Thursday, September 3, 2015

Amazon Payments vs. OBS: A Cautionary Tale (Guest Poster Pete Spahn)

I have a couple of guest posts in the hopper. This one kinda jumped the line as it it relevant to the current hot topic in our corner of the universe...

Amazon Payments vs. OBS: A Cautionary Tale

OBS and censorship is in the news now. You can look up the details if you need to. Suffice to say, a product was released on OBS, it was deemed offensive and removed, and now there's going to be some type of reporting/flagging system to arbitrarily help decide what's offensive and what's not.

Knowing gamers like I do, I'm gonna take a wild guess and say that there's already someone out there purposely creating a product that's guaranteed to be offensive. When that happens, I guess it'll be flagged and reported. And then someone at OBS is going to decide to remove it.

There will be an outcry from the public. The internet will shake. Monitors will crack asunder. Keyboards will ignite with the typing of a thousand keys. And then, based on some of the comments I've seen over the past few days, it'll be time be time to put up or shut up. Publishers will have to decide whether or not they want to continue selling their products through the largest and most visible retail channel in the industry, or turn their backs on OBS and seek greener pastures.

I'm not here to sway anyone on that decision. I have my opinion obviously, but that's not what this article is about. This article is a warning to publishers that not all distributors are alike and some of them are potentially ruinous for a small press publisher.

How so?

Well, the tale begins almost a year ago when I engaged in one of several successful Kickstarters (TROPES: Zombie Edition). At the time, Kickstarter was attached to Amazon through their Amazon Payments program. How it worked was that you registered with Kickstarter, who handled the processing of all pledges, and you registered separately with Amazon Payments, who handled the actual distribution of said pledges to your bank account. Both organizations took their little piece of the pie of course, which ended up being about 10% of the total funding (give or take).

TROPES: Zombie Edition funded and was released on time along with all the perks and Stretch Goals awarded to various Backer levels. Yay!

I moved on. MONTHS passed. I started working on other projects and began preparing the campaign for my next Kickstarter.

Then, out of the blue I receive an email from Amazon Payments. Apparently, one of my mid-level backers had initiated a chargeback dispute with their bank/credit card company saying they had never received their products. What???

OK, these things happen. First thing I did was check to see what the backer was entitled to. Then I checked the backer mailing addresses (snail mail and email). I then checked my RPGNow confirmation emails to make sure PDF links to all products had been sent to the proper email address and print copies had been shipped to the proper mailing address.  Everything checked out on my end.

So, here's where it gets interesting.  Apparently, the way Amazon Payments handles a chargeback dispute is by giving you two options:

1. you can either refund the money to the customer.
2. you can have Amazon Payments act as an intermediary between you and the customer's bank/credit card.

Amazon Payments does not have a third option where you can talk to the bank/credit card and try to resolve the dispute yourself.

So, here's the kicker---Amazon Payments charges you $10 for Option #2, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT THE DISPUTE IS RULED IN YOUR FAVOR.

Read that last sentence again and then I'll recap here, so we're all on the same page.

You sell a product. You ship a product. Customer contacts Amazon Payments and states they never received said product. You can either refund the customer's money or pay an additional $10 to let Amazon Payments arbitrate.

This means that at minimum, you are out $10, just for collecting emails, shipping confirmations, etc. and sending them to Amazon Payments. And to top it all off, any customer can initiate a chargeback AT NO COST TO THEMSELVES. All they have to do is say they never received your product!

And keep in mind, this is $10 PER CHARGEBACK! So if you have numerous disputed transactions, the cost gets higher and higher.

Don't believe me? Read it here:

I contacted Amazon Payments customer service several times to verify and we exchanged some lengthy (somewhat irate on my part) emails about the fairness of this policy. I explained that this could easily ruin a small press publisher, or even a seller of low-cost items and here is how:

Let's say you want to sell an OSR sticker for $5 per sticker. Let's say it costs you $1 for the sticker and envelope, so you're selling a hundred stickers or so a month, making a nice profit without overcharging, and feeling pretty good about yourself.

Now let's say I'm a sketchy businessman. I too want to sell OSR stickers, but you've already cornered the market. So what I do is get a hundred of my sketchy online friends to each order a sticker. You ship the stickers in good faith. But then me and my buddies file chargeback disputes, saying we never received the stickers, because remember, there's NO FEE at all for us to do so.

This presents two options for you as a seller. Remember, you are already out $100 worth of product (100 stickers at $1 per sticker).

1. Refund their money. Which puts you out a total of $600 ($100 in materials plus the $500 you refund, which if you're like me you've already spent on new product)
2. Get Amazon Payments to arbitrate. Which puts you out $1,000 ($10 for every transaction).

So how does that apply to us in the RPG industry? Well, say you're a small press publisher who decides to jump ship from OBS and start selling through Amazon. Say you're one of those controversial publishers like RPGPundit or Zak Smith or even James Raggi at times and you've got a ton of people who hate you and what you represent. How hard to you think it would be for some of these dysfunctional keyboard warriors to drum up 100 or 500 or 1,000 other dysfunctional keyboard warriors (many of whom might not even know what an RPG is) to put you in your place? They order your products (books, zines, mins, etc.), and then initiate chargeback disputes saying they never received them. Then you can refund their money and be out product costs or have Amazon Payments dispute and be out thousands of extra dollars.

Oh, and I just checked Amazon Payments to see if they had changed their policy at all and surprise, surprise, they have! THEY NOW CHARGE $20 PER CHARGEBACK DISPUTE!

I honestly don't know what OBS's policy is for resolving similar disputes. I'm going to assume that since they handle all sales and distribution it won't cost you nearly as much (if anything). This post was not meant to be an OBS rallying cry---just a friendly warning to make sure you read all the Terms and Conditions and know what you're getting into before you sign up.

Pete Spahn
Small Niche Games

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tavern Chat Tonight - I likely Won't Be There

Tonight has the potential for overtime. It is likely I'll miss again.

1000 pm Eastern for those that can attend.

Have a beer for me :)

Reposting an Email - DriveThruRPG's New Content Policy (and some comments from myself)

I finally saw this email when I rolled outa bed this morning. What Matt McElroy details is far from a perfect solution to the past weekend's drama. I don't think there IS a perfect solution to address products like Tournament of Rapists (which judging from the title and the description that was included with the product posting, I'm beginning to think the author's intent was very much a "Troll" release - he just got WAY more reaction than expected.) Status quo wasn't going to work for OBS's business model so we knew change was coming. I suspect the content policy and the policing of it will change as OBS get's a handle on things.

Now, for all this talk of censorship I see being thrown around - OneBookShelf has the right to publish or not publish as it see's fit. I really don't see a problem with them refusing to distribute a product that they find to be offensive. Do I think their solution to the issue that is detailed below is going to work? I suspect there will be abuse of the system. I expect the system will change over time in response to such abuse. And I really hope Stewart remembers to stay away from social media in times of crisis.
At DriveThruRPG, we trust publishers to upload and activate their own
new releases without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the product before
it goes public. Because this system worked so well for the past 14
years, we had no need to create an "offensive content guideline.” To
avoid anything approaching censorship, we simply adhered to an
unwritten policy of not banning any RPG product. 
There is, however, a growing problem. Sometimes, RPG creators design
content that goes beyond disturbing. For example, we recently — and
rightly — received criticism for selling an RPG supplement called
"Tournament of Rapists" for four days on our marketplace. 
In hindsight, we realize that we should have suspended that product
from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion
with the publisher. For a variety of reasons, we relied on our
standing policy of not banning RPG titles, even in the face of a
product so offensive that the policy was inadequate. We understand
that we were wrong to do so. 
A New Policy 
It is time to change the approach we have used on DriveThru. Our prior
stance, that "censorship is unacceptable," was tantamount to shirking
our responsibility. As market leaders, we are in a position that
requires us to be leaders also in keeping the RPG hobby inclusive and
We do not believe there is any set of bright-line rules that
adequately define what content is offensive, so going forward, our
offensive content policy will simply be as follows: We'll know it when
we see it. 
We will tend to err toward including content, even where it challenges
readers and deals with sensitive issues, as long as it does so
maturely and not gratuitously. Any product in which racial violence,
rape, torture, or a similar subject is a treated as a central feature
will be subjected to careful scrutiny. 
We will also code customer-facing options that allow customers to
report potentially offensive content to us. If a reported product
seems questionable, we will suspend it from sale, pending a full
internal review of its content. 
We appreciate all of our customers and publishers, who have been
patient with us while we examined our policies and processes. Thank
you for giving us the benefit of the doubt; like you, we are human
beings trying to do the best thing. Like everyone, we sometimes make
mistakes along the way. We will strive to learn from those mistakes. 
For more information, please see our CEO Steve Wieck's post on our blog here:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Business is Bad Because of "Tournament of Rapists" Backlash

Just some basic observations:

- Tournament of Rapists went up at the end of last week and the social media backlash was mostly over the weekend.

- Yes, some small publishers pulled their products from OBS

- Yes, some customers declared they were no longer going to shop at OBS - I saw one go so far as saying he was deleting his account (backups gone - ah well)

- I suspect the small dip in sales (or the small cliff they went off of) is barely noticeable (if it IS noticeable) and all will be back to normal in a week or two.

- In the case of Gareth, I would expect the backlash would have been over Far West, the never shipped pre Far West Buckaroo Bonzai game and his never ending series of excuses

- Or is this now an excuse as to why printed copies of Far West will be forever delayed - ToR killed the cash flow

Well played Gareth. Well played.

Edit: There isn't enough time to link a drop in sales to Tor at this point. Someone is crying about the wrong wolf.

Battle Tavern - A Work in Progress by Jim Magnusson

Yesterday afternoon +Jim Magnusson and I were bouncing some quick and dirty ideas back and forth. Less than 24 hours later, this is the third version of the work in progress that's resulted in that small exchange of ideas.

Is it a "Battle Tavern" or a old school Mister Softee truck that sells beer? Somehow I visualize the first ;)

Jim is simply amazing. And quick. Holy shit!

I'm looking forward to the finished piece more than you know :)

Monday, August 31, 2015

How Not to Handle an Upset Customer Base via Twitter (and other observations)

Apparently I wasn't the only one offended by the Tournament of Rapists release over the weekend. The author knew what he was doing with both his release time and description of the product - released on a Friday to ensure reactions would be over the weekend when the OBS staff are off and a description that was meant to troll as evidenced by his "just download the free preview to see what it's really about" line.

Now, if OBS couldn't address the issue right away (they first removed the Pathfinder tag and put it behind the Mature virtual wall at OBS) they probably should have avoided social media. Remember, every social media post or comment has been saved by someone, somewhere.

Jessica Price (a project manager at Paizo - her post on this matter is linked and is worthwhile reading) reached out to OBS via, of all things, Twitter. OBS's owner should never have stepped into the conversation which was, up to now, the usual customer service non answer.

Steve, you don't mock your customers. It leave a very bad taste in their mouth. (there's more to this conversation here)

The whole situation was poorly handled by OBS, although the product in question is no longer hosted at OBS.

BTW, none of this is a free speech issue. It's a business / consumer issue. OBS can host / sell whatever they want with whatever publishers they desire. Publishers can deal with them or not (although they are the PDF / POD gorilla, and avoiding OBS is likely avoiding sales.) Consumers can shop there or not.

See, it's a free MARKET. In the end, dollars talk. I suspect it's in the best interest of OBS to get a handle on issues like this to prevent the walking away of dollars, as they gained nothing from this fiasco.

As an aside, I'm not saying Tournament of Rapists should be banned. Self publish and self distribute all you want. I personally don't feel it belongs on the OBS site.

The thing is, instances like this are bad for OBS's reputation. And the social media response? Someone should cancel Steve's Twitter account.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

I'm Guest Posting Over at the Frugal GM Blog

+Christopher Stogdill asked me to make a guest post or two over at the Frugal GM blog and I'm happy to oblige him. Chris has guest posted here at The Tavern a number of times and it's about time I return the favor.

Join us at the Frugal GM as we talk about Go To GM Resources.