Iain M. Banks

“There is a saying that some foolish people believe: what does not kill you makes you stronger. I know for a fact, having seen the evidence — indeed often enough having been the cause of it — that what does not kill you can leave you maimed. Or crippled, or begging for death in one of those ghastly twilights experienced — and one has to hope that that is entirely not the right word — by those in a locked-in or persistent vegetative state. In my experience the same people also believe that everything happens for a reason. Given the unalleviatedly barbarous history of every world we have ever encountered with anything resembling Man on it, this is a statement of quite breathtakingly casual retrospective and ongoing cruelty, tantamount to the condonation of the most severe and unforgivable sadism.”

–“Tem” in Iain M. Banks’ Transition

(In the first sentence, Banks is referring to Nietzsche’s most idiotic aphorism: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” from Twilight of the Idols)


When Amazon started, the company’s founder and directors decided to use books as a loss leader, to sell them at prices where they were certain to lose money — a lot of it. Why would they do that? While no one except Jeff Bezos and his minions knows for sure, there are several likely reasons:

  • The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) system. That system gave Amazon immediate access to a numerical listing of almost every book in print (or out of print, since the ISBN was introduced in 1970) — perfect for database-organized online sales.
  • Selling books at or below cost was an easy way to build market share and visibility.
  • That money-losing strategy drove competitors out of business, especially independent bookstores and most of the chains — Borders, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, etc., and it greatly weakened the only remaining large chain, Barnes & Noble. This drastically increased Amazon’s leverage with publishers. Jeff Bezos famously said that Amazon should “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” And Amazon has done that.
  • Amazon, which was founded in 1994, had deep enough pockets to lose money — a great deal of it — in pursuit of its goal of complete dominance of bookselling and damn near everything else, and in fact did not turn a profit until 2001.

The results of this are well known. In addition to driving myriad independent booksellers — who simply couldn’t compete on price — out of business, Amazon also drove out most of the chains, which bore massive expense through their bricks-and-mortar stores, and so again couldn’t compete on price. The irony is that the chains had driven huge numbers of independents out of business by undercutting them on price, and they in turn were undercut by Amazon.

Amazon still sells books fairly cheaply — though it seems like their massive book discounts of decades past have largely disappeared except on the most popular titles — and, using their ill-gotten reputation as the lowest-price seller, have branched out into selling damn near everything.

Many people apparently still assume that Amazon will provide the lowest price on almost anything they buy. Guess what — they’re wrong.

I occasionally order goods online, mainly musical gear, computer gear, electronic components, and optics. When I do so, I always check prices, and I’ve almost always found lower prices than those on Amazon, usually on eBay. Here are a few examples of items (all brand new) I’ve purchased recently where I could find exact comparisons between Amazon and other sources:

  • NUX OD-3 guitar drive/preamp pedal — $35.99 on Amazon, $20.02 (with free shipping) on eBay.
  • 1/4″ female guitar jack (metal construction) X10 — $4.57 on Amazon, $1.89 (with free shipping) on eBay.
  • 10mm Plossl eyepiece (for telescopes) — $34.00 on Amazon, $6.26 (with free shipping) on eBay.
  • 250K audio taper potentiometer — $1.40 on Amazon, $1.32 (with free shipping) on eBay
  • Acer S200hql monitor — $127.95 on Amazon, $79.99 (with $8.50 shipping) on eBay

There are other online retailers who usually have better prices than Amazon for the things I often buy; a few that come to mind are SurplusShed for optics, Newegg and Fry’s for computer gear, and Musicians Friend and Sweetwater for musical gear. However, while their places normally beat those of Amazon, you can often find whatever you’re looking for on eBay for even less.

So, you think you’re getting the cheapest price by buying from Amazon? Think again.

 

 


SOLIPSPISM, n. An easily tested philosophy involving walking, a speeding truck, and a solipsist.

* * *

— from The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded), the 21st-century successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. (The link goes to 50 sample definitions and illustrations.)

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover


Corrupted Science front coverBloggers who review books and those readers who post book reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc., should be aware of NetGalley. It’s a service that provides free e-books to those who actually review at least some of the free e-books they download. This differs greatly from the unrestricted book-giveaway sites. While anyone can create a NetGalley reader account, prior to okaying a book download publishers can check to see how many of the books a particular reviewer downloaded he or she reviewed. So, publishers are free to turn down “reviewers” who have downloaded say 20 or 30 books and haven’t reviewed any or almost any of them.

But if you like to read e-books and actually review at least some of them, it’s great. It couldn’t be easier to sign up for this free service at NetGalley’s web site.

We just signed up with them as a publisher and currently have five e-books available for download by reviewers:

  • Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science (revised & expanded), by two-time Hugo Award winner John Grant. This brand new book (pub date June 15) covers the historical period from the days of Galileo to the present, and covers a very wide range of topics including fraud by scientists themselves, the vast array of corporate misuse and misrepresentation of science, and the misuse and misrepresentation of science by authoritarian regimes, notably Nazi Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the USA under Trump, with a special focus on climate change denial under Trump.
  • Sleep State Interrupt, by T.C. Weber. This cyberpunk thriller deals with an even more overtly repressive near-future America and the struggle against that repression by a multicultural crew of hackers and political activists attempting to wake the USA from its “sleep state.” Sleep State Interrupt received a Compton Crook Award nomination in 2017 for Best First Science Fiction Novel and has received dozens of favorable reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads.
  • Disbelief 101 front coverDisbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism, by S.C. Hitchcock. Not confined to atheism, this crash course in logical thinking covers the evils of childhood indoctrination, the incompatibility of rational thinking and religion, and the harm done by Christianity and Islam. The reviews were positive, with Booklist calling Disbelief 101 “Totally irreverent . . . cheeky and thought provoking” and The Moral Atheist saying, “We’ve read a library full of atheist books and this one ranks with the best. . . . Ignore the subtitle that says this book is for young people. It’s for everyone!”
  • The Watcher, by Nicholas P. Oakley. This far-future tale is a fine coming-of-age story brimming with social and political questions on technology, primitivism, ecology, and the uses and misuses of consensus process. Publishers Weekly noted: “Oakley provides a degree of complexity in what could very easily have been a one-sided didactic novel. This ambivalent examination of an idealist society and its less than ideal behavior offers the hope that Oakley will grow into a significant SF novelist.”
  • The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded), by Chaz Bufe, illustrated by J.R. Swanson. This is the 21st-century successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and contains over 650 definitions and 60 illustrations, more than twice the number of each in the original edition. The book’s targets include the religious right, the “right to life” movement, capitalism, government, men, women, male-female relationships, and hypocrisy in all its multi-hued and multitudinous forms. As an appendix, The American Heretic’s Dictionary includes the best 200+ definitions from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. The reviews have been overall quite positive, with the Mensa Bulletin commenting, “Such bitterness, such negativity, such unbridled humor, wit and sarcasm,” and Free Inquiry noting, “The quirky cartoons by J.R. Swanson nicely complement Bufe’s cruel wit. Recommended.” In contrast, we were pleased to see that Small Press deemed the book “sick and offensive” in that at least one reviewer seemed to recognize that there’s something to offend everyone in The Heretic’s Dictionary.

So, if you review books and any of these titles appeal to you, we’d suggest signing up with NetGalley now, as over the coming months we’ll be taking down these titles from NetGalley and replacing them with others.

Finally, just a reminder that book reviews are fun to write and that your reviews do matter and can be a tremendous help to small publishers.


(For the last few months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to many of our subscribers. This is a slightly revised post from 2016. Unfortunately, it’s even more pertinent today than when it first appeared.)

Why Your Reviews Matter

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Your Amazon and Goodreads reviews matter to small publishers, probably more than you realize.

There has been a drastic decline in the numbers of magazines and newspapers over the past two decades, and an even more drastic decline in the number that carry book reviews. The number of daily papers in the U.S. dropped roughly 15% over the past quarter century, and a great many of those remaining have reduced or entirely eliminated their book review sections. (This is in line with their overall reductions in news and feature coverage during the same period due to huge, presumably Internet-caused, revenue drops.)

The status of weekly papers is perhaps even more dire. Forty years ago there were independent weeklies in almost every major and mid-size city in the country, and a great many carried reviews. Since then, those that survived have been, and are still being, gobbled up by media conglomerates, the New Times chain being emblematic. That chain bought weeklies in half of the country’s largest markets, and the New Times papers I’m familiar with (and probably all of the rest) do not review books.

The situation here in Tucson is a case in point. In 2010, Arizona’s oldest daily newspaper, The Tucson Citizen, went under. The remaining Tucson daily, The Arizona Daily Star, now devotes only a half-page to reviews in its Sunday edition (no space at all in the others), and the formerly independent Tucson Weekly has been bought twice over the last 15 years by small media conglomerates. It used to carry weekly in-depth reviews of books by local authors. No more. Following its most recent sale, it stopped carrying book reviews and almost everything else that made it worth reading. It’s now little more than an advertising sheet of use only as bird cage liner (which is, literally, what I use it for).

Magazines are also in bad shape. Circulation (especially news stand circulation) has been declining simultaneously with the ascent of the Internet, and revenue has been plummeting: from $48.3 billion in 2007 to $27 billion in 2015. Two specialty magazines, Guitar Player and Bass Player, owned by the same company, are a case in point. From their glory days in the 1990s, their circulation has dropped by roughly half, and a few years ago they combined their staffs in a cost-cutting move. The end result of all this is that magazines have cut back their coverage, and it’s harder than ever to get reviews. (Bass Player and Guitar Player are exceptions to the rule, and are still very good about reviewing books.)

Compounding all this is the explosion in the annual number of new books over the past 25 years or so. The number of new titles reported by Books in Print, the best source for information on physical books, more than doubled over the last 15 years; the current total of new print books exceeds 300,000 per year. Add in e-books, and the number is likely over 1,000,000. (No one really knows how many e-books are published annually.)

Add this all up, and you have far more books competing for far fewer reviews in the remaining magazines and newspapers (the situation is similar with online review sites, which are overwhelmed), and for what little shelf space remains in bookstores.

The number of independent bookstores, where readers in decades past could discover books that received few or no reviews, has declined drastically over the past half-century. At present, they account for only 10% of the book market. So, that channel for readers to discover books has all but disappeared.

To make matters even worse, the large-circulation magazines tend to ignore books from small presses and to review primarily, often only, books from the half-dozen conglomerates that dominate the book publishing industry, and both television (and syndication-dominated) radio talk shows tend to book only the authors published by those same conglomerates.

What’s left for small publishers? Reader reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo, B&N, and other online retailer sites.

If you read a book that you like issued by an independent publisher, please consider writing even a one- or two-sentence review for Goodreads or any of the online book retailers. It’ll help both the author and the small publisher. And it’ll help other readers discover books they would enjoy.

Your reviews are more important than you think.

 


“Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study . . .”

Ernest Hemingway’s 9 Best Tips on Writing


Iain M. Banks

“‘. . . these crowds are, perversely, highly attractive to bombers.’

“‘Christians?’ Q’and says . . .

“‘Of course Christians, you idiot!’ . . . ‘The religion of zealotry,’ she informs him testily. ‘The religion that loves its martyrs, the religion of the doctrine of Original Sin, so that blowing even babies to smithereens is justifiable because they too are sinners.’ She jerks her head and makes a sort of dry spitting sound. ‘A religion made for terrorism.'”

–“Madame d’Ortolan” and “Q’and” in Iain M. Banks’ parallel-worlds novel, Transition