➻ Josh Cook wrote an Entirely Too Long, Incredibly Wonkish Book Industry Post: Extravaganza! yesterday that those interested in the industry really need to check out. It’s a long, somewhat meandering post filled with extended metaphors, but he boils down his overall points early on for those who don’t want to read it all:
- Most retail stores buy their goods from producers and wholesalers for $X per item. Bookstores buy their books at X% of the cover price of the book, regardless of whether or not the actual dollar amount that works out to is profitable for that book at that store in that market. It’s like the road not taken, because it makes all the difference.
- Amazon’s books are cheaper than everyone else’s because they lose money on pretty much every new book they sell. Their prices aren’t “cheap,” they’re subsidized by the other goods they sell as well as by the dozen plus other companies they own.
- Using a particular item as a loss leader for a particular time is very different from using an entire industry as a loss leader all the time. One is a long-standing retail technique and the other distorts a market and devalues the products in it.
- Initially, the overhead for ebooks is not significantly less than the overhead for print books and so, initially, ebooks should not be priced significantly lower than print books. (Notice the adverbs.)
- … If books are important to you and/or you believe books are important to culture in general, don’t buy all of your books from Amazon. No problem with buying some. Even buying most is acceptable. Shifting 10% of your Amazon purchases will save the entire world.
Amazon is so into discounting that the list price for Splenda there is $553—or maybe Some price comparisons on Amazon are ‘crazy’.
➻ If you’d like a more humanitarian reason reason to shift some of your purchases away from Amazon (and other major online retailers), look no further than the companies it contracts its warehouse work to. Cook mentions it briefly in his extended piece, but it’s not in his five points and he doesn’t link to the most powerful, poignant, impressive, and persuasive piece of writing on the subject that I’ve read, which is Mac McClelland’s expose of her “brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying … time inside the online-shipping machine,” I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave. Written for Mother Jones, she begins the story:
“Don’t take anything that happens to you there personally,” the woman at the local chamber of commerce says when I tell her that tomorrow I start working at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. She winks at me. I stare at her for a second.
“What?” I ask. “Why, is somebody going to be mean to me or something?”
She smiles. “Oh, yeah.” This town somewhere west of the Mississippi is not big; everyone knows someone or is someone who’s worked for Amalgamated. “But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they’re going to tell you, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ to make you work harder. Don’t say, ‘This is the best I can do.’ Say, ‘I’ll try,’ even if you know you can’t do it. Because if you say, ‘This is the best I can do,’ they’ll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You’ll see people dropping all around you. But don’t take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you.”
The rest of the story is of her time working there, and it is worse even than the introduction makes it sound. It illustrates the desperate situation the working poor are in in this country—some of whom have taken to road and become workampers:
Workampers are people who drive RVs around the country, from temporary job to temporary job, docking in trailer camps. “We’re retired but we can’t…” another explains to me about himself and his wife, shrugging, “make it. And there’s no jobs, so we go where the jobs are.”
The experience leaves McClelland cold to shopping at major online retailers (which she gives you a list of), and feeling bad for children:
I feel genuinely sorry for any child who ever asks me for anything for Christmas, only to be informed that every time a “Place Order” button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job.
And just to be clear, we have just one shipper/receiver here at 800-CEO-READ, and he takes at least two breaks a day to play me in table tennis.
➻ Seth Godin recently pondered Who decides what gets sold in the bookstore? and how An ebookstore is more like a web browser than a bookstore—interesting reads both that demonstrate a different moral conundrum being introduced by the rise of eBooks:
There’s been a long history of ubiquity at the bookstore. With a few extreme exceptions, just about every book is available at every bookstore if you’re willing to order it. Universal availability feels like part of the contract we make with bookstores–we expect them to sell everything. In the digital world, this goes triple, because there’s no issue of shelf space to deal with.
I just found out that Apple is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.
Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon store. IE page 35, David Weinberger link.”
And there’s the conflict. We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.
So now I have to root for Amazon. I try not to be too much of a Luddite, but this is a world I really don’t want to head into. I’ll just return to my painting and the distant dream of opening an antiquarian bookstore.
➻ To pull the lens out to the overall age we’re in, we turn now to Alec Ash’s interview with Nicholas Carr on [the] Impact of the Information Age for The Browser’s “Five Books” series. It’s a really in-depth—running 1,200 words long before they even get into the book recommendations—and interesting piece that fans of Carr’s The Shallows should love. His first book recommendation is Tom Standage’s Victorian Internet.
The reason why I start with Tom Standage’s book is because we tend to think of the information age as something entirely new. In fact, people have been wrestling with information for many centuries. If I was going to say when the information age started, I would probably say the 15th century with the invention of the mechanical clock, which turned time into a measurable flow, and the printing press, which expanded our ability to tap into other kinds of thinking. The information age has been building ever since then.
Standage covers one very important milestone in that story, which is the building of the telegraph system in the 19th century. The telegraph was the first really efficient system for long-distance, almost instantaneous communication. It’s a short book, a very lively read, and it shows how this ability to throw one’s thoughts across the world changed all aspects of society. It certainly changed the business world. Suddenly you could coordinate a business not just in a local area, but across the country or across oceans. It had a lot of social implications too, as people didn’t have to wait for letters to come over the course of days. And as Standage points out, it inspired a lot of the same hopes and concerns that we have today with the Internet.
Head over to the interview to get the rest of Carr’s recommendations, and feel free to, you know, ignore those buy buttons that link to Amazon.
➻ “I woke up I was already me. I was somewhat afraid I was something.”