Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why I loathe amazon.ca

Over the last couple of years, I've read many, many diatribes about Chapters and Indigo (Chindigo, for short.). As an independent bookseller -- admittedly, largely used, though I did carry select new titles, and was always willing to order in books for customers -- I instinctively shared this sense of collective distrust. I found Chindigo's overall selection of titles -- given the space, the potential -- woefully inadequate, the general competence and knowledge of their "associates" often rating close to illiterate. Before I got into publishing, I had no real idea how it was that such horrible titles ended up on endcaps and "power tables"; how so many shitty books ended up with Heather Reisman's little purple sticker. Now, of course, I realize that Heather's favours are not freely bestowed, that those power tables cost plenty, and that Chindigo buyers often determine what makes it onto power tables, and that many of these buyers have less knowledge, taste or passionate interest in literature that their minimum-wage floor-walkers.

Zach Wells has on more than one occasion ranted about all of the above, and much else besides. No self-respecting author (I paraphrase here), he's said more than once, who cares about their industry would shop at Chindigo. Their practices are loathsome; they're destructive. They are unnecessary. He's directed his readers to go to the independents, or to buy their books online from amazon and other such e-retailers.

I certainly would not defend Chindigo. I've my concerns about them as well, though I've had to modify my opinions quite a bit since dealing with them. In many ways, really, outside of their bureaucratic lurching, I've found them fairly decent to deal with. Since getting an account as an independently distributed publisher about a year ago -- when I was told by many, including my own sales force manager, that they would never deal with me (the myth of Chindigo's ruthless intractability dissolves as soon as you find a person to correspond with, and this did not prove that difficult) -- I've found that they've done just about all I could expect of them, with only a couple of exceptions. They've taken almost all of our books; their returns, thus far, have not been any higher than I expected; they have paid me in a timely fashion (compared to some independents who have accounts a year past due). They've put my books out where people can find them, and have kept them much longer than the 6 weeks to 3 months I'd been told was the average shelf-life for small press literary titles. (My only real complaint is their staunch determination to see Lorna Jackson's Cold-cocked as an exclusively regional title, refusing to order it for stores across the country, and refusing to let me purchase the necessary power-table space. We're still working on this, though with diminished expectations. An example of a short-sighted buyer, and the difficulty of being a small press publisher: if it was really worth the coverage, wouldn't a larger player be handling it?) Now that I am nationally distributed by LITDISTCO -- though this occasionally seems to bring some other problems -- I've the added benefit of having one of the best discount schedules of any publisher in the country.

No: the "bookseller" who has caused me the most frustration and stress is not Chindigo, but amazon.ca. Their bureaucracy makes Indigo's seem positively customer-oriented. Their bibliographic information is consistently messed up; we have to fight with them to get our books in stock. They regularly, and seemingly for no reason, list our books as out of print, or not currently available, or not yet available, even months after the book's release. One day the book is listed as available, with a couple of copies in stock; the next it is no longer in print. Twice in the last six months they have stopped listing our books as available the week immediately following a glowing Globe Review, the time when we are most likely to receive direct orders for our titles. I know for a fact that our distributor and sales force have repeatedly addressed this with amazon, with absolutely no success: go online today, the week after a positive Toronto Star review, 2 weeks after a rave of a Globe review, for John Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained, and you will find it unavailable for anything but pre-order, a month after it's official release, and after numerous bibliographic updates which should have remedied the problem. There is not a doubt in my mind that this has cost us at least several sales, and maybe more. And anyone who knows anything about small press publishing in Canada knows that every single sale counts.

But it's even worse than this. Amazon has regularly -- I've had several people email me about this over the last year -- canceled orders for our titles -- along with those of other literary presses -- that they had received from amazon customers; what makes it worse, they've then sent out messages informing these customers that the titles that they requested were out of print. This is again tied up to the company's fucked up bibliographic management, but it's effect is doubly serious: not only do we lose the sale of the book, they have informed the customer that the book is no longer available, which means many of these buyers will not bother looking elsewhere. People have been brainwashed into believing that if it isn't available on amazon, it isn't available.

I can also tell you that amazon's practices are at least as questionable and loathsome as Chindigo's, and likely more so. They ruthlessly squeeze publishers and distributors for a higher discount, charge exorbitant amounts for their promotions and advertisements, and, as a small independent publisher, make us jump through many more hoops that Chindigo. They also sell gift cards and candles, and a host of other shit that people often use to make fun of Chindigo (somehow, for some reason, it's okay for an online retailer to stock candles and coffee and dried soup mix, but not for a more traditional book retailer.)

Though it would require another post -- this one is already too rambling and too long -- amazon's propensity to sell almost all books between 15-50 percent below list is also seriously damaging to the industry in a whole other way (a couple of quick reasons: it trains the consumer to expect deep discounting, when books themselves are already quite often under priced; and it leads to further pressure on distributors and publishers who are already operating on razor thin margins (the increasing frequency of net-clauses in author contracts is caused to a large extent by the squeezing of publishers caused by deep discounting.)

So, in answer to George and Zach and others who seem to think that, in the battle between the two corporate book behemoths, amazon is the better alternative to Chindigo, I must respectfully disagree. Amazon.ca remains the worst option for purchasing books in the country, and I'd argue just as passionately as Zachariah that those who care about the industry should choose to shop ... just about anywhere else.

12 comments:

Zachariah Wells said...

Points well taken, Dan. I've deleted the amazon.ca link from my blog and put up a McNally Robinson link instead (I'll do the same with my website anon). Pleased tell me MR's decent to deal with!

What about Amazon.com. Same shit, different pile?

Brenda Schmidt said...

Ack. I've had those problems with my last few orders from Am. I should change my links, too. I wish MR would put up reviews though. I rather like my BIC review listed at Am. and I can't find it anywhere else online.

Daniel said...

Z-

No, M-R are good, And maybe that's the answer: start supporting independent booksellers who have managed some sort of online presence. I know Munro's accepts online orders, and seems to have a good system. I think Bolen's does as well. In Ontario, perhaps Bryan Prince -- though that might not be up yet. Buying direct from the publisher is always an option. And several publishers -- including ourselves, Gaspereau, PQL -- sell directly on ABEBOOKS.

You don't get the discounts amazon entices you with. But those discounts have a very detrimental effect on publishers -- and with them, writers -- anyway.

Amazon.com is actually better. They've set up a separate program many publishers use, and it works much better. Though the discounting again remains incredibly steep -- I think it's 55% -- and you have to pay a yearly fee, and pay for the books to ship. With small presses like Biblioasis, they are often ordering only a title or two at a time, and single copies, which means the shipping costs into the states eats up almost anything -- and often more -- than you might make from selling books through them. So though the system is much better in terms of bibliographic data, the publisher is being squeezed just as badly, and perhaps more so.

You want to make this system work: buy direct, buy from independents, buy online from those independents who have set up the right systems. Buy even from Chapters & Indigo, though quite obviously this is not as good an option. Amazon.ca and amazon.com come near the bottom in my books.

Alex said...

I tend to use Amazon a fair bit, mainly because of the discounts (I buy a lot of books and it adds up). I guess I should reconsider. I stopped going into Chindigo stores a year or so ago. Whenever possible I buy from small press publishers direct.

I've never understood Amazon's ability to get those discounts. It's something I've seen other online "whale" retailers getting in other industries and it confuses me there as well. Yes, they're big and have a wide reach but publishers are slitting their own throats giving them that kind of pricing control. At some point you'd think they'd look at the bottom line, as well as other issues, and say it's really not worth it. But I suppose the big boys have crunched all the numbers and they figure it is.

Daniel said...

Alex,

I don't think anyone has crunched the numbers. The problem is, as bookselling gets more and more consolidated into the hands of a few large players, it gets harder and harder to resist their demands. The typical bookstore discount used to be 40%. Now most publishers are giving Chindigo 45, amazon anywhere between 45 and 50 -- and through some programs as much as 55. A 5% increase may not seem like a lot, but the margins in publishing are extremely razor-thin: Andre Deutsch, I remember saying, used to put his profits at between 1-2%, and this was in an era of 40% discounts to booksellers, and a much healthier independent infrastructure.

But if you say no to amazon, or chapters, what happens? They don't carry your books. Which means you're not as visible, you're selling less, your authors are upset about their book not being available on amazon, other authors you may want to attract to your press won't consider you because your books are not available through amazon (this has happened to me once, and was one of the reasons I reluctantly swallowed the high costs of distribution. Others have mentioned it as a major concern.) You pull out from dealing with these behemoths, and the Canada Council will question your judgement and threaten to cut your funding (you're not trying to SELL your books! I know of one case where this is is the fate facing a publisher trying to make fiscally sound -- though unpopular -- decisions.)

And this gouging hurts small literary presses the most. It's a matter of scale: larger publishers have a lower cost threshold due to the number of copies they print and sell. They therefore have more room to negotiate when it comes to discount. Your average literary publisher, however, with print runs between 300 and 1000 copies, has no margin at all.

Take you average poetry book, retailing for $18.95. Even at 40% to the bookseller (-7.58); 20% to the distibutor (-3.79); and 10% to the writer as royalty (-1.89): the publisher is only left with 30% (or 5.69). Out of this he needs to have the book designed and typeset (hard to do for under $600.00, or on a print run of 500, $1.20 a copy; he needs to get it printed (even with low production standards this will cost $2.50 a copy, at a minimum, and likely more.) This leaves the publisher less than 2.00 a copy , and he still hasn't done any promotion, sent out review copies (30-50 at $2.00 a copy P&H), books to awards. And it's unlikely he'll sell all of them, so the actual cost per copy sold is much, much higher. And, to be honest, I'm sure I'm forgetting something.

Increase that bookseller discount even to 45%, let alone 50%, 55%, and it becomes even tighter. Small press publishers often lose money on every copy they sell. Grants help alleviate this, but no where near as much as most people outside the industry think.

Is it any wonder publishers are trying to move to net -- as opposed to list -- clauses?

Anyway, I should get back to work: you probably know all this anyway. But it shows just how dangerous these deep discounts can be to publishers. And until we as publishers can get on the same page and demand that these retailers start playing fair, they won't play fair. And, alas, that is a long, long, long way from ever happening. We are, after all, rodents fighting for crumbs: what are the odds we'll ever work together in a truly meaningful way?vafvnyt

sms said...

when our anthology, Threshold: six poets six women, came out, we did readings everywhere... CBC, university, art gallery, cafes etc. etc. ... the glaring exception was Munro's bookstore, a so-called mecca of independent bookstores.... they couldn't give a rat's $#@ even though our editor was extremely well known, reputible publisher blah blah blah, and quite honestly, we put on a damned good show

Chapters/Indigo put on a real nice bash for us, good turnout... lots of copies in stock etc. etc... treated us very well... kept us in stock...

a month later, going into Munros, I asked if we could get our book onto the display out front for a week or two and how could we get it out there ...
polite smile ... no room

so I'm not a basher of Chap/Ind...

jcg said...

for independent poetry, the best online store is Apollinaire's Bookshop.
http://www.bookthug.ca/miva/merchant.mvc?

Zachariah Wells said...

Another issue this raises is the fact that I, the author of my book, only get a 40% discount, even when I order my books 50 at a time. Not only did I write the fucking thing, but I guarantee I've sold more copies of it than Amazon and Chindigo combined. If they're getting 45-55% off the cover price, shouldn't I? Maybe it's time we started putting pressure on for better deals at contract-signing time, until publishers can agree to give one discount only to all purchasers of books.

Gail Bebee said...

Can anyone advise how to get a book listed in the catalogue at amazon.ca/? Their web site has no useful information that I can find nor can I see a telephone number to call information.
I am a small non-fiction publisher. I have just gotten my book listed at Indigo.
Thanks for any help you can provide.

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