Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Amazon going underground?

This blog was never intended to be a report on Amazon, but there have been some disturbing trends coming from Seattle in recent months. In my last entry, I wrote about the issues related to descriptive copy issues that arise when a publisher changes distributors. In this entry, I'd like to talk about two other Amazon related things that have come up recently.

The first issue is related to Amazon's EDI initiatives. To their credit, Amazon wants to automate every aspect of communication with the entire supply chain - from product information to payments. But, a couple of weeks ago, several of our customers received emails from Amazon asking if they could provide the EDI 832 transaction. (I know I just lost every non-technical reader, but I'll explain). The '832' is an industry standard for product information that pre-dates ONIX. Given the rise in adoption of ONIX as a standard for product information, the '832' has almost become extinct as an electronic communication tool.

So, why bring it back? And why go to IT departments behind the backs of the account managers? For years, in account review meetings, Amazon has been telling their publisher vendors to use ONIX, ONIX, ONIX. Now, someone on the operations side of Amazon is asking for the '832'? The reason the industry went to ONIX in the first place was because of the inadequacy of the '832' to convey proper product information. The other issue here is that EDI transactions usually emanate from legacy order processing systems that have shortened titles and relatively little product information compared to Title Management tools (like the kind we supply). Product data in order processing systems is generally not regarded as good for anything but internal documents and EDI transactions, where abbreviated titles and author names are fine for labeling purposes.

So, we posed these questions to Amazon, and predictably, there was no response. To, me, this means that we hit a nerve. Amazon never even acknowledges emails when we discover an issue in their processes.

The second issue that has come up recently happened just last week. We received an email stating that Amazon was once again re-organizing it's catalog department. However in this email (which looked like a form email sent to all publishers who supply ONIX), we were told that our personal contact in the catalog department would no longer respond to our emails. We were told that if there were any data issues that we should fill out the online form, or if it was a process issue we should send an email to a generic email address.

For background, 15% of Amazon's book product information comes from our office in the form of weekly ONIX feeds. On average, we send about 5 - 10 emails per week to the catalog department to help investigate issues. These emails relate to a very small percentage of the titles we send them. Almost all are due to an unforeseen publicity event, or other extraordinary happening that requires some immediate assistance. To date, our contact in the catalog department has been incredibly helpful, and has kept the gears of the 'ONIX machine' well tended. Without a real person tending the machine, I'm am sure that it will bog down and collapse much more often than it does now.

Most of you have heard me rail against the online form. Changes made there become 'sticky' - to use Amazon's terminology. This means that once the online form is used to fix a title, then that title can NOT be updated via electronic feeds in the future. And, if publishers start using the online form instead of funneling the changes through us as they have in the past, the quality of the product information in use at Amazon will deteriorate rapidly.

I guess Amazon just doesn't care. They have 'gone underground' (credit goes to my wife for that metaphor). They are saving a head in the catalog department and that is more important than vendor relations.

I certainly hope that as publishers go through their account reviews, that they complain about this. After all, for years, Amazon has used that forum to complain to publishers about using ONIX.

Or, maybe we should just go back to the '832' and watch everyone's sales go down the toilet.