that I know. I have dropped all of my affiliate links to Amazon’s website.
Sure, giving up even this small revenue stream does not come without consequences, but AALBC has backup and that is you! AALBC has lasted almost 22 years with your support and we will thrive because of it.
Goodbye Amazon. I’ll also be cancelling my Amazon Prime account when it expires.