Amazon sends ominous “Textbook Apocalypse” email: Separating truth from hype.
So what’s happening?
Over the last week, Amazon sent out an email to many (but not all) sellers, requesting invoices for textbooks, and alluding to new restrictions on selling textbooks.
The email was beyond vague, creating understandable panic among booksellers.
In this article, I’m turning over every stone on what we know, what we don’t, and what I think is to coming…
Some context to set the stage:
I just passed my 10 year anniversary selling on Amazon, and a pattern stands out: Every 6 to 9 months there is a massive wave of panic that sweeps through the Amazon selling world. Rumors or hints of trouble that bring otherwise sane sellers to hurl themselves off the nearest building in existential terror.
And then a few months later, no one even remembers the drama.
That doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen. It means with Amazon, it’s never what you think it is in the beginning.
In my decade selling on Amazon, there has been only a single example of an “Amazon apocalypse” fear resulting in a significant dent in my business: The new FBA fees of last February. (Where lower-end books took a hit). Yet we booksellers are still here (most of us).
With the understanding that developments on Amazon are (literally) never as bad as they look, let’s walk through the facts and analysis around the “Textbook Apocalypse email.”
What’s the “Textbook Apocalypse” email?
Here it is:
Analyzing the Textbook Apocalypse email: What’s Amazon really saying?
It’s unfortunate Amazon continues to live up to its reputation of being hopelessly vague. This email is void of anything meaningful or actionable with which a bookseller can start preparing for the future.
The key points we can extract from this email are:
- Certain restrictions will be implemented for textbooks.
- These restrictions will apply to “popular” textbooks.
- Amazon is requesting receipts and invoices for textbooks in certain seller’s inventories.
What are the theories about what is happening?
Let’s run down the Top Two things Amazon sellers are saying, and why I think they’re not true:
Rumor #1: Amazon is banning textbooks.
You don’t have to look any further than Amazon’s email to know this isn’t true. Amazon isn’t clear on much, but they are clear that whatever change is being proposed, it only applies to “certain” textbooks.
(I will give my theory as to what I think that means in a second).
Rumor #2: These are global changes affecting every seller.
Right off the top, evidence is strong this is not a restriction on textbooks for all sellers. I have not (yet?) received the email. And I’ve been in touch with many more who have not received the email (Amazon can stagger out emails over time, so its too early for anyone to feel fully in the clear).
It’s possibly too early to say, but based on this evidence alone, these potential restrictions are less severe than the DVD restrictions of 3 years ago, which affected all sellers.
It’s hard to say roughly what percentage of sellers are getting this email (or if all sellers will receive it eventually). I’ve corresponded with about 30 sellers about this, and one pattern that stands out is all but one have opened their account in the last two years. So this could be something limited to newer sellers (jump in the comments if your experience differs).
As far as other factors, things like feedback score seem to have nothing to do with it.
Predicting the future hinges on deciphering two words
These are the two imporant words used in the email:
The restrictions center on these two words, and I’m going to spend a lot time discussing them in this article.
Digging deeper: Decoding Amazon’s emails
Now let’s get beyond Amazon’s first email, and look at what else they’re saying.
I asked a couple dozen sellers to follow up with Amazon Seller Support for clarity, then forward Amazon’s response. I’m posting key snippets from these emails below.
About Amazon “Seller Support”: If you have any experience with Amazon, you know getting a clear answer is generally futile. Sometimes it they’re playing a game of “how can we use the maximum number of words to say absolutely nothing.”
(If you missed it, they can be so lazy they’ve been caught copying and pasting FBA Mastery articles in their responses.)
With that understanding, let’s look at what Amazon’s service reps are telling people:
Will all textbooks be restricted? A: No.
Amazon Seller Support quote: “Certain important textbooks might have a restriction”
And what should a seller do if they want restrictions lifted?
Amazon Seller Support quote: “You will need to submit request approval in order to sell those textbooks on Amazon.”
How does Amazon define “popular”?
Amazon Seller Support quotes: Books that have “popularity among buyers” and books “which may have hype.”
“Books which may have hype?” Yes these are actual quotes. Zero clarity. Thanks Amazon.
How do we interpret these quotes?
Amazon appears to be saying:
- Restrictions will only apply to top selling textbooks.
- If a seller is restricted, they can request for the restriction to be lifted (a la DVDs and many other categories).
Based on their broken-English responses, we’re still quite far from a “textbook ban.”
Let’s go even deeper into what this coded language could really mean and see if we can extract anything optimistic.
What does “popular textbook” mean? Decoding Amazon-speak, Part I
When asked directly, remember Amazon won’t define this. In one email I saw, Seller Support actually cited Harry Potter as an example of a “popular textbook.”
Don’t believe me? Check out this screenshot:
So I had to do my own research, and I have two strong theories as to what the “restrictions” will mean when all the smoke clears.
Theory #1: Amazon will limit restrictions to a few publishers
Here is my first theory about what’s happening:
Recently, Amazon (and many sellers) got sued by these three textbook publishers:
- Pearson Leaning
- Mcgraw and Hill
The lawsuits were to force Amazon to crack down on counterfeits. The changes we’re seeing now are motivated by wanting to crack down on counterfeit textbooks.
These publishers also sued other entities in the bookselling business, such as textbook middleman Follett.
Emails from Amazon Seller Support confirm counterfeit concerns are behind the restrictions:
“In order to prevent the fake products, the restriction has been implemented.”
This language is very telling.
My suspicion: “popular” is code for:
“Textbooks published by the companies who sued us.”
As in, Amazon may have reached a deal with the companies suing them that they will curb third party sales of their titles – and their titles only. Just a theory.
We’ve seen similar brand-specific restrictions in the past, where the situation was very congruent (Amazon adjusting in response to legal action or threats). We see in the Toys category with certain bestselling toys restricted. We saw it again recently in the shoes category with Nike.
Based on the lawsuit, whatever restrictions come may be publisher-specific. Probably affecting books by Cengage, Pearson Leaning, and Mcgraw & Hill. Nothing certain here, but that’s what the evidence points to.
This isn’t great news, yet hardly devastating: there is no single publisher I could be restricted from that would put more than a dent in my business.
Theory #2: The restrictions might be condition-based
Another theory I’ll float is this will be limited to books in New and Like New condition only.
Here’s some clues:
Last month, many sellers suddenly found they were restricted from listing certain textbooks in New or Like New condition. It seemed to affect only certain textbooks and not others. And when I asked sellers what textbooks were being restricted, 100% of them were published by one of the three publishers who sued Amazon.
Amazon issued no statement on this. And when you asked them, Amazon flatly denied this restriction even existed. But it was very real.
So what we’re seeing now could simply be the “official rollout” of what has already been happening to Amazon booksellers for the last month.
The “upcoming restrictions” may be nothing more than what’s already been unofficial practice for the past month already.
If true, all we have to do is keep our listings to Very Good condition, move on, and forget this ever happened.
If so, this is very good news because it simply won’t affect most Amazon seller’s business very much. (I personally don’t do much business in New books, and almost never list a book as Like New.)
And what if Theory #1 and #2 are both true?
Best case (and not implausible) scenario.
If these upcoming restrictions are in fact limited to New or Like New condition and from three publishers only, this week will be looked upon as the most overblown drama in Amazon seller history.
What is a “textbook”? Decoding Amazon-speak Part II
The other operative word from the Textbook Apocalypse email was “textbook.”
Classifying a book as a “textbook” is hopelessly impossible, since “textbook” just means a book used in college. Which is most books at some point.
In the emails I’ve seen from Amazon (responding to seller’s questions), Amazon Seller Support is describing “textbooks” as:
“Books used for study purposes.”
(Including Harry Potter.)
“Study purposes”? Such vivid clarity. Thanks Amazon.
Of course Amazon is not restricting all non-fiction books. They’re not restricting all books used in schools. And there are several reason Amazon would be unlikely to restrict all “textbooks.”
Why Amazon will not restrict textbooks entirely
You can’t really ban textbooks, because “textbook” has no definition. “Textbook” is not defined by a book size, or format, or binding, or anything else. It is simply a book used in college classroom. And just about every book finds its way into a college syllabus at some point.
You simply cannot manage what cannot be defined.
So let’s say Amazon was actually going to ban all textbooks. How would they do it?
Well there actually is a category on Amazon for “textbooks.”
Here is the total number of books Amazon currently classifies as “textbooks””
This (large) figure is actually good news, because we can confidently say Amazon is not going to ban 2 million books from being sold.
For one, that’s just too many books. You can never say never, but the impact would be so seismic, it’s almost unthinkable. Books are Amazon’s biggest category.
Two, when you look at what Amazon has tagged as a “textbook,” you realize their definition is close to useless. Amazon tags virtually everything you can think of as a textbook: Cliff Notes, random bestselling titles, Dover reprints, some university press books and not others, and so on. Even a lot of fiction is tagged as a “textbook”.
Basically, Amazon’s definition is very arbitrary and close to totally random. Which is good news, because if they were going to restrict textbooks, they would have to define it. And that’s difficult-to-impossible.
Going further: Amazon may only restrict the most well-ranked, expensive books
As covered, this is all motivated by pressure from big textbook publishers for Amazon to crack down on counterfeits. This fact can inform our predictions about the direction this is going.
Good news: Generally the only textbooks that are counterfeited are very new, very high-demand textbooks.
This is just the economic reality: Counterfeiters are going to put their efforts towards the bestselling, highest value books.
We’re talking about a very small sliver of the textbook pie. I’ve never heard of a textbook being heavily counterfeited that wasn’t steadily ranked in the top 30,000 (usually it’s 10,000 or better). Yes old counterfeit copies can float around and circulate, but if you’re trying to curb counterfeiting, you’re only going after the most well-ranked books.
Remember, Amazon is only requesting receipts for “popular” textbooks. This is probably not accidental. They probably mean this literally: They intend to only curb sales of the newest, most well-ranked textbooks. I.e. the only books that are counterfeited.
Why right now this looks worse than it probably is
- People are panicking without reading Amazon’s email. It’s understandable to see the words “provide invoices” and freak out. I don’t blame anyone, but panic can cloud soberly seeing what Amazon is actually saying: “We’re planning on restricting certain popular textbooks.” And the nature of the restrictions has yet to be revealed. It may only be books in New or Like New condition. Or it could go away altogether. Way too early to say.
- Recent changes creates negative momentum and makes everything seem apocalyptic. After new FBA fees hit, we’re all a little shellshocked and extra sensitive.
- Amazon rolls back restrictions all the time. Remember the panic about retail arbitrage about a year ago? Amazon (mostly) retreated from that pretty quick. And now no one even talks about it.
- People relying on frenzied commentary in forums. I’ve said it a thousand times: Sourcing your info from Facebook is a fast way to be paranoid and misinformed. It’s not entirely bad, but it must be approached with extreme caution.
How am I responding to the Textbook Apocalypse email?
I haven’t received the email, but in case I do, I’ve done two things:
- I placed a removal order for my New condition and Like New condition textbooks. Fortunately, it wasn’t many books.
- Placed all my textbooks from Cengage, Pearson Leaning, and Mcgraw & Hill (and their imprints) on “inactive” status. I’m not exactly recommending everyone do this, and this is definitely a paranoid, “better safe than sorry” move. I’m trying to stay off Amazon’s radar.
Note I put them on “inactive” status (removed the listings from being live) – that’s not the same as a removal order. The books are still at the Amazon warehouse, I’m just leaving them unlisted until the dust settles.
What would I do if I had received the email (i.e. if I were you)?
Amazon has a history of being very permissive with granting access to gated categories immediately after the restrictions are implemented. Then as time goes on, the restrictions get tighter.
We saw this with DVDs. When the restrictions went into effect about 3 years ago, some who acted quickly (unlike me) were able to get full access to DVDs.
So if I had received the email (or if I do this week), I would provide the best receipts I have right away.
I would also open a support ticket and formally place a request with Amazon that I be permitted to sell all textbooks. History shows it only gets harder to access partially gated categories as time goes on, so now is the time to get in the door.
- Amazon is not banning textbooks.
- Amazon may restrict certain textbooks.
- It may only be books from certain publishers.
- It may only be books in certain conditions.
- It may even be books of certain demand.
- No one knows anything.
Or, you know, I could be wrong about literally everything.
Your to-do list
- Don’t accept fear spread in forums.
- Defer to the evidence.
- Remember that it’s never as bad as it seems in the beginning.
- Consider removing books from the aforementioned publishers from your inventory.
- Consider removing textbooks in New and Like New condition.
- Contact Amazon and request clarification on their vague email.
- Send Amazon the most legit-looking receipts you have.
- If you’re in a position to place an order and get receipts from an actual book wholesaler, do it.
PS: If you’re more of a video person, I made a video of this article. Feel free to share, and subscribe to my You Tube channel (lots more videos coming):