A situation blew up at Amazon over the weekend which has made most KDP ebooks unavailable to purchase for international readers who use the US Kindle Store — one which has also exposed a glaring security problem.
This issue — which is either a bug or a badly bungled roll-out — is causing great confusion as its effects are only visible to those outside the USA, which might explain why Amazon has been so slow to address it, or even understand the problem, it seems.
The first reports were from a few weeks ago, when Australian readers who use the US Kindle Store were unable to see a handful of new releases. It seems to have spread significantly since then. This weekend I noticed the issue myself for the first time. Buy buttons had disappeared from a couple of my ebooks and they were no longer appearing in Search results or on my Author Page. It was as if they had been ghosted. Readers around the world confirmed the same thing — except those in the USA, where all these books continue to be visible in search and purchasable by readers there.
Looking around the Kindle Store this weekend, it seemed like half of the KDP books I checked were unavailable for purchase to international readers, and similarly missing from search results (and, in some cases, author pages). They were undiscoverable by international readers, in other words, and even if those readers navigated to the pages of those Kindle editions directly, price tags were gone and Buy buttons had been removed.
The issue has proved difficult to explain to some of those in the USA, including Amazon apparently, as they literally can’t see what international readers are seeing. While these titles are all still available in the 11 other Kindle Stores around the world, some authors seem unaware that millions of readers worldwide routinely use the US Kindle Store, including all those readers without a Kindle Store of their own. (I know because I’m one of them.)
The problem is even more pronounced this morning, and a quick check of a random list of KDP books shows about 80% of those I looked at are now affected, as well as lots and lots of Amazon imprint books too. And despite numerous calls and emails to Amazon about the issue by myself and lots of other international authors and readers, there is no indication that Amazon grasps the problem.
And that’s not even the most disturbing part of all this, as it has revealed a giant security mess for Amazon that could have huge legal ramifications too.
Some screenshots should illustrate the problem for American authors and those otherwise unaware. This what readers in the USA see when they search for my book Strangers to Superfans.
However, this is what readers outside the USA see when they make the same search. The ebook edition has vanished and only the paperback is visible.
The above is an “All Departments” search but what if I restrict it to the Kindle Store? Then I get five results, none of which are Strangers to Superfans. It’s like it doesn’t exist.
On the product page of the book itself, this is what American readers see for Strangers to Superfans (those who haven’t purchased yet will see a Buy button instead of the Read Now button). And the book is still on sale and purchasable by those in the USA. Please feel free to test that if you like…
Which is all normal. But readers outside the USA are suddenly now unable to purchase this book (and hundreds of thousands of others), as you can see from this screenshot:
A quick look at the series page gives us a clue as to what might be happening here:
So the system seems to think that I shouldn’t be using the US Kindle Store — even though, like many Irish people, I’ve been using the US Kindle Store exclusively since 2011 — and it is blocking me not just from purchasing this title and many other titles, but is also rendering them invisible in search too, so customers don’t even know there is an issue unless they somehow go directly to the book’s page on Amazon. New-to-you readers internationally who use the US Kindle Store won’t even know the problem exists otherwise, or that your book does, I guess.
It gets weirder because this bug or glitch or whatever it is seems to be very inconsistent. All of my non-fiction is unavailable to international readers. Some of my fiction is gone too, but not all of it. If I Iook at someone random from the charts like Bella Forrest, all of the books of hers I checked are gone.
Picking someone else off the top of my head like Michael Wallace, most of his self-published titles seem to be unaffected, and visible to international readers and purchasable by them too, but some are hit — for example, the first in his Alliance Trilogy is unavailable but the other two are purchasable. However, if I look at his Amazon-published titles, they are all unavailable. And in keeping with the theme of inconsistency, none of the traditionally published books are affected by this situation that I checked (but please feel free to correct me on that, or anything else, if you have different information).
It seems like this is either a bug affecting the territorial rights of KDP books or a seriously bungled attempt to corral readers towards different Kindle Stores which has led to strangely inconsistent restrictions. Let me explain.
When you publish your work via KDP, the final section of the publishing interface asks you where you hold rights to this book. If you select Worldwide, as most do, your book will be available for purchase to everyone worldwide in the Kindle Store they use. But if you have, for example, sold the UK rights to Penguin, you can restrict the purchase of your self-published edition in that country, or any other you choose. The territorial rights of a book are not attached to a particular Kindle Store, so, for example, Irish readers like me or those in South Africa may use the US Kindle Store but certain books may be unavailable to me, or them, based on the territorial rights for that individual title.
Anyway, the default is Worldwide, as that’s what most self-publishers will be choosing, and we rarely if ever have reason to interact with the territorial rights of our books. And I can confirm that my “missing” titles still have Worldwide rights selected.
The reason I mention all this is the following: when a book is restricted in this manner, it is ghosted from search results, and often missing from the Author Page. Price tags are missing, and the Buy buttons are removed for anyone who does manage to get to the page of such books directly. Sound familiar?
There’s something else which might help explain what’s going on — a new addition to the KDP dashboard, which you would miss if you weren’t expressly looking for it. If you hover over the LIVE status of any book, a new tool-tip pops up regarding your books availability, with a link so you can see the status worldwide.
If you click that link you will be taken to a new page where you will see Amazon US and Amazon UK described as “Limited Availability” and then various countries listed where your book is now suddenly unavailable — which includes countries such as Italy and Australia which now have their own Kindle Store but whose readers could still use the US Kindle Store if they wished, but also others such as Ireland and New Zealand which don’t have their own Kindle Store and have historically used the US Kindle Store (lately Amazon has been ushering them towards a closer Kindle Store, but it has been a soft push, rather than a hard block).
Countries like South Africa without a Kindle Store in their region are still listed as “Available” for the US Kindle Store, so I’d very much like to hear from readers there if the can see any of these books which are missing.
Despite the discovery of these new availability pages, it’s unclear if suddenly rendering all these books unavailable for purchase and invisible in search was actually intended. And, it was intended, it doesn’t explain why it’s only pertaining to some books and not others. Even though I’m based in Ireland, I can still purchase some KDP books and all the trad books I could previously.
And Amazon doesn’t seem to know the answers either.
I spoke to Amazon customer service yesterday and tried to explain the issue. Amazon didn’t seem to understand it, and just inserted a US postal address in my account instead, which “fixed” the problem as far as they were concerned. And, yes, I can now see my books and all the others which were invisible to me beforehand, but everyone else internationally still can’t see them or purchase them in the US Kindle Store – which is the only place that millions of international readers are able to purchase ebooks (this point must be repeated again and again as misunderstanding abounds — not everywhere has a local Kindle Store and such readers are supposed to use the US store).
Amazon’s “fix” had a number of unintended side-effects. As Amazon now seems to think I’m based in America, I no longer get charged VAT on ebooks. Instead, a test purchase I made applied Washington state sales tax of 6.5% — the customer service person put in Amazon’s Seattle HQ as my address — instead of the 23% rate of Irish VAT that Amazon is legally required to apply to ebook sales to me. (Note: this wasn’t a rogue customer service person, everyone else I spoke to who contacted Amazon about this issue was offered this same solution.)
Furthermore, whole swathes of books that I should not be legally allowed to purchase — such as those published by different entities in America — are now available, breaching territorial rights.
Finally — and most disturbing of all — I’m suddenly now able to subscribe to Kindle Unlimited when I couldn’t before, and was able to join in an instant, without any kind of checks, and borrow several books without impediment. Which is a wide, open door to scammers. All a scammer anywhere in the world needs to do is switch their account to a US address and they can join Kindle Unlimited and borrow as many books as they like.
It’s crazy that Amazon makes it this easy for scammers. And it’s unthinkable that such a huge bug could be growing for weeks without Amazon noticing or taking action, even when lots of authors and readers report it.
Related issues aside, I hope Amazon starts making an effort to understand what is happening here as this is a particularly bad situation for international self-publishers whose readers will naturally trend international too, and who will be disproportionately affected. It also prevents self-publishers around the world from checking their books on Amazon.com — which they need to do for innumerable reasons.
Whether all this is a (bungled) feature or a bug, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Amazon is taking its eye off the ball in so many aspects of its business right now, at least pertaining to books. Amazon’s greatest strength is that it still has the scrappiness and innovative outlook of a start-up — which seems to be achieved by essentially having 1000s of start-ups incubating under one big Amazon tent, who seem to compete with each other for resources and attention and site real-estate.
But that can also be a huge weakness with problems like these, when multiple teams need to pull together. Or when Amazon is faced with a huge threat from scamming where solving it cuts across several departments. Or in periods like the last few weeks when Amazon is beset with technical problems – aside from the above, authors have reported a spike in glitches surrounding series pages and Countdown Deals not commencing and other related issues, much more than the usual set of Amazon problems we all have to perma-navigate these days.
At times like these, Amazon feels incredibly atomized, made up of 1000s of departments who don’t (and won’t) communicate with each other, For example, if you have decided to make hundreds of thousands of ebooks suddenly invisible and unavailable to millions of readers unless they switch to a different Kindle Store maybe — I dunno, radical idea here — email people about it? And if it is just some horrible bug, which has been growing for several weeks to the point where most self-published books are now ghosted to international readers, maybe start working on fixing it? Just a thought.