Posts Tagged ‘Bookselling’


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.

 

 


 

TVA Baby front cover(TVA Baby, by Terry Bisson. Oakland: PM Press, 2011, 170 pp., $14.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

While preparing to write this review, I was musing on how many good small press books fall through the cracks, and how many execrable books from major publishers sell well. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to TVA Baby eventually.)

A recent example of that is the dreadful California, which Stephen Colbert enthusiastically pushed on his show, and which was issued by a major publisher, Hachette, not coincidentally also Colbert’s publisher. (He was open about this.) The book sold tens of thousands of copies and in July reached #3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a somewhat special case, due to Colbert’s heavy promotion, but it’s also symptomatic of the inherent advantages held by major publishers.

What creates those advantages? A number of things. First, major publishers have more money for promotion than small presses, often much more. Second, major publishers have on-staff publicists who already have good contacts with the television industry and print media. Third, almost all major publishers are based in New York City, and there’s a very real New York bias in important parts of the media.

(If you’re a small, non-NYC publisher, good luck on ever getting a review in The New York Times or The New York Review of Books; also check out the publishers of the authors who appear on The Daily Show and [while it was still on] Colbert Report. In fairness, the standard book industry review journals–notably Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist–are good about giving small press books a fair break; but this doesn’t cancel the NYC bias in other parts of the media.)

In contrast, small publishers usually have small advertising budgets, few if any contacts in major media, and have to hire outside publicists (if they can afford it–many can’t) who’ll put in nowhere near full-time work.

Recent trends in the bookselling industry have only exacerbated this problem. Half a century ago, before the rise of the national chains and then Amazon, booksellers by and large were independent bookstores. Such stores routinely would order books and leave them on their shelves for a good three to six months, sometimes a year, before returning them. This ensured that books that received few if any reviews would be seen by large numbers of possible book buyers, and so would have a chance of selling well eventually due to word of mouth.

No more. Independent bookstores currently account for only 10% of book sales, and they have to be lean and mean, so no more leaving books on the shelf for six months. The chains? B. Dalton, gone. Waldenbooks, gone. Borders, gone. And Barnes and Noble has been cutting the number of its stores for years, and even more drastically cutting the number of titles its stores carry. And the length of time new books are on the shelves is down to perhaps four to six weeks. So, goodbye to the word-of-mouth ray of hope for small publishers. And goodbye also to the gatekeeping function independent bookstores  used to provide. (The independents tended not to carry poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced books.)

Compounding matters, over the last decade or so it’s become very easy and very cheap to publish both print-on-demand (paperback) books and e-books. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of available titles, many of which are awful. Combine this with the current predominance of online bookselling, with its near-total lack of gatekeeping, and it becomes very, very difficult for even the best small press books to rise above the noise.

Then add in the tanking economy (for most people–Wall Street is doing fine), with its continuing unemployment, low-paying jobs, and declining median income (down an astounding 12% since 2001), and times are tough for small publishers and their books (which many financially stretched potential buyers regard as luxury items).

Which brings us to TVA Baby. It’s one of the deserving small press books that have fallen through the cracks.

It’s a collection of 13 short stories by longtime science fiction (and nonfiction) author Terry Bisson, and it covers a wide variety of topics and genres. Stories in it range from noir (“Charlie’s Angels”), to purely comic (“Billy and the Circus Girl”), to ’30s pulp sci-fi (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”), to sappy (“A Special Day”), to hallucinogenic (“TVA Baby”).

In most of the stories, Bisson’s dark humor is at the forefront, particularly in “TVA Baby,” which is grotesque but laugh-out-loud funny. Other standouts include “Pirates of the Somali Coast” and the other stories mentioned above, except “A Special Day.”

As with nearly all short story collections, there are some hits and some misses in TVA Baby; but the ratio of hits to misses is higher here than in the average collection. So . . . . .

If you enjoy concise writing and mordant humor, you’ll enjoy TVA Baby.

Recommended.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover