It’s a decade ago. I’m holiday shopping in my small California town and, I confess, I venture into the Big And Nasty chain bookstore that has recently nudged several independents out of business.
I buy a hard-to-find magazine I haven’t been able to locate elsewhere. But once I make my purchase, I plan to buy my other books at the surviving indie store down the street.
The owner of that store explodes in rage at the sight of the Big And Nasty logo on my bag and throws me out, bookless.
I go home and make my purchases online from a new outfit called amazon.com.
* * *
That bookstore owner wasn’t just lacking in people skills; she was fighting the wrong enemy. She was a kid beating on her big brother for taking too much room on the sofa while outside, a Godzilla-sized monster was about to stomp the house to pieces.
And I had issued Godzilla an invitation.
Amazon.com — Jeff Bezos’ online bookstore that was originally billed as an alternative to the Big And Nasties of the world — has indeed become the biggest and nastiest of them all. With its .uk and .ca spawn, it’s the Web’s #2 retail monster.
OK, it’s big, but is Amazon really so bad? There are some obvious negatives:
1) It’s a soul-killing factory for workers, if you believe Mike Maisey’s hilarious 2002 book, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time At Amazon.com
2) It’s taken even more customers away from beleaguered indies.
3) It doesn't allow a buyer to commune with a book before making a purchase (or hang out in a cool black t-shirt sipping a latte).
But look at the pluses:
1) From Tolstoy to toasters, almost anything’s available: easy, fast and cheap. Well, sometimes not so cheap. More on that later.
2) Self-published and small press authors can reach a national or even international audience.
3) Those customer reviews are a hoot to read and often provide better info than reviews from the pros. Plus, writers can urge fans to give us those nice gold stars, which provide cheer on multiple-rejection days.
4) For small publishers, it eliminates the cost of maintaining a website. My own publishing company uses Amazon exclusively for online sales.
And therein lies the problem. Unless a buyer is in a brick and mortar shop in the UK, the only way to buy my new book, The Best Revenge, is to order it from Amazon. But at amazon.co.uk, they charge a “sourcing fee” of nearly $4 for the book as “out of print or hard to find.”
My publishers tell me this happens to all small press publications until a book establishes a sales track record. But how can you generate sales when your book now costs 1/3 more than comparable paperbacks?
Things are way worse at the Yank amazon.com. They listed Revenge as “out of print” five days after launch date. Two months later, it’s offered “new or used” for the “Low Price! Of $124.76.” You read that right. Actually, the price is down from last month’s $128.17.
My 2003 book Food Of Love has a similar story. It’s finally available for about $14 from amazon.co.uk (no more sourcing fee!) and amazon.ca, but at the U.S. amazon.com, the prices run from $80.33 to $121.92. We’re talking about a paperback here.
Who can I ask about this? Nobody. Godzilla does not give out his home phone number. I’ve sent e-mails to customer service as well as the online auctioneers who flog my books for such outrageous dollar amounts (with those mystifying cents tacked on) but nobody responds.
Plenty of links are provided for publishers who want to pay big bucks for those helpful hints that offer customers a similar book at a discount: called their B(uy)X, G(et)Y policy. That’s right. Those Amazon book recommendations have nothing to do with the book’s content, only with advertising dollars.
To give them credit, the UK Amazon site does have a button labeled “I’m the author and want to comment on this book,” although you won’t get an answer if you ask about the surcharge. In the U.S. and Canada there’s no such option.
Can I send customers elsewhere? Nope. Food is available from barnesandnoble.com for $14.98 USD — but only if you order one copy at a time. And indie bookshops all over the U.S. have had no luck ordering either book. (Cornerstone Books in Salem, Massachusetts is still trying. Thanks, Gil.)
I’m feeling a lot like Mike Maisey. Except my sentence in the Amazon doghouse is for life. Maybe it is for all of us.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK on Sept. 1, 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk. Her latest short story, Thank You, J. Edgar Hoover appears in the debut issue of the new litzine, Dispatch http://litdispatch.net in December. email@example.com