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Friday, December 4, 2009

Funny how "independent" and "undependable" have the same root

Last week my wife and I wanted to order a book for a friend whose birthday was coming up. We each decided to take advantage of the excuse and order ourselves something as well--kind of like when you go to the fridge to get someone a beer, but get yourself one too, right? Well I have a pretty lousy memory for things like this, but I finally remembered the links I'd seen to Indiebound, and so I decided to give my money to an independent bookseller instead of to Amazon. Amazon is terribly convenient, with its wishlists, its DRM-free MP3s, its frequent deals on shipping, its recommendations based on your shopping history, and with the wide array of products they sell. But they also have some business practices I find unsavory. For one, last year they leaned on small presses to use their subsidiary POD service as a printer, saying that if they did not they would refuse to stock their books. In Europe, they demanded that publishers give them better discounts than they give brick and mortar stores. The practical effects of this is that Amazon can undercut brick and mortar stores, driving them out of business.

I like bookstores. I want them to continue to offer me pleasant places to browse through books and see what discoveries I might make. Also, the consolidation of bookselling into fewer and fewer larger players hurts up-and-coming writers, because it gives the buyers from those chains an undue level of control over what gets published. Is there a point in publishing a book that Barnes & Noble won't stock? Well there would be if there were tons of booksellers other than B&N, but with the slow heat death of Borders, Barnes and Noble and Amazon are the big players, with Wal-Mart mucking up the works with their own predatory pricing.

For this and other reasons, I try to support when I can. But beyond that, I would like to see other choices beyond the mega-retailers. So the idea of an Amazon-like site that benefited indie bookstores seemed perfect. I happily placed our order--maybe not so much happily as smugly.

Well the days passed and still no books. I guess we'd gotten spoiled by Amazon--their books always seem to arrive an hour or two after we place the order--sometimes even before I hit submit. So I went to the website of the Orlando bookstore I'd placed the order from, and it said my order was "open," and "processing." Did that mean they hadn't even shipped it yet? By this point, I was kind of hoping it meant that, because then I could just drive downtown and pick up our order myself.

I tried calling the bookstore to see . . . but no luck. They closed for the evening at six. No problem; I'd call in the morning during my planning period . . . except they were closed, because they don't open until eleven. When I finally got ahold of them during my lunch, I learned that a glitch had prevented them from even seeing my order. Further, they didn't actually have the books I'd ordered in stock, because what they do when they get a website order is order the book themselves, and then send it along to you when it comes. So it's this friend's birthday, and we have nothing. The order hasn't gone through, and the book is not in stock.

I canceled the birthday book and left the rest of the order standing; my wife says I went too easy on them.

So I did a little scrambling, then. Barnes and Noble's website will tell you which local stores have a given book in stock. None had this particular book, but I was able to find one in Orlando that had another book that seemed like a good choice.

So what's the moral of the story? As I left school this afternoon, I was thinking the moral might be that stores that become big chains are as successful as they are because, frankly, they provide better service. They send things faster, they don't lose your order, and they have better hours. I mean, seriously? Eleven to six?!

But not so fast . . .

Because it turned out the Barnes and Noble website lied to me about whether or not they had the book in stock. Their computers said they did, but it wasn't on the shelf anywhere. So I guess this story doesn't have a moral--just like the rest of real life, neh?

Anyway, when you next decide to order a book, consider ordering from an independent bookstore. Unless you also want toys, music, T-shirts, or whatever. Or unless you're in a hurry.

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