It was a bright and sunny afternoon in Pioneer Square after a dark and stormy night. JB Dickey was tapping his toes to some cool KC jazz, slugging back a Dr Pepper™®©. The phone rang, loud as a gunshot. He picked it up and barked out his usual greeting.
“Hi. My name’s Michael Evers. I wanna order a book from youse guys.”
A typical call, there was no way JB could realize what was rolling down the pike at him like a freight train barreling down on a lost puppy. After getting all the usual information – phone number, credit card info, oh yeah, the name of the book and the author – JB followed all the leads and tracked down the book. No sweat.
But then. Then it all fell apart.
The phone number was disconnected.
The credit card info was bogus.
It was a scam.
JB was the victim of a perfidious publisher, but he wasn’t about to take it lyin’ down. Not this guy, not this time. No way. No, JB slugged down more Dr Pepper™®©, scowled at the sleazy, wide-margined, vanity-press volume, and vowed not to be taken again. This time, THIS TIME, someone was going to pay!
JUST THE FACTS: This began a couple of weeks ago. We often get special orders for books that we don’t stock or haven’t heard about. It is a way we hear about new books from small presses, so we’re open to them but we try to be careful. We don’t want to get stuck with books we don’t want. So we get a credit card from the customer when they place the order.
So this guy calls up on a Friday afternoon, asks if we have this short story anthology he’s read about, The Shortcut. I hadn’t heard about it but looked it up at a wholesaler and said we could get it. He said fine, gave me his name, phone number and credit card info. I put the book into the system and went back to other things.
When the book arrived, we called the number – it had been disconnected! We tried the charge card to at least get the money out of the order and it came back with the message ‘bad account number’. So it appeared we would be stuck with the books (I’d gotten one for stock, too.) The best thing I could think of to do was to post a warning on the listserve for the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association and try to keep anyone else from falling for this scam.
Let me digress for a moment to explain a couple of things: As the major publishers have cut back their lists - the number of books that they publisher and the number of authors they publisher – the new technology of Print On Demand (POD for short) was trumpeted as a godsend for writers. A book would now be published as there was an order for it, as there is demand for it. It is also supposed to be a way for new authors – or authors who have lost out as publishers cut their lists. Ideally, this is a good thing, but it ended up not being great for booksellers. In general, POD books are more expensive than regular trade paperbacks from the major publisher. That’s not odd as they’re a different system, scales of economy, etc. But they’re larger, thinner and end up not feeling as if they’re a good value. They also have been available at a lower discount, meaning that the bookseller has to pay more for the book and makes less profit on the sale of the book. (The industry standard is 40%, so out of the 40¢ out of every $1 we make on the sale, we pay the rent, the employees, the various costs of being in business.) It is impossible to stay in business when the discount for a POD is 15% or so. Can’t work. Ties up too much cash flow in stock and doesn’t bring in enough money to pay for the effort. The last thing about PODs is that, since they’re printed to fill the demand/order, they are non-returnable. Normally, unsold books can be returned to the publisher or wholesaler for credit. POD cannot.
Back to the Shortcut Scam: After posting the warning, I heard from another dealer in Indiana that he too got called and stung by this nefarious actor. In fact, he was the one who informed me that Shortcut was non-returnable. I hadn’t gotten that far in my battle. And then it got really interesting. Another of our fellow mystery dealers, this one in Colorado, began to do some detective work on her own. The clues she followed turned up the fact that the name we’d been given by the ‘customer’ – Michael Evers – is the name of a character in a novel by one of the authors who is in the anthology Shortcut. Furthermore, this author appears to be the owner of the publisher of Shortcut. So this had the smell of being a scam to get the book into retail stores: call the store, order the book with false information, and the bookshop is stuck with copies to put on their shelves. It isn’t ingenious, but it is dirty pool. At this point, we decided to fight back. We sent the details of this to Mystery Writers of America, the American Booksellers Association, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, Publisher’s Weekly and Shelfaware – the last two are book industry ‘magazines’ – and Ingram, the wholesaler from whom we ordered the book. We posted a query on the webpage of Visa™®© asking them if it was a crime to place orders with intentionally fraudulent credit card information. We tried to do what we could to cause as much legitimate trouble for this creep as we could. And it seems to be paying off. Just hours after sending the story to Publisher’s Weekly, we were contacted by one of their editors to interview us for more details. That story appeared today. From that, we’ve heard from two other booksellers – one in Michigan and one in Ontario, Canada – who were called. One got stung, one was warned in time. At the same time, our Colorado friends discovered Victoria Strauss. Not only is this an interesting site, it is an interesting addition to the story.
So what is the end of the story? Hasn’t ended yet. We may still hear from other booksellers who this villain called. We hope to hear from the wholesaler who has been an unwitting partner in this. We hope to hear from the American Booksellers Association and Mystery Writers of America about it. Visa™®© said we have to take it up with the bank that would have been involved – so that’s a dead end it seems. We do not believe we’ll be hearing back from “Michael Evers”. All we can see, at this point, is we’re stuck with two books that we don’t want and we’ll be far more skeptical about special orders from folks we don’t know and for books from presses we don’t know.
And that is the real crime.