Amazon’s Pre-Order Quagmire
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.
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.)