Imagine this: you’ve just published a second edition of a popular book, an edition that not only adds lots of new material but also fixes a variety of mistakes in the original edition. Now add that the first edition was a bona fide best-seller and that your readers are eager to obtain the newer book.
Then you hit the Amazon.com wall.
Try as you might, get your publisher to rant and rave, but nothing changes. Amazon lists the older book as a better match for a given search than the newer edition. Amazon won’t add a link to the newer edition to the older edition’s informational page, and Amazon freely mingles comments from the older edition with the newer edition’s information page…
.. and your readers keep buying the old edition, maintaining its high ranking on Amazon, while the newer edition languishes and its ranking slowly falls.
If this were an isolated incident, I’d chalk this up to bad luck or screwy electrons in the database, but my colleague Kathy Sierra is by no means the only author to complain about this, with her new Head First Java, 2nd Edition. I see it in my own books, like Teach Yourself Unix in 24 Hours and Dee-Ann LeBlanc has been complaining for years about how poorly Amazon handles her Linux for Dummies title.
Until just a few days ago, you could still go to Amazon.com and search for “Head First Java”. The second edition just wasn’t in the search results, and even if you searched for all books written by Kathy Sierra it didn’t show up. Go to Amazon’s home page and again search for “Head First Java” and you’ll get more matches this time, but the second edition still wasn’t in sight. Much kicking and screaming from Kathy and O’Reilly Media and it’s finally fixed properly now. And, no surprise, Kathy reports that she’s getting lots of email from people who suddenly realize that they bought the first edition when they wanted the second edition.
It’s more pervasive than just the question of what edition is shown as the best match, too, and it’s not just whether there’s a “Note! There’s a newer edition of this book available” link prominently displayed or not. Even the reviews associated with a book are often with previous editions, previous editions that might have been written by different authors and that certainly shouldn’t apply to the more recent edition of the title. (most publishers require at least a 30% rewrite for a newer edition to be released)
Here’s what Kathy says about the situation:
The old edition is suddenly selling like crazy. It was at 690 on Amazon today. I should be thrilled, but that’s so wrong… and it means that people must be buying the *old* one thinking they’re buying the new one. So the old book is seeing the sales spike that SHOULD be going to the new one (now that ORA has made announcements on the new book, which I’m sure is responsible for the new sales rise). The new one (second edition) was at 5,000 today. Given that there’s virtually no reason for someone to buy the old one instead of the new one, this sounds like a recipe for a whole pile of unhappy customers returning the book once they realize they got the old one.
Here’s what Dee-Ann says about her problems with Linux for Dummies, though she does report that the sixth edition of her book currently isn’t including previous edition comments, but she’s expecting that to change at any moment:
Ever since the 3rd edition of Linux for Dummies I’ve had to post an author comment explaining the problems with Amazon for each edition. It’s a huge pain.
Worse, this isn’t something new. Assuming that they aren’t round-filing all the feedback from publishers, I know of at least three major publishing companies who have been feeding Amazon direct and rather blunt feedback about these edition problems. But to date, over three years after my author communities began complaining about the problems, there’s not a fix in sight.
The moral of this story, if there is one, is that online buyers need to be informed consumers. When you buy a book, particularly a technical book, make sure that it has a recent copyright date, and spend a little bit of time ensuring that you’ll be getting the most recent edition.
There’s a larger business problem here too, however, and it highlights one of the fundamental problems of a purely digital, purely commodity, completely database-driven business model: without human intervention, errors and flaws in the system design grow over time and end up as massive problems. In a computer book store, the clerk would naturally lead you to the most recent edition and the older editions probably wouldn’t even be on the shelf, or might be in a remainder rack. And in a good bookstore, the clerk would also say “Oh, this is a great new edition. I thought the last edition was weak on X and Y, but this one’s a great improvement and I highly recommend it.”
What are your horror stories about working with Amazon or buying from Amazon? Have you been bit by this editions problem?