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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is Amazon Really so Horrible?

A question from Other Carin:
I have a question about the Amazon thing. Where do you suggest you get books besides Amazon? I have to admit that I go to used bookstores as much as possible and I generally just look for coupons or sales when I buy at regular bookstores. Sometimes Amazon has the best deals so I do buy from them. Should I not? Can you do a blog post about why you choose not to shop there?

Hm. Well, there are so many reasons. I’ll admit they have a very robust search engine. It’s actually mostly information licensed from Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor. I honestly used it quite a bit in previous jobs. But here’s what happened the last time I bought anything from them (admittedly not books): I was still living in NYC and coming home for Christmas just a day before, so I ordered gifts to be sent to my mother’s house in advance. I bought my best friend a set of glass coasters. They were shipped with bubble wrap between every other one. So naturally, half of them were broken. Lovely. I got my sister a colander. When looking at the colander selection, I was mightily confused. The one I wanted was described as having the dimensions of 6 inches. 6 inches what? In height? Diameter? Radius? Depth? I figured height made the most sense. Sadly, it was circumference. I’ve seen toy colanders that were bigger. You’d only be able to rinse half the blueberrys that come in one of those little green plastic baskets. It was hilarious. Granted, the returns and exchanges were fairly painless, but unnecessary if they’d taken more attention.

Now that alone would most certainly not be reason to boycott a company. But recently I’ve really taken umbrage with their rampant lying about stock. Bookstores complain that while they’re unable to get stock of really hot titles Amazon has the books listed as in stock. What frustrates me is that most of the time that’s a lie. If all the books are sold out, they’re sold out too. But they say the books are available “in 2-3 days.” I’ve seen them list out of print titles as “available in 4-6 weeks.” And customers believe them. Just like with the discounts. Yes, they do deep discount their bestsellers and frontlist, but they don’t do that on backlist. Yet customers seem to still believe that they do. I find it baffling. Despite evidence to the contrary most people believe Amazon is always cheaper and always has everything in stock.

However these lies would eventually come to light. Not all at once of course but it also took years for people to understand Wal-Mart not only doesn’t carry exclusively American-made products anymore, but almost no one believes now that they’d even find one these days. But in the meantime while we wait for the American public to realize the reality, independent bookstores go out of business right and left. So what’s the big deal about independent bookstores? Well, they’re fun. They’re quirky. They carry books you’ll never find at the big chain stores. That’s a big deal. There are 250,000 books published every year. Do you think they’re all at Barnes and Noble? Or even at Amazon? Amazon might be able to back order one of them for you (as can any bookstore), but how will you hear about them? The independents are the voice of the underdog. Not only do they make it possible for you to discover a great new author while you’re simply browsing but they also can recommend great books. Do you think Amazon can do the same thing? I know Amazon can recommend other bestsellers. If you go to Amazon and say you really love The Reader and you want to read other novels about the Holocaust told from unique perspectives, what do you think Amazon will recommend? Other Holocaust books? Hardly. You’ll get other Oprah books. And while I really do love Midwives, one book has nothing to do with the other. Right now Amazon is the biggest bully on the block. They’ve not only been able to bully publishers into giving them better deals than are offered to bookstores, but they are using their size (and their funding from venture capitalists et al) to fund their predatory below-cost pricing (this was very obvious at Christmas when they matched Wal-Mart’s insanely low prices on bestsellers in December, not to mention the current controversy re: ebook pricing.) Bookstores could never compete on this playing field. Because it isn’t fair. One day bookstores won’t be around anymore. Once they’ve all been run under, do you think Amazon will continue to cut into their own profits to give you deep discounts? I don’t. But by then, there won’t be many other choices.

In the meantime, what to do? I know (oh believe me I know) how much damage this book addiction we all have can do. Twice I’ve worked at bookstores, which paid me the least of any job I’ve ever had, but thanks to my staff discount, it probably worked out square. And my subsequent jobs have been even more advantageous. When I couldn’t get a book, I did resort to bookstores. Not that I really needed more books. I moved a hundred unread books to New York and those multiplied. Right now I have at least 250 unread books in my house. At my current pace of a book a week, with no new accumulations, I have 5 years’ worth of books. That’s pretty silly. And I suspect it’s true of most of us. I do periodically go through and donate to charity. If I didn’t have so many options right now for acquisitions, I’d sell them to a used book store, particularly one that gives credit in exchange. Also last month a fellow book-addict hosted a book exchange party which was fantastic. Book exchanges ought to be more popular among our set! (And it was really fun too.)

Obviously your best bet if you’re really on a budget is the library. I get that the most popular books have long waiting lists, but there are so many hundreds of thousands of books right there now, today, if one were just to browse. Or to ask for a librarian’s recommendation. Like booksellers, librarians are there because they, like us, love books more than anything. Even if it’s really important to you to read the big, new books, check out the audio editions or large print (which by the way are great for reading on the treadmill), which often will only have 2-3 people on the waiting lists. Check out the bestseller shelves to see what they have that IS in stock.
Buy paperbacks. Shop used. Read the books you already own. If reading is a priority for you, you will make it happen. I hope I don’t sound flip. I know right now I have it easy, but 13 years ago I was earning so little money that I didn’t qualify to live in low income housing. That’s right, there’s actually a minimum income for low-income housing (it’s not no-income housing after all.) I later moved to New York in 2000 for a $22K job, lived in a one-room basement apartment out near Riker’s Island. I know from having to choose between the electric bill and groceries. My favorite bookstore at that time was a guy who would occasionally set up on 31st Street at the foot of the Ditmars Avenue N stop on 2 folding tables. I got some terrific books from him: Boo by Pat Conroy, Kramer Versus Kramer by Avery Corman, Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel.

Of course I would never deny anyone a book. But at least try to spread your book buying if you can. The independents are the heart of this business. In a previous blog post I mentioned some of my favorite indie bookstores and now I’ll mention a few more: Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC; Newtonville Books in Newton, MA; Village Book Store in Littleton, NH; Beaufort Bookstore in Beaufort, SC; Faulkner House Books in New Orleans, LA; Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC; Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, MS; Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, NY; R.J. Julia in Madison, CT; Boxcar & Caboose in St. Johnsbury, VT. I know these are entirely East Coast, and that’s my stomping ground. There are also oodles of great bookstores west of the Mississippi, but I only want to mention bookstores I’ve personally visited. I look forward to checking out Tattered Cover in Denver, CO next winter. If you want to find out about more cool independents, check out this blog.

So Other Carin, not sure if that truly answers your question, but I’ve given it a stab. If anyone would like the Support Independent widget I’ve added, you can add it here.

6 comments:

Kristen said...

You didn't mention the delightful food I served at the book exchange? I worked so hard on it. LOL! But in terms of the post as a whole, I think you have a good point, Carin. If we want to continue to have choices and not a monopoly, we do need to spread our book dollars, however many or few we each have to spend, around.

Carin said...

I agree with your post, other Carin. I guess I was just wondering why you had singled out Amazon.com as opposed to Barnes and Noble and Borders (the other two huge corporation bookstores I can think of offhand). I do all the things that you have mentioned. I now swap books with members of a book club, shop at used bookstores, use the library--my book buying habits were getting out of control. I do like having choices so I try to buy local when I can (although I admit that sometimes I follow the Law of Supply and Demand--I do like those low prices). Thank you for posting about this though. I really appreciate what you have to say and agree with about 98% of what you said (my pesky bargain problem of course is the 2% that keeps me from 100% agreeing).

If you ever go to Victoria, BC you should definitely check out Munro's. It's the coolest bookstore I've ever been to!

Carin said...

Yeah, I thought I wouldn't tackle the chain stores issue just here. I used to work at a B&N once upon a time and I don't think they're evil. The Riggios started out with just 1 store, too! There's a whole different problem going in that conflict I think. I'll ponder it and see if I want to do another post, but I'm not sure that's a battle I want to get into at the moment. Maybe next year! Meanwhile Hachette (Grand Central; Little, Brown) also got on the bandwagon late last week so I'll be concentrating on them in March. Sadly, I've only been to Canada once and yes, it's what you're afraid of - Niagara Falls. I think I was about 12-13. My ex-step-father's family is in Rochester so it was an easy day-trip once when we were visiting. I've been thinking lately though that I want to travel more again.

Jenners said...

Well, now I feel a little guilty about shopping on Amazon. I actually get most of my books via Paperback Swap, which is like a book exchange. And I love independent book stores but I have none that I can find in my immediate area ... and I live in a fairly urban area. It is crazy.

And I wanted to thank you for the link about "Love You Forever" that you left in your comment. I'm going to link to it in my Week in Review post ... it has been fun to see the division between the lovers and the haters of the book!

Hut Landon said...

One thing separates Amazon from other chains is their business model, which is based on sales tax avoidance. In California, where the sales tax is nearly 10%, that's a huge competitive advantage right out of the box. And the state estimates that lost sales tax revenue from out-of-state online retailers amounts to nearly $500 million annually. Amazon lobbies hard against efforts to enforce or strengthen sales tax laws -- hardly good corporate citizens.

Carin said...

Thank you so much Hut! How could I forget about the sales tax issue? So yes, states are all making a donation of roughly 10% to Amazon's bottom line that is not given to bricks-and-morter stores (including chains). I am from a state (TN) that ONLY has a sales tax (no income tax) so it kills me to see states just let that revenue stream go out the window, particularly in today's economy. A couple of states have passed sales-tax fairness laws to force Amazon to comply but so far the only result has been that they've dumped all the Amazon sellers in those states. But they won't be able to keep doing that if more states sign on and make Amazon pay their fare share.

Other Carin, I thought I wouldn't tackle the chain stores issue just here. I used to work at a B&N once upon a time and I don't think they're evil (they all pay sales tax for one thing!) The Riggios started out with just 1 store, too! There's a whole different problem going in that conflict I think. I'll ponder it and see if I want to do another post, but I'm not sure that's a battle I want to get into at the moment. Maybe next year! Meanwhile Hachette (Grand Central; Little, Brown; they used to be Time Warner Books) also got on the bandwagon late last week so I'll be concentrating on them in March. Sadly, I've only been to Canada once and yes, it's what you're afraid of - Niagara Falls. I think I was about 12-13. My ex-step-father's family is in Rochester so it was an easy day-trip once when we were visiting. I've been thinking lately though that I want to travel more again.