What Happened to Amazon’s Bookstore?

John C. Boland was poking around the Amazon bookstore when he saw the science thriller “Hominid” for sale at dizzying prices. It was $907 from Sandy Dunes Surplus, $930 from Rocky Mountain Books and $987 from Open Range Media.

He didn’t need a copy. He wrote the novel and published it himself. List price is $15.

Mr. Boland has been selling books on Amazon since 2009. He lets the bookseller handle everything for his imprint, called Perfect Crime, including printing, billing and shipping.

“Best retailer on the planet,” he calls it. “They eat the competition’s lunch.”

Despite that endorsement, Mr. Boland sued Amazon at the end of August, accusing the all-devouring retailer of, in essence, eating Perfect Crime’s lunch. His suit says Amazon let Sandy Dunes and other vendors on its platform run wild with Perfect Crime titles, offering copies for ridiculous amounts. The sellers also bizarrely asserted that “Hominid” was published in 1602, a mere 409 years before it was actually issued, which further irked the writer.

The suit, in federal court in Maryland, offers a glimpse into Amazon’s dominance and perhaps its vulnerability. Amazon’s online store has surpassed Walmart, making it the largest retailer outside China. By delivering essentials and luxuries to those stuck at home during the pandemic, it helped many people navigate a bleak moment. Shipping times that used to be measured in days are now counted in hours. It is one of the few companies valued at more than a trillion dollars.

For all that success, however, Amazon is under pressure from many directions.

There are sellers like Mr. Boland, who say they are suffering from the Wild West atmosphere on the site; regulators, who are taking a closer look at Amazon’s power; unhappy warehouse employees, who would like a better deal; and lawmakers, who want Amazon to disclose more about its third-party sellers. There are also the devious sellers themselves, whom Amazon says it is having a hard time eradicating.

All of these critical groups could perhaps be dealt with. But there is one more that presents a much bigger risk: customers. As Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, once noted, customers are “divinely discontent.” Last quarter they got fickle about Amazon. After years of meteoric growth, its e-commerce revenue barely budged.

Maybe it was a blip. Or maybe shoppers are shutting their wallets in frustration.

“Amazon started as a bookstore, but it’s now a marketplace — an e-commerce bucket that any seller can put their stuff into,” said Jane Friedman, a publishing industry consultant. “The result is that the shopping experience has really gotten worse over time.”

The bookstore is the oldest part of Amazon, still central to its identity but no longer to its bottom line. It feels like where every Amazon shopping experience could be heading — immense, full of ads and unvetted reviews, ruled by algorithms and third-party sellers whose identities can be elusive.

Amazon denied all of Mr. Boland’s allegations in court, though it says it is striving to understand what happened. It rejected the idea that the consumer experience has gotten worse. But the bookstore’s less traveled aisles seem mysterious even to Amazon, like a neighborhood left by the authorities to fend for itself.

The overwhelming complexity and sheer size of Amazon is increasingly a political issue. Last month, the Department of Justice sued to stop Penguin Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster. The combined firm would have an estimated 27 percent of the market for new books. But Amazon has much greater control over their sale. By some estimates, it has as much as two-thirds of the market for new and used books through its own platform and such subsidiaries as Abebooks.com.

“Should we care as a society that a single firm controls half of our most precious cultural commodity and its automation isn’t working right?” asked Christopher Sagers, the author of “Antitrust: Examples & Explanations.”

Earlier this week, Amazon ranked his book the No. 1 seller in the category of “Antitrust Law.” The second-ranked seller was “Mental Health Workbook,” which deals with depression and attachment theory. No. 5 was a book on the origins of Christmas. No. 15 was a true-crime tale about child murders. Eight of the top 20 books on the list had no discernible connection to antitrust.

“People think Amazon’s algorithms are better than they actually are,” Mr. Sagers explained.

Amazon declined to say what percentage of its book sales are done through third parties. (For the entire marketplace it is over half.) The overwhelming majority of these are legitimate vendors. Some are not. Mr. Boland’s lawsuit implies that Amazon does not make much effort to distinguish between the two. That, it seems, is the customer’s job.

“In some ways Amazon doesn’t really want to be a retailer,” said Juozas Kaziukenas of Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce consultant. “It doesn’t want to do curation or offer human interaction,” two of the essential qualities of retail for centuries.

Offering tens of millions of items to hundreds of millions of customers prevents any human touch — but opens up a lot of space for advertising, and for confusion and duplicity. This might be good for Amazon’s competitors in physical bookstores, which have a much smaller and more tightly controlled stock. But it does not bode well for e-commerce.

It’s the paradox of plenty: The more things there are to buy, the more difficult it is to find the right thing among the plethora of ads and competition, new material and secondhand, quality and garbage.

“Amazon knows what I buy, how often I buy, what I search for,” Mr. Kaziukenas said. “But decades after it launched, it can’t answer a simple question — what would Juozas like to buy? Instead it shows me thousands of deals, with some basic filters like category and price, and hopes I will find what I like. Amazon is so much work.”

Once upon a time, when the dot-coms roamed the earth, the Amazon bookstore was a simple place. It had knowledgeable human editors, bountiful discounts and delivery that was speedy for the era. For the book-obsessed, it offered every publisher’s backlist, obscure but irresistible titles that had previously been difficult to discover and acquire.

The combination of all those things in one place was a sensation. Amazon quickly took market share from independent stores and chains.

Online shopping promised so much. When Time magazine made Mr. Bezos its Person of the Year in 1999, it marveled that the site was “alive with uncounted species of insight, innovation and intellect.”

Third-party sellers were an Amazon innovation in the late 1990s. Before that, stores either entirely controlled the shopping experience or, if they had a lot of sellers under one roof, were called flea markets and were not quite reputable.

Amazon in theory offered the brisk competition of the latter while exercising the oversight of the former. Bringing in third-party sellers was also a way for Amazon to champion how it was helping small businesses, which helped defuse controversies about its size and behavior.

A new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a research and advocacy group often critical of Amazon, details the most direct benefit of third-party sellers to the retailer: profits. A third-party seller pays Amazon $34 out of every $100 in sales, the nonprofit institute calculates, up from $19 in 2014.

The money comes from fees, ads and premium logistics that make the merchandise more visible to potential buyers. Amazon called the report “intentionally misleading” because the site does not force sellers to advertise or use its logistics system.

Bookselling at Amazon is a two-tier system, said Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the institute and the author of the report, “Amazon’s Toll Road: How the Tech Giant Funds Its Monopoly Empire by Exploiting Small Businesses.”

“Best sellers and other books that you might find at a local bookstore are almost all sold by Amazon itself at prices that keep those competitors at bay,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Then Amazon lets third-party sellers do the rest of the books, taking a huge cut of their sales.”

Amazon “doesn’t care if this third-party stuff is a chaotic free-for-all,” she added. “In fact, it’s better for Amazon if legitimate businesses don’t stand a chance. In the same way Amazon wants to turn all work into gig jobs, it wants to turn running a business into a gig job. That way it can walk off with all the spoils.”

Mr. Boland, a retired journalist who lives near Baltimore, found the chaos infuriating. A whole shelf of things he wrote and published were dated to ridiculous years like 1876, 1842, 1774.

“It’s deceptive advertising,” he said. “Why is Amazon, the champion of consumers, allowing this?”

Extraordinary prices for ordinary books have been an Amazon mystery for years, but the backdating of titles to gain a commercial edge appears to be a new phenomenon. A listing with a fake date gets a different Amazon page from a listing with the correct date. In essence, those Boland books were in another virtual aisle of the bookstore. That could power sales.

Last month, a search on the site for paperbacks published before 1800 yielded over 100,000 results. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign tract, “Change We Can Believe In,” was published in 1725, according to a seller charging $45 for it. Elsewhere in the bookstore it sells for as low as 25 cents.

“We do not allow the activity Mr. Boland observed and are working to correct” it, Amazon said in a statement. “It appears only a small number of these books were sold by third-party sellers in our store, and we have no evidence that any were counterfeit. We are investigating how this occurred.”

Mr. Boland takes the misuse of his name personally. “When a seller claims to have a 1602 edition that it’s charging nearly $1,000 for, it’s defaming me by implying that the book existed before I wrote it — i.e., that I’m a plagiarist,” he said.

Amazon argues in court papers that the same shield that protects Facebook and Twitter from being sued over posts by their users — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — protects it as well, even if the product is a physical item.

Mark Lemley, the director of the Stanford Program in Law, Science and Technology, said the company was probably right. “I don’t think Amazon will be liable for misstatements posted by others, and certainly not if it wasn’t aware of them,” he said.

Mr. Boland, who is acting as his own lawyer, said he made Amazon aware of the problem last spring but got nowhere. Only after his suit was filed did Amazon begin pulling the erroneous listings down. Perfect Crime’s damages, Amazon said in a filing, “if any,” were not caused by Amazon and “are vague, uncertain, imaginary and speculative.”

Some of the backdating sellers named in the suit are based in Dallas, leading Mr. Boland to suspect they are connected. Sandy Dunes, Open Range and Rocky Mountain all seem to have disappeared, or perhaps changed their name.

In 2019, Mr. Bezos celebrated the fact that Amazon’s two million independent sellers were doing so well. “To put it bluntly: Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt,” he wrote. They were pulling in $90,000 a year on average, the company said.

With a little fraud it’s possible for a third party to make much more, at least for a while.

The U.S. attorney’s office in the Western District of Michigan recently announced arrests in a case involving Amazon’s textbook rental program. Geoffrey Mark Hays Talsma was charged with selling his rentals of “Using Econometrics: A Practical Guide,” “Chemistry: Atoms First” and other volumes instead of returning them.

At Amazon, the customer is king. According to the indictment, Mr. Talsma profited by repeatedly saying he had received the wrong products. He said, for instance, he had mistakenly been shipped flammable products that could not be returned, like a bottle of Tiki Torch Fuel that was leaking. Amazon would then credit his account.

What’s remarkable is the scale, length and profitability of this alleged activity. Amazon allows customers to rent up to 15 textbooks at a time. With the help of three confederates, Mr. Talsma rented more than 14,000 textbooks from Amazon over five years, making $3.4 million, prosecutors say. His lawyer declined to comment.

It’s the same story over and over again, Mr. Boland said: “Amazon has done a great job of expanding the marketplace for books. It’s too bad they’ve decided not to police their own platform, because it’s leading to all sorts of trouble.”

Amazon acknowledges that some third-party sellers bring problems, including fraud, counterfeiting and abuse. The retailer says it has invested $700 million and dedicated 10,000 employees to combating these issues.

Those resources are not enough. In a policy paper published Oct. 18, Amazon said law enforcement, border control and other authorities needed to make “bold changes” to protect the integrity of e-commerce.

But Amazon has resisted requiring its sellers to share more information about themselves. It has opposed lawmakers’ efforts to demand more transparency, saying it would violate sellers’ privacy. Recently it signaled guarded approval of a weaker bill but noted that there were a few parts of it “that could be refined.”

Amazon gives writers and publishers broad latitude to sell anything, including the mediocre and the misleading. The store’s logic has always been that the good work will rise and the bad will fall. In the meantime, however, some readers get suckered.

Dave Grohl, the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman, has just published his autobiography, “The Storyteller.” An outfit called “University Press” that is not a university press seized the opportunity to publish “Dave Grohl: The Biography,” which it paid Amazon to promote alongside Mr. Grohl’s book.

Like many of these types of books on Amazon, “The Biography” is written in what might be called “Almost English.” “It is undeniable that he has been instrumental in his own success,” a typical sentence reads.

Nevertheless, it sold. “The Biography,” which does not list an author, is now promoted with the tag “best seller,” just like Mr. Grohl’s own book. “The Biography” is No. 1 in New Age Music, Amazon says, right ahead of “Harmonica for Kids.”

Amazon featured as the “top critical review” of “The Biography” a comment by someone who is under the impression the musician himself wrote it. “Grohl should stick to songwriting,” the reviewer wrote. Other buyers, realizing the truth, were infuriated that they had been tricked into buying a pamphlet. Adding another note of confusion, Mr. Grohl’s book was mysteriously described as “Holiday Toy List.”

Other newly published pamphlets purport to summarize and explain Mr. Grohl’s own writing, although they, too, are written in Almost English. One pamphlet said it offered “an explanation of the indirect and figurative statements made by the writer to ensure an unadulterated Understanding.”

All of this is a long way from Time magazine’s swell future of insight and intellect.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone at Amazon is saying: ‘We’re junking the store up. We have to decide what’s best for the customer,’” said Ms. Friedman, the publishing consultant.

When the algorithms act, they do so boldly and bluntly.

After the Washington Redskins changed their name to the Washington Football Team, Amazon began dropping books with the name “Redskins” in them. “Fight for Old DC: George Preston Marshall, the Integration of the Washington Redskins, and the Rise of a New NFL” disappeared. So did George MacDonald Fraser’s historical caper “Flashman and the Redskins.”

Amazon did not intend to ban these books. In fact, it did not realize it had done so until a reporter told the retailer. It called the deletions a “mistake” and restored the titles.

Small presses say it’s hard to get Amazon to acknowledge a mistake, because it’s hard to get hold of a human being who could fix it. Valancourt Books, a publisher in Richmond, Va., that has won acclaim for its reissues of horror and gay interest titles, frequently runs afoul of the site.

“They will remove something but not tell you why they removed it,” said James D. Jenkins, Valancourt’s publisher. A recent case involved a new edition of “Devil Daddy,” a novel of demonic possession by the midcentury English horror novelist John Blackburn. When it originally appeared in 1972, The Sunday Times of London called it a “splendid ghoulish read.”

Amazon thought rather less of it.

“The subject matter of your book is in violation of our content guidelines,” the bookseller wrote Valancourt. “As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale.”

“We have to guess what might have offended a computer,” Mr. Jenkins said. “When it’s one book, how hard do you want to fight? But 90 percent of e-books come from Amazon. If they block a title, that’s a lot of sales you don’t have.”

An Amazon spokeswoman, Julia Lee, said, “Our review process is a combination of machine learning, automation and a large dedicated team of human reviewers, and sometimes, as in this case, we see human error.” She declined to say what the error was.

The real effect that Amazon is having on Valancourt is to diminish its ambitions. The publisher brought out an edition of “Carmilla,” a Victorian story by Sheridan Le Fanu that has become important in queer studies, with professional annotations and footnotes. But there are many less ambitious versions that slap a cover on an old text mined from the web.

“Customers complain to us that they can’t find our edition, or that they thought they were ordering ours but got some junk edition instead,” Mr. Jenkins said.

At least 20 editions of “Carmilla” are on Amazon. The Valancourt edition, which is indeed difficult to find on the site, features 1,206 reviews, some of which are clearly talking about inferior editions. “It didn’t include a forward,” one reviewer complained in Almost English, showing a picture of a different book. The Valancourt book has an introduction.

And so the story comes full circle. Amazon’s great gift to devoted readers in 1999 was to make every book in print available within a few days, and do it with a certain panache. Now the site is a maze of debris. Valancourt has given up.

“We’ve largely stopped producing scholarly editions of 18th- and 19th-century texts,” Mr. Jenkins said.

The bad is driving out the good, but Amazon pushes ahead with the automation.

Danny Caine, the proprietor of a bookstore in Lawrence, Kan., drew national attention when he wrote a letter to Mr. Bezos in 2019 saying that “your book business has devalued the book itself.” Mr. Caine is now writing a book, which he summed up on Twitter the other day: “Amazon is bad.”

A software program saw the confluence of “Amazon” and “bad” and sprang into action.

“We’re sorry for the experience,” Amazon said in an automatic tweet to Mr. Caine that rather missed the point. “Without providing any account or personal details, can you give us more insight on the issue you’ve encountered? Let us know. We’re here to help however we can.”