Amazon’s Pre-Order Quagmire

Posted by on November 18, 2015 in fly me to the moon, recent, self-publishing | 51 comments

About fifteen months ago, Amazon took a major step to level the playing field for self-published authors: it allowed us to offer books for pre-order to our readers.  Pre-orders provide several advantages to authors, including:

  • Fans can order not-yet-published books on an impulse after finishing and enjoying earlier books by an author;
  • Authors can guarantee a certain release date, rather than relying on the approximation of processing time for new books added to the system; and
  • Authors enjoy an increased likelihood of reaching a bestseller list due to their experiencing a release day “drop” of accumulated pre-orders.

Amazon remains devoted to providing the best customer experience possible. Therefore, if an author misses a release date after accepting pre-orders, the author is banned from using pre-orders for a full year. (In fact, authors are required to submit the final version of their text by no later than ten days before release date.)

Alas, in multiple instances Amazon’s pre-order system has been severely flawed, costing authors valuable goodwill and–sometimes–hard cash.

MUM Cover

A case in point:  the boxed set Mischief Under the Mistletoe, which contains my novella Fly Me to the Moon along with eighteen other hot holiday romances.  In order to provide the best experience for our readers and to maximize our sales of our limited edition boxed set, we decided to make the set available for pre-order. To achieve that status, we uploaded Amazon’s required placeholder text file ninety days prior to our release.  In our case, that placeholder consisted of one draft novella by one of our authors, repeated nineteen times to approximate the length and content of the not-yet-completed other novellas in the boxed set.  We uploaded the placeholder file and began to promote our set on August 25, 2015, with an eye toward a November 17 release.

Our pre-orders for the set steadily grew as we invested time, money, and effort in promoting Mischief. On November 2, 2015, well before Amazon’s ten-day deadline, we uploaded the final version of our text file. That final version contained nineteen novellas, each of which was proofread, formatted, and hyperlinked in a master table of contents. Amazon confirmed receipt of the final file.

On November 17, Mischief Under the Mistletoe went live.  Shortly after midnight, approximately 8100 pre-orders were fulfilled. Alas, Amazon mistakenly sent those customers the placeholder file instead of the final file. (New customers who placed orders after the book released, received and continue to receive the correct file.)

Forty-eight hours later, the situation remains unresolved. Nearly 40% of our reviews are one- or two-star reviews, commenting exclusively about the problems of the placeholder file (without comment on the substance of that one story or, obviously, the content of the missing eighteen novellas.) As a consequence, we have had several advertisers drop our pre-purchased advertisements, because we have not met the four-star threshold for those ads.  (We have been denied refunds on those ads.)

Amazon has admitted its error, confirming that we did upload the final file on a timely basis. They have admitted that pre-order customers incorrectly received the placeholder file.  They maintain they have “pushed” the correct file to pre-order customers; however, very few–if any–customers have received the pushed file.  In fact, some customers who have complained have been instructed to delete the faulty file, request a refund, wait for a week, and re-order the boxed set. (ETA: That week’s wait, of course, pushes the re-sale past the date that counts for we authors hoping to hit a bestseller list.) Customers who have manually deleted the placeholder file and attempted to download the final file have generally found that their ereaders mistakenly re-load the placeholder file.

Most frustratingly, Amazon refuses to delete the one- and two-star reviews–even though those reviews patently have nothing to do with the quality of the product.

As authors, we are trying to handle this disaster as best we can. We are trying to recruit new buyers (customers who will now receive the proper file). We are commenting on each one-star review, apologizing to our disappointed customers and explaining the circumstances. We have reconciled ourselves to losing money on the ads that will not be distributed, and we’ve resigned ourselves to not hitting any bestseller lists due to the poor star-rating of the boxed set and our irrevocably harmed sales during this crucial first week.

Many of us have books already in the pre-order system. We know we must deliver our files on time or face the wrath of Amazon, including the penalties we agreed to when we bought into the pre-order system. But we dread our launch dates, and the possible repeat of this public relations and sales disaster–especially with no relief on the horizon for Mischief Under the Mistletoe.

ETA: Early Thursday morning, Amazon emailed pre-order buyers, informing them that the publisher (i.e., we Mischief authors) had corrected our mistake (!) and the correct file was now available for downloading. The email provided instructions for downloading, and pre-order buyers are now reporting their receipt of the correct file. (To date, the one-star reviews remain, though, and the canceled ads will not revisit their decisions.)

51 Comments

  1. This is horrifying. I’m so sorry!

    • Thanks for the support. The frustrating thing, of course, is that pre-order customers should be treated *best*, not worst!

  2. This is horrifying. I’m so sorry!

  3. Obviously it is not any of you authors fault. When I give my review I will be sure it is for all the stories not just the one. Hopefully this can get fixed soon so I can enjoy all the stories.

    • Thanks for the kind words. And yes, we’re hoping the fix comes through soon so *all* you early supporters get what you deserve (and what you paid for!) Thanks for sticking with us…

  4. I know it isn’t the authors fault so I would Never give a 1 or 2 star rating for that. I will give a rating after I receive the correct file as I haven’t yet.

    • Thanks for understanding our dilemma! I hope we can deliver the correct file soon. Sigh…

  5. I had preordered the book, and as of this evening Amazon had not pushed the correct file. I requested a refund and deleted the file from my kindle. I will reorder in a couple of days, as I have been looking forward to this book. I’m disappointed that Amazon has not corrected its error and pushed the correct file to all the people who preordered it.

    • Thanks for sticking with us! (And yes, the failure to correct is very disappointing…)

  6. I got a notice about what I needed to do to receive the correct file a couple of hours ago — and wondered what Amazon’s problem was that they couldn’t automatically update the file.

    I’m glad to know, though, that I will have the entire set of stories once I crack the set open … and I’m sorry that Amazon was stupid and slow. Not to mention unwilling to fix a problem that they caused (by not deleting the reviews based on the flawed file that Amazon initially delivered).

    • I’ve heard from several people who have followed Amazon’s instructions and now have the correct file. Therefore, I believe the new system will work for you — but yes, it’s quite frustrating how long it took for them to send instructions! (As for the reviews, that remains a real problem. If you’re so inclined, we’d love for you to post an honest review once you’ve had a chance to read some or all of the set!)

  7. Mindy, is there anything we as consumers can do to help? Any way to let Amazon know how unacceptable this was?

    • Thanks so much for the offer of support. Amazon does not have a central place for customers to leave reviews of their services; that’s one reason that frustrated customers resort to leaving one-star reviews. (Sigh…) You *could* send an email to a generic customer support email address (linked to on Amazon’s front page.)

      In the alternative, once you’ve had a chance to read some or all of the set, you could leave an honest review on the Mischief page!

      Thanks again for looking for constructive solutions!

  8. Hugs Mindy! This is every author’s nightmare. Amazon should definitely make clear to customers that it was THEIR mistake, not yours. You might want to add a line to your Amazon product description page explaining the snafu, to help prevent any further 1-star reviews.

    On the bright side, with 8100 pre-orders, you’ll definitely make the USA Today bestseller list! So there will be a silver lining to this stormy week. 🙂

    • We look for silver linings wherever we can find them! 🙂

      And that’s a great idea about adding a line to the product description. Off to confer with my fellow boxed set authors!

  9. So, they blamed the PUBLISHERS who actually did what they were supposed to do instead of. Taking the blame for themselves like thy should have?! That is wrong on so many levels and I am so very sorry. I will make doubly sure that I review this once I get a chance to help out in the best way that I can.

    • Thank you! Honest reviews about the *content* (instead of Amazon’s mistaken delivery) are exactly what we’re looking for!

  10. I’m so sorry this happened to you guys. Unfortunately, you’re not alone. I had the same this happen this spring. My UNedited placeholder book got sent to my pre-order customers even though I sent the edited version to amazon days before the 10day window. I got a handful of reviews mentions typos and the need for editing. 🙁 They really need to change the system. We shouldn’t have to upload a placeholder file.

    • Sadly, I’ve heard this same story from many authors. (I’d heard rumors about problems before our disaster, but I’ve now spoken with over a dozen authors who’ve had this exact issue on their launch day.)

      I don’t know enough about Amazon’s computer systems to understand why they need a placeholder file. It certainly seems to be a snag in an otherwise streamlined system.

  11. That’s horrifying. After hearing such stories, I’ve taken to uploading drafts – first, second, post-beta, post-edit, post-proofread – to mitigate any such problem that might occur. At least readers will get something approaching a proper book, I hope.

    • That’s a good solution, when you’re in complete control of the process. Alas, it works less well when the project is a boxed set, where a lot of the work comes together in the last 90 days.

      (And I’m hearing from authors who are getting dinged for typos in pre-loaded drafts too. Sigh…)

  12. Hmm. Mindy, this isn’t my usual sort of reading material, but I’m inclined to buy, read and review this just to help you out in light of this snafu. What a horrible thing to have happen! I’m beyond puzzled by Amazon’s recalcitrance on this, not to mention the advertisers. Seems to me you might want to consider legal action.

    • Of course, all honest reviews of the *content* (and not Amazon’s delivery practices!) are welcome.

      As you know, legal action is tremendously expensive, both in terms of costs and fees, and the time it takes away from writing more books. The only way legal action would make sense in this arena is for the thousands of affected authors (if we’ve got 19 in our set, the number must be that high across all messed-up preorders!) to band together for a class action.

      Ultimately, alas, damages would be very difficult to prove — there aren’t any statutory damages (I can’t see an easy way to shoehorn this into a copyright claim), and “I didn’t make the NYT list, which I was on target to make” is pretty speculative…

      Grr. And argh.

  13. It’s a pity that amazon can’t do pre-orders without a placeholder. I know of at least one other author who had something similar happen last year.

    I do like the convenience of pre-orders and, with my memory, would probably forget about book releases if I didn’t have them pre-ordered.

    I had pre-ordered the above anthology and had received the placeholder. Today amazon emailed me about the update version being available in manage my kindle. So I used the send update button and did receive the updated version on all devices.

    This is only speculation on my part, but I suspect that amazon doesn’t automatically push out as many updates as they used to because of the potential for lost notes, highlights etc and customer displeasure. Unfortunately they don’t consistently email when an update is available and if you have a large quantity of purchases you don’t always see the side note about an update being available. I recently discovered that several of my purchases had updates that I had not received when I recently had to re-load books on my reader.

    Looking forward to reading the stories and leaving a review.

    • There are other vendors (iBooks, for one), who allow “assetless” pre-orders — authors don’t need to upload a placeholder file. That certainly seems like a strong solution for this problem.

      I, too, like the convenience of pre-orders, both as an author and as a reader.

      And Amazon’s reluctance to send updates makes *some* sense when we’re talking about new editions of properly published works. But in these placeholder situations, where there wasn’t any meaningful text on which to make notes, highlight, etc., the reluctance seems misplaced!

      Oh – and we definitely welcome honest reviews of our content! 🙂

  14. And to top it off they blame YOU for the mistake. This is absolutely ridiculous. Have you thought about suing? Would it be worth the cost? 🙁 I’m so sorry you’ve been through this.

    • Thanks for the sympathy!

      Alas, the cost of litigation is extraordinarily high, in terms of dollars, times, and emotional stress. Especially when going against an opponent with essentially unlimited funds. So, litigation isn’t an answer — but writing the next great book might be! ::wry grin::

  15. How terrible! Amazon really are crappy aren’t they?

    I’m very sorry this happened to you all!

    • There are actually a lot of things Amazon does well, and I’m grateful to them for creating the self-publishing platform that is the cornerstone of my publishing career these days.

      But they’re far from perfect. And this is one place where their policies are truly abysmal. (The refusal to remove the one-star reviews is the piece of this puzzle that just has me boggled, even now.)

      Sigh…

      • I’ve been monitoring the Amazon “Top Reviewers” forum for quite a few years, so I can give you a few insights into the complicated situation at Amazon, as I see it.

        There really is an edgy standoff between authors and reviewers, and Amazon is caught between them. Amazon makes money off of books, for sure, but their reviews are a major reason that people visit them. They decided long ago to allow unfavorable reviews because it give people the impression the reviews are balanced.

        I’ve learned that a number of reviewers won’t touch self-published authors, EVER, due to having been burned too many times.

        True, in your case the one-star reviews aren’t particularly fair, due to its being Amazon’s fault. You and your fellow authors are professionals with years of experience in the industry. You know how to produce quality work.

        And Amazon is sabotaging your best efforts.

        End users (reviewers) don’t care about all that. They just want the silly book to be right. And, as you’ve noted, their only recourse right now is to leave scathing reviews on the book page to warn other buyers. They’re frustrated, and they want to share their feelings.

        To compound the problem, it seems the majority of SPAs are complete novices who don’t have a clue about formatting and basic editing, and they and all their friends go completely berserk the first time someone posts a less-than glowing review. They’ll try to get Amazon to delete the reviews. There actually is a way to make troublesome reviews “disappear”, and it happens.

        The biggest mistake SPAs and their friends make is to start leaving hostile comments on the offending review. They’ll go through the reviewer’s profile and start casting retaliatory “unhelpful” votes on their other reviews.

        (I think you guys did the right thing with your comments. Just explain the problem and apologize, even if it wasn’t your fault.)

        This leads to the second problem: Serious reviewers become enraged when their efforts are summarily deleted, or when they start getting flooded with “unhelpful” votes and nasty comments. They contact Amazon customer support, and often don’t get any help there. Now they’re even more frustrated.

        So they turn to the forums, and start “Badly Behaving Author” (BBA) threads. I know there are quite a few on the Amazon Romance forum — I’ve seen links to them in the “Top Reviewers” forum, where similar threads can be found.

        From there, I’ve seen the disputes spread to social media sites like Facebook, and it becomes a PR nightmare for the author. It’s hard to win that battle. Sometimes it’s very well-known authors, not just the novices.

        At any rate, I think one of the reasons Amazon is so reluctant to delete reviews is because it generates so much ill will, and they can’t win that battle.

        Plus, there are literally millions of these things, and everyone is complaining, and they don’t have enough live human beings at Amazon to keep track of it all.

        In your case, it really does feel completely unfair. Hopefully some of the reviewers will come back and have a change of heart, and you’ll get back past that four-star threshold.

        And I don’t think being an SPA is in my future.

        Apologies for the long-winded post.

        Bob Shepard of Denver

        • I certainly understand Amazon’s dilemma, when it has to start parsing whether the substance of a review is fair or not. Readers’ experiences of books are inherently subjective.

          But I think there’s a qualitative difference between a review about the content of a book and a review about Amazon’s delivery of that book. In our circumstance, Amazon delivered the WRONG book. It was as wrong as if they’d delivered THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE instead of MISCHIEF. So, a review that says, “DECLINE is one of the most over-rated books of historical analysis in all time” is absolutely, completely irrelevant to whether MISCHIEF is good holiday romance fun.

          ::shrug:: I don’t expect to convince you (or Amazon.) I just think there should be a difference between giving one-star reviews to creators who fail, as opposed to delivery services that fail.

          • Oh, we agree. Amazon really has to do something about this mess. Why should you be punished for their mistake?

            A common complaint in the “Top Reviewers” community is how cluttered the review pages are getting with “Fast delivery. Very satisfied!” type of comments, which really need to go on the seller feedback page. The distinction is completely getting lost.

            At the very least, I’d love it if Amazon would prompt us for the kind of review we want to leave when we click on the “write review” button. Are we reviewing the product? The seller? The delivery? But then, with formatting problems, people would still probably want to blame the author.

            (Sigh!)

            I don’t buy e-books, but can imagine the dilemma I’d feel if I ordered a print book which was beautifully written, but fell apart in my hands due to shoddy materials. (I’ve heard some print-on-demand books are almost that bad.) I’d hate to hurt the author, but would still feel the need to warn the buyer. How would I handle it?

            I, personally, haven’t written any reviews in a couple of years. I’ve gotten too frustrated with the way Amazon operates, and decided to play my bagpipes instead. I’m thankful I can still walk into a Barnes and Noble, and order from them if need be.

            Regards.

            Bob Shepard from Denver

  16. How utterly horrifying. Don’t give up. Keep fighting Amazon to remove those reviews; they’ve admitted fault! What utter b*st*rds.

    • We’re still fighting, but all nineteen of us are thinking of writing our next novels about Sisyphus (sigh…)

  17. I’m wondering if the placeholder file shouldn’t actually include a big message right at the beginning in 20-point bold print:

    “This is a placeholder file. If you downloaded this book and see this message, that means Amazon has messed up. Again. Please contact customer support.”

    Bob Shepard from Denver

    • Many of us do that, with the placeholder files we upload. Alas, readers who get the faulty files still complain — and those complaints go on the book’s page, because there isn’t a place to rate Amazon’s delivery. Sigh…

    • Bob – I was thinking the same thing, with author contact information. It’s true that it may not pacify all the angry Amazon customers. But it might be a way to mitigate some of the problem, if it happens.
      Minday – Thank you for your story. It sounds like with the terrific fan-base you and the other authors enjoy, this will end up being a best seller. If I were into romance novels, I’d certainly buy-read-review it. Best wishes!

      • Thanks for the kind thoughts!

  18. I am a very loyal long-time customer for Amazon, with two accounts, many devices, and thousands of dollars of purchases every year.

    I am appalled at their handling of this situation. I not only purchases the book, I posted on their FB page with a link to this article.

    Here’s hoping they hear customers loud and clear and make this right.

    • Thanks for the supportive words! And thank you, even more, for purchasing MISCHIEF!

  19. What a horrible situation. I won’t lie I had a somewhat similar issue with amazon not putting out the correct file with the final edition of my last book. It wasn’t a preorder situation but it was their screw up and it took weeks for them (amazon) to rectify it. I, much like you ended up with 2 bad reviews. I was so embarrassed. Now after reading your piece it concerns me since My next novel (the first in a series) is coming out in January and I wanted to do a preorder option and now I am nervous about that. I think it stinks your advertisers won’t reconsider things. i do hope things get better.

    • Yes, this whole situation makes it very difficult to decide whether a preorder is worth the potential reviews-disaster for things beyond our control as authors.

      (I have one pre-order pending, which I started before this mess. I know there are business reasons why I might choose to do others, but I’ll have to factor the random possibility of failure into making those decisions. Sigh…)

  20. This is why my placeholder files include a notification at the start that alerts the reader that the file IS a placeholder, and that if they’re seeing it, it’s because Amazon has screwed up.

    • In my personal pre-orders (not boxed sets), I do something similar. Alas, many of the one-star reviews we have received are from people who say, “Amazon messed up this order, but I paid valuable money for it, so I’m giving one-star to save everyone else from disaster.” (In other words, even when the buyers understand it’s not the author’s fault, they ding the author in reviews.) Sigh…

  21. My god what a nightmare and I’m going to watch this!!! Thank you for sharing

    • Thanks for the words of support!

  22. Dear Mandy,

    It’s not all bad. I read about this fiasco when it first started, and decided, strictly because I felt you guys had been treated so poorly, to buy the book. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m sure that I’ll find at least one author previously unknown to me (maybe you!) whom I enjoy, and then go on to purchase other books by that author. If there hadn’t been a fiasco, I probably would never have bought the book.

    Hope you all have a wonderful holiday, anyway , and enjoy lots of mistletoe mischief!

    • ::grin::

      Thanks for taking a chance on us! (And lots of people mis-type my name as Mandy! I’m used to it! 🙂 )

  23. Sorry!!! I meant to type Mindy!!!!!!!!

  24. This is disgusting. You make a mistake and Amazon comes down unnecessarily hard. 12 months is disgraceful. Yes, there should be a penalty but it should be scaled. One mistake, maybe a month, Two, three months etc. BUT, Amazon makes a mistake and YOU still suffer. I’m so sorry to hear about what you and your fellow authors are goign through and although it probably won’t help much, I have just purchased the set.

    • Thank you so much for buying the set! I hope that you enjoy the stories!

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