NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #96
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 5, 1999:

AMAZON.COM EXPLODES

LETTERS

AMAZON.COM EXPLODES

I don't know why I'm a Tess Gerritsen fan - this former physician and romance writer can plunge the reader into an Emergency Room with wondrous authority and tension, but for some reason she keeps moving into the science fiction/horror arena that's so crowded with authors like Michael Creighton and TV shows like "X-Files" and movies like "Alien" and "Sphere."

Gerritsen does know how to write compellingly about medical experimentation in space, which is the subject of her latest book, "GRAVITY" (come on, Tess, that is a nothing title! break away from the crowd! start your own genre!) which sounds a bit more intriguing when read aloud by actor Campbell Scott in an abridged version (Simon & Schuster; 4 cassettes; $25) than when read silently in the drawn-out full-length book (Pocket; 342 pages; $24.95).

The big deal in this book is a gicky viscous mass the astronauts find floating around the spaceship that turns out to be alive and a'growing as soon as it finds a host body that expands even more revoltingly than Roddy McDowell did in "Alien."

Here in the gross-out '90s, the Roddy corpse gets stuffed into a body bag and before they know it bloats out hideously in gory goop that seeps into the ship. All the alarms are going off and the lights are flashing red and pretty soon somebody stupidly decides to look inna bag and BLAM! the whole thing explodes with organs blasting everywhere and scalp wedges with hair still attached banging into pieces of pancreas and bladder.

Only now does everyone on board realize this must be the reason for all those headaches and maybe it's not a plague but a LIVING BEING on the spaceship, and then the Sigourney Weaver character (in this case a doctor just like Tess) has to make up with her pouty ex-husband who's still on Earth before she figures out The Answer and the rest you can write with your eyes closed.

So: what all this has to do with Amazon? Well, last week the company announced the addition of a new "flotilla of smaller merchants," as the Wall Street Journal calls it, that is supposed to provide exciting new access to everything from garden tools to cameras to 500,000 other items for sale. But instead, guess what it's like?

It's like the exploding gick! Loads and loads and loads of consumable stuff are out there floating around in and making site negotiation so tiresome and unwieldly you often don't know if you're still on Amazon or back at the original store or in the middle of an auction or stuffed in a body bag on the way home.

What's more, because the concept of cybermalls is itself splattered all over the Internet, and Amazon.com's merchants are listed so dully and their photographs are so lousy (no wonder they're called zzzzzzShops), the whole experience is really kind of boring. Yahoo, AOL, Altavista and even (you remember mention of this in #92) . . . The Great Intermall of the Americas! sell the same stuff.

Amazon has found a way to juice up the site, however, but in the process the company has really teed off archaeologists. Soon to collaborate with the Discovery Channel to sell actual dinosaur bones over the Internet, Amazon now sells gems and teeth and vertebra of millions of years ago from its zShops and auctions.

This is the kind of exotica that should make the site more interesting, but of course real and intact fossils are nearly priceless. The San Francisco Examiner quotes the going rate for a dinosaur skull at $200,000; a saber-toothed tiger skull, $20,000. At Amazon, so far at least, what you find are mostly replicas, such as the "SMILODON FATALIS SKULL REPLICA IN TAR PIT FINISH." The skull is "made from highly durable resin" so that it "can withstand handling." (The description doesn't say if you can choose between high-gloss or antiqued tar pit finish.)

Nevertheless, the impact of Amazon's plan to collaborate with Discover has already been felt in scholarly circles: "Paleontologists fear that online fossil sales could drive prices through the roof, increase pressure to open public lands to exploitation by commercial fossil-hunters and encourage fossil theft from museums and laboratories," the Examiner reported yesterday.

Not to mention the fossils that will never reach museums. University of California paleontologist Kevin Padian has emailed Amazon.com to explain that fossil specimens "are limited. They are not renewable. Each one brings with it valuable information that is lost when it is bought by private collectors. These specimens should be in museums so that everyone can enjoy them."

Amazon has said it will not "sell any rare (fossil) species or pieces that should have belonged in a museum," but that sounds like one o'them Purchase Circle statements, doesn't it? "Such reassurances don't satisfy paleontologist Mark Goodwin," the Examiner writes, another scientist "who fears illegal collecting and theft of fossils and says he's 'appalled when I see these high prices offered (for fossils) online.' "

None of this would matter to people in the book biz (except that it's so arrogant! so adolescent! so ruinous to science, to knowledge, to posterity!) but like Tess G., Amazon.com keeps moving away from the thing it's good at - an efficient, user-friendly, often dazzling database of books that for many people provides their first experience of having fun browsing and buying on the Internet.

This is why BookSense.com, BookSite.com and other website possibilities for independent bookstores have much to live up to - easy cross-referencing, one-click shopping, great photos, lots of reviews and customer comments (however suspect), even a certifiably crazy ranking system and so forth.

But now even the books division has its problems in the top-heavy company as increasing numbers of readers complain that Amazon says it's got the book when it doesn't and publishers complain of unasked-for and certainly unpaid-for Amazon.com advertisments for other books that pop up right in the middle of their listings.

And then - talk about consolidation of power! - last week came the announcement that Amazon.com and the UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE are about to "launch a joint advertising campaign for the Post Office's U.S. Priority-Mail service for online purchases," according to the Wall Street Journal. The venture involves television and print ads costing "several million dollars" that are set to appear from October '99 to April 2000.

What a great public service on Amazon's part! Why, with help from the private sector, the Postal Service (which we ALL support with our tax dollars, remember) might compete more aggressively and drive UPS and FED EX and a dozen other private carriers out of business!

And what do you think Amazon.com is going to get out of this? The Wall Street Journal article doesn't say, but perhaps something like PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT might be mixed in the deal, or at the very least the privilege to name the new venture something like, say, the U.S. Postamazon Service or the U.S. Pamazon Service or the U.S. Amazopostal Service or what the heck, just take any reference to the United States out and call it Amazonpostal.com.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored;

Tom William's comments in #95 struck a real sore spot with me. That great darling of Wall Street, Amazon. I find it incomprehensible that such a stock can continue to perform, when even a slight decline in earnings (while still posting nice profits) for an IBM or AT&T is enough to send the stock tumbling and depress it for months. While robbing Peter (the stockholders) to pay Paul ( the customers) may not be illegal, assuming the stockholders are cognizant of the fact, it certainly is not a formula for long term financial success. Guess who will be left holding the bag when it all comes crashing down. (Hint, it's not Bezos) Corporations and their officers do have fiduciary duties toward their stockholders but if the sheep are willing, I guess it's okay.

Selling products for less than producing or acquiring them is called dumping. Our country prohibits Sony and Nippon Steel from doing it but I guess it's okay to ruin an industry if you are within the borders. There is nothing quite as bad as an irrational competitor, even worse than the unscrupulous ones who extract illegal backdoor sweetheart deals from suppliers.

Barry Johnson, mailto:booksatstonehenge@prodigy.net
Books at Stonehenge
Raleigh, NC 27613

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

About Linda Roghaar's letter referring to Ingram Book Company's efficiency in handling shipments and returns.

When a bookstore returns books to Ingram they are not restocked by Ingram for shipment to the next customer. They are boxed in mixed title cartons with insufficient care to prevent further damage and returned to the publisher. If it is a title that is still selling, Ingram is likely to be ordering and returning a title at the same time. The returned books are not likely to be resaleable due to scuffing (the result of poor packing). The credit for the returns is taken in the next billing cycle. The payment for the new books is likely to be 90 days from receipt of the books.

It's a nice system for Ingram and the bookstores. It is a financial and operational nightmare for the publishers of all sizes, but it has brought disaster to many smaller ones.

Sandra Martz
former publisher, Papier-Mache Press

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Dear Holt Uncensored:

A reader wrote: "In #92, Sandy Jaffe says that Amazon.com has 'done nothing immoral, illegal, or unethical.' I believe that the posting of spurious reviews, and the apparent refusal or inability to develop a system to quickly correct errors in book listings are certainly unethical, probably illegal, and, in my opinion, immoral."

Do you raise the same complaint against Ingram (the source of much of this bad information), Baker & Taylor, BN.com, Borders.com or BookSense.com (when it launches)? I'll be curious.

When I was in charge of this aspect of Amazon.com when I worked there in late '96 and early '97, I agreed that more needed to be done to correct mistakes. (We maintained a staff that grew from 4 to 7 while I was there that spent all of their time servicing publisher requests, scanning covers, and fixing errors.) However, as an author, I've found that virtually no other online bookstore offers the same flexibility in fixing information that's incorrect.

Amazon.com's the biggest target, but the real issue is that there is no independent, easily licensed, easily corrected, central database of contemporary book information. Sure, there's Books in Print, but try to get them to return calls or emails about licensing BIP (I can't). There's Ingram and B&T's databases, but every publisher and author has stories about how their name suddenly shows up misspelled on 10 online sites - what's the source of that error? Hmm...

What I was hoping one of the goals of BookSense might ultimately be is to build a free or inexpensive licensable database of all books in print that allows publishers direct access to update, correct, and verify their information. Or perhaps that's just a business waiting to be started (and not turned into a multibillion dollar one, but serve a real audience).

Glenn Fleishman
http://www.glenns.org

Holt Responds: I've been hearing about just such a work-in-progress called PubLink from Dick Harte of BookSite.com, and have asked Dick to respond. Here is his answer:

"The writer of the letter raises a number of valid points and equally valid suggestions. We have just launched such a site, PubLink.net, a joint effort of BookSite.com and Publishers Weekly to address this and many other book informational needs that we hope will afford publishers greater control over the quality of their listings on all book databases.

"The work these database providers perform never ceases to amaze me. We are glad to help clear up the few typos that occur from time to time. It is a wonder there aren't more.

"We have constructed a module that allows the publishers to edit their bibliographic data, annotations, provide graphics, etc, all shared at no cost with any of the big 3 that wish to join in with us. That way one fix will reach everyone through the distribution of the licensed databases.

"Right now we are focusing on bringing the authors into the loop to give them their own pages on the site. We even make it possible for links to publishers wishing to provide even deeper content than we can show.

"We are not licensing the data; we are serving it free to any noncommercial site that wants a link, so the general public will have a reliable place to find quality book information. We don't sell books, but we do link to every brick-and-mortar and online bookseller we know of (including Amazon).

"We just want to raise the interest in books by the public by having the information out front for all to see, and believe a rising tide will lift all boats. We are trying to provide a platform where everyone in the industry can work together for the benefit of the industry . . .

"Dick Harte, dick@publink.net"

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Dear Holt Uncensored,

It was interesting to read about B&N's "Efficient Receipt" program-- the first I've heard of it. I agree that the weight of this program will fall disproportionately on small and/or university publishers, however, it does not necessarily mean fewer titles from these publishers in B&N stores.

For several years now, B&N has been making its distribution business more efficient by "sourcing" a large number of titles from these very same small and universtiy presses from a handful of distributors (like Consortium, PGW, et al.) and wholesalers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bookpeople, etc.) who can deliver "product" in compliance with the chain's requirements. Except insofar as small and university presses are unable to comply with the requirements of the distributors and wholesalers (such as printing bar codes on book covers), it does not seem as if the stream of small and university press titles into B&N stores will be significantly stanched.

It is a much more debatable point whether B&N inventories of small and university press titles reflect anything like the richness and diversity actually available (and which you suggest is currently availble in B&N stores).

Small and university presses have been feeling the noose for several years due to a number of changes in the industry, most notably a decline in the number of quality independent bookstores, lower profit margins (due to higher discounts required of booksellers and wholesalers), and a huge reduction in funding of nonprofits and subsidies to university presses. B&N's Efficient Receipt program certainly won't make things easier, but it will hardly be apocalyptic.

Stephen Williamson

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