Irresponsible, Unresponsive, Extortionate: The 3-Headed Dragon Destroying the Small Press Community.

“Despair” by Bertha Wegmann

The independent small press community is filled with passionate people who love great writing, dedicated people who love helping talented writers bring their work out into the world. We often work on shoestring budgets, are almost always over-extended and running behind on everything. It has never been an easy occupation. It certainly doesn’t make anyone rich. In fact, it is not at all surprising to find a balance sheet completely in the red – cash negative, in other words. But the wealth of this life is to be found in the beauty of language, the excitement of new, well-written and well-edited manuscripts, the thrill of designing a beautiful book cover, of creating a physical artifact, proof of that which remains glorious in our crumbling society, our dying empire.

As the Founding Executive Director of Hidden River Arts, and Founding Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing, I am proud to be part of this community of determined dreamers and ferocious protectors of literature. Hidden River’s publishing endeavor passed our tenth anniversary during the pandemic. COVID nearly killed us. We’re struggling on many fronts to reframe our work in this post-pandemic world. It is to be expected that when a world-wide crisis causes a global meltdown, a lot of problems will remain even after the threat of disease has, largely, passed.

What was not be expected, and what should never be accepted, are the ways in which our supposed business partners are making it even harder to restore ourselves and get back to creating and launching high quality books by talented writers, books that readers fall in love with.

Let me be more explicit, and start naming names.

For the last month, I’ve had struggles with the online booksellers – and these are the sellers who command the lion’s share of all booksales in the U.S. (if not around the world). As an independent small publisher, Hidden River uses Lightning Source/Ingram for printing and distribution. When we first launched our publishing venture, it was a pleasure to work with them.

So, first, let’s talk about a troublesome situation that now exists with Lightning Source itself. We’ve been with them since 2010. It used to be that, if a problem arose, or if there was a question of any kind, I could simply pick up the telephone and call, speak to a knowledgeable and lovely employee (often with a charming Tennessee accent) and the issue would be resolved in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, as Lightning Source/Ingram has grown, publishers are no longer offered what I see as a right to high quality, personal customer service. Now, there is no active by-phone customer service. Now, if there is a problem, you have to fill out an email or a “ticket” describing the issue, and then…..wait. Often, you wait for little more than a canned response that does little to address the actual issue, offers nothing beyond the canned language, and if the problem persists, you are plum out of luck since your only option, it seems, is to do it all over again. I’m sure that there is some “best practices” industry manual that claims this new procedural change is “stream-lined” and “cost-reductive”. But here’s a news flash: It does not address your customers’ needs sufficiently….or, in many cases, at all. It is not, in fact, “customer service” in any traditional or satisfactory sense. This change in Lightning Source’s business practices means that a small press often has to wrestle with the same problem in a kind of limbo, often for weeks or months. Sometimes the issue is never resolved. With impossible-to-solve problems externalized onto already overworked small press owners and staff, it means that the issue becomes yet one more largely unresolvable problem in a long line of what my attorney daughter would call “unbillable hours” of miserable frustration. This new practice of Lightning Source/Ingram is uncaring to the point of being hostile to its customers and business partners. Give us back our well-trained human representatives. Show us the respect we deserve. Go back to your older, more accountable and more honorable business model. Stop treating your partners with so little regard.

Now, let’s explore the nightmare that is Amazon. By far the most dominant platform for book sales, Amazon can make life and business absolutely miserable for authors and publishers.

Let me describe to you what we and our authors have been dealing with now for a month. During the first week in April, we uploaded three new paperback titles to Lightning Source. All three were picked up by the Amazon site without their cover images – and with a message that said there WAS no cover image. Since that same image appeared on the vendor pages of Barnes and Noble and Bookshop, it is unlikely that the problem is with the files at Lightning Source. (Although it sure would be nice to have a human at Lightning Source confirm that.) The problem that exists with Amazon is doubled by the problem that IS Amazon. Are there knowledgeable, well-trained, available humans ready to deal with such problems at Amazon? Of course not. A month has gone by, and several attempts to reach out to the organization, using its “help” links and “chat” options have accomplished nothing by way of corrected sales pages. Often, if you get a response at all, it’s from someone who, most likely, is using a false name who writes to tell you that the problem must be with your account at Lightning Source. In other words, their response is “Sorry. Not our problem.”

In addition to none of the three new titles having their covers showing on Amazon, one of the titles has a message that says the book has not yet been released, and that anyone interested should “pre-order” the book. The book has been available since April 5. Again – is there a way to deal with this, human to human? Of course not.

What does this do to our credibility? To our professional profile? To our sanity and the emotional stability of our writers and poets? To our sales? Take a wild guess.

As I write this, it is May 9, 2023; the problems have existed since the first week of April and remain unresolved. These three books all sit on their Amazon site like some digital version of a remaindered book with a ripped-off cover. Our only solution, at this point, is to drive as many readers and possible book buyers away from Amazon as we can.

Now to Barnes and Noble. Their site had our books up quickly with a functioning purchase button – within about 24 hours – with the cover art, but without the necessary book information – there was no book description, no bio for the author, no reviews. So….great. Here’s a picture of a beautiful book cover and the name of a book, but we’re not going to tell you anything that would inform or interest you in actually buying and reading the book. Would you buy a book, no matter how exquisite the cover, if you have no idea what it was about? Is it a cookbook?….a travel advice book?…..a Victorian murder mystery?…..a book about Mesopotamian clothing styles?

To their credit: Barnes and Noble does have a more transparent customer service structure, with specified emails for specified needs. They appear to be more publisher-friendly and more oriented to bookselling in a way respectful of books, of publishing, of writers, of the small press community. And, with them, there is something of a happy ending – although it took nearly THREE weeks, all three of our books, as of today, now have not only the buy button, the beautiful cover art displayed but the book info, the writer’s bio….but still none of the reviews or endorsements. So, for purposes of this writing we’ll be displaying ONLY the links to the Barnes and Noble site for these three titles, despite the fact that they don’t include the endorsements. But we’ll be leaning on our relationship with Barnes and Noble now, going forward; the goal is to partner more dramatically with the online seller that offers our authors and their work the most respect.

Now, to the final issue we’ve faced over these past few weeks: Bookshop’s issues. First, they were by far the slowest to upload our titles. Second, once they uploaded them, they also posted a sale price that was significantly higher than the price we posted with Lightning Source. Our price point was $21.99. Bookshop saw fit to post $25.29 as the price. If Bookshop exists in order to help independent bookstores compete with the behemoth online sellers, isn’t overpricing our books a sure-fire way to NOT be competitive? Here is their explanation:

They say: “ pays our booksellers 30% of the cover price of all books sold through them. That means that we lose money on any book with less than a 30% wholesale discount. If your discount is under 20%, we will increase the sale price of the book to make up for this loss. If you do not want your book’s price increased, please offer a wholesale discount greater than 20%. …If you are an IngramSpark author, you must offer a 40% wholesale discount; Ingram’s 20% distribution fee is non-negotiable, so to give a 20% wholesale discount, you need a 40% discount overall.”

Since we are working with Lightning Source/Ingram, that means that our 30% discount isn’t sufficient for Bookshop, so they are going to jack up our price and take their chunk from the customer…..A customer who will not exist, obviously, since their prices are too high. However, if Hidden River (or any small press) feels hereby coerced into raising their discount to 40% in order to help out our potential readers and the independent bookstores, then WE are earning less money for each book sale. That means that what is left over after Lightning Source, Bookshop and the indy bookstore take their chunks is about $7 to be divided between publisher and author. Even at 30%, the publisher and author are earning less than everybody else along the publishing food chain. Obviously, this is not sustainable. It’s no wonder so many small presses are throwing in the towel.

Oh…one last thing. IF we were to give in to Bookshop’s passive-aggressive extortion, that means that a 40% discount would be taken by ALL the sellers, because, with Lightning Source, you can set only one price in each market (one for the US, one for the UK, one for Europe, etc). So, then, Amazon, B&N, and all other sellers would get that extra 10% from the sales, and we would get 10% less from all those sales, across all platforms. So, think about it: with those higher discounts, Amazon and B&N and the others may well decide they can drop the price of the book, thereby remaining cheaper than Bookshop anyway. And who loses? The author and the publisher.

I’m going to end my rant here for now. I’m going to ask those among you who are struggling with similar issues to reach out to us here and leave messages and comments. We want to start a conversation. We want to start a fire. If we come together, make demands in a chorus of voices, maybe even bring in the CLMP (who are also ignoring my emails requesting assistance) and other organizations in support of the authors and publishers, do you think there is hope of addressing and fixing this mess? Otherwise, what are our options?

By the way, here are those three wonderful new books, linked to their Barnes and Noble pages WITH their beautiful book covers. I encourage you to use these Barnes and Noble links should you wish to make a purchase.

Mediterranean by João Luis Barreto Giumarães.

Travels With Ferdinand (A Centennial Journey Through Austria-Hungary) by Mark Eliot Nuckols

Remembering Water: A Memoir of Departure and Return by Tuan Phan

You can also see our entire catalogue of books on Barnes and Noble here. Check them all out. They are spectacular. Our family of writers and poets are spectacular. They are worth fighting for.