Data in a roach motel

We live in an age when data, pictures, videos, e-mails, tweets, and documents migrate into the internet to live forever but they never disappear. To paraphrase the Roach Motel insect trap advertisement on TV: “your data checks in but it doesn’t check out.”

Some say that’s a good thing.

Sometimes we humans desire that sort of permanence, and other times we do not. I’m sure everyone has experienced or heard of a case where something ended up public knowledge that would have been better kept a secret forever.

Were there an unlimited army of data management specialists behind every website, it would be possible to remove unflattering contemporary data and let the fog of time blur the memory into an imprecise recollection.

More data arrives in the public purview each day than there are human “data shufflers” available to organize, delete or correct the information already present. I discovered a web-retail corollary to this “not enough clerks to handle the flow” effect recently.

As I have mentioned several times over the years in this blog, I publish books for myself and a host of other authors. Since i do not own a printing press, this involves converting the raw manuscripts into polished prose, formatting the finished work to display as an e-book, or into a file destined to print as a physical volume, and to wrangle the resulting computer files into the distribution chain where the books are sold (or printed and then sold) by third parties.
I publish books through two primary aggregators. Aggregators facilitate getting books released at retail stores in malls and webstores.

One such aggregator is also a service of a very large web retailer named after the largest South American river. The other is much less known, but uses well-known third-party retail media websites to sell the books and e-books. Each aggregator controls a significant portion of the book retail market and has negotiated favorable terms for their author/publisher clients, so it is important to use both aggregators to get a book to retail as opposed to using only one or neither.

The first aggregator/retailer requires by contract that the books submitted to them not be lower-priced at any other website. That retailer performs frequent price checks at their competition to assure that their suppliers/clients are maintaining this promise.

Unfortunately, one of the third-party retailers (a company world-famous for its iconic line of smart-phones, tablets and media players) used by the second aggregator unilaterally lowered the price of one of our books by 16 percent in its European store. This price drop triggered a stern rebuke to us from the first aggregator, threatening to remove our products from the first aggregator’s webstore until either we lower our price everywhere to that level or we convince the rogue retailer to raise their price.

Sound’s like a simple problem, doesn’t it?

It isn’t.

Since the renegade retailer has never heard of us – the second aggregator supplies our books to the retailer and collects payment on our behalf – we have standing neither to correct nor to investigate the problem. Meanwhile, the second aggregator seems oblivious to the seriousness of our concerns and is delaying further while the first aggregator’s compliance deadline looms. Nothing we can do seems to light a fire under the party able to correct the problem.

The final resolution may require that we stop selling the books through one of the aggregators, which will dramatically limit the availability of the books.

In terms of technical difficulty, this would take no more than five minutes of time for someone to correct, or possibly as few as a handful of seconds. What makes this particularly frustrating is that a seemingly automated process for book pricing apparently has a human element that has introduced an error. Because of an inflexible policy, the pricing error reduces our profitability, and we have no means to solve the problem directly other than by intentionally reducing our profitability to make the problem moot.

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