Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tough Noogies

The brick & mortar business where I work has made me sign a document stating that if I talk about them online, I can be fired, so I won’t mention them by name. But I’m not mad at them for making me sign that paper. Because they’re up the creek without a paddle, and I can’t blame them for being freaked out about it. They’ve got a right to look after their reputation. God knows the retail giants aren’t doing anything else very well these days.

Unfortunately, the way most retail chains have reacted to the bad economy is to decide that they’ve got to start harassing the customer from the moment they set foot in the store and not let them go again until they have their name, phone number, e-mail address, and shopping preferences – and woe betide the customer who doesn’t also have a couple dozen frequent shopper cards. Furthermore, at my store I’ve been ordered to address you by name, no matter how much that may offend you. And you need to know my name too. If it’s any consolation, I’ll try to use your last name instead of your first, and I only mispronounce it about 35% of the time. I’ll try to mumble it so you won’t think I’m hitting on you.

But all of that “customer service” will do no good at all in the end, because I work at a book store, and within a few years, most book sales will be done online or with a phone app. Yes – I know everyone is saying that, and I also know there tends to be a gold-rush attitude about new formats and technologies that often turns out to be exaggerated. But in this case friends – it ain’t exaggerated. People are underestimating how big the change is going to be.

Forget all that stuff about how much you like paper books and how you don’t want to change. Because that’s just tough noogies. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what they’re going to give you, what they think they can do to turn a profit. Controlling costs is the only way big biz can squeeze the bottom line right now, and shipping around tons of paper is expensive. Zapping electronic bits in your general direction is way cheaper, and if you put it on a reader you like, you’ll get used to it pretty fast.

Don’t get me wrong, I love printed books. But I have to admit, I’ve been appalled at the waste I see in the book biz. We manufacture astounding amounts of trash every day at our location, just in terms of cardboard boxes and merchandising lists, just so we can build displays of things we want people to buy. But after all that effort, after all that paper and gasoline, most of the books that make it to our shelves get packed right back up eventually and shipped back again. It’s very Sisyphus-ian. Move that pile of sand over here, then move it back over there. On the small scale, no big deal. But we’re talking gigantic, and without easy credit to make it look like actual moolah is being made, the losses are apparent much more quickly than they used to be. So the electronic medium will sweep all that away. And how could that help brick & mortar stores?

Not one bit, actually. So they’re in complete denial about it. That’s why I’m wondering if you’d like a bag for your items, Mr. Smith. What was that phone number again?

The funny thing is, even if the brick & mortar chains crash, I don’t think amazon is going to be the only game in town. Google won’t either, even if they end up selling their own gigantic library of e-books. I think writers are going to control the e-book market, mostly because we’ll be able to set our own prices. We’ll tend to keep them really low, because we don’t have a gigantic overhead to pay for. Of course, we’ll be plagued by pirates and we’ll have to compete with millions of other sites for the attention of shoppers, but that won’t stop us. After all, we’ve been treated like dirt for decades, we’re used to trouble. We’re not easily discouraged, either. In fact, it’s scary how hard it is to get us to give up.

So here’s my advice to shoppers: don’t pay a lot of money for books, or movies, or music. Pay something, give writers and musicians a reason to keep making the stuff that entertains you, but don’t pay a high price for it unless you can’t live without it. If you think someone’s price for an e-book is too high, tell them so. They may lower it. Believe me, if you tell a book store clerk the same thing, they’ll just have to refer you to Customer Care. And there’s just one way a call like that can end.

“Thanks for shopping with us Mr. Smith. Have a nice day.”

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I just read about that no-blogging contract, and I keep wondering which will save more money in the long run: forcing longtime employees to stop relating bad news about the company, or taking all of the upper managers who apparently have enough time to dream up idiot concepts in lieu of working (remember the brilliance of the employee book contest?) and shooting them all in the face.

    Now, I can't agree with you more about how the book business is changing, and a lot of it is due to practices started by your employer. For instance, I have a couple of retailers nagging me about buying copies of my books directly from me, because my publisher works on a nonreturnable basis with only a 5 percent discount. Now, never mind that the publisher already offers a full pound of book for only $19.99: they're wanting more of a discount if they can't return it, so like the hipster friends who hear about your employee discount and figure that you'll let them use it because they're too cheap to pay full price, I have these retailers hitting me up for my discount. And that really woke me up.

    See, back when my ex-wife was crying about how your company was the source of all evil, one of the big things she brought up was precisely what you're describing: huge orders to small publishers that are put on the shelf for a week and then packed up and sent back for credit. In the early Nineties, a lot of good publishers died because they thought they had gigantic orders that vaporized when the company started mailing back crates full of books. Those publishers are now retaliating by making more books nonreturnable in exchange for a lower price, so they don't get caught in bankruptcy with huge return orders.

    And who's bitching about this the most? It's the proprietors of the local Frumpy Fiftysomething's Used Books and Quiet Desperation Emporium, who thought that this was a peachykeen system until the Big Chains took advantage of it. Problem is, the Frumpy Fiftysomething's franchises were just as bad, if not worse, and they don't like being stuck with books that they're ordering on pure impulse or ego that don't sell. (I'm starting to wonder if the whole concept of the bookstore is obsolete, seeing how hard it is to convince customers that it's an actual business instead of a library with a coffee shop. I read that Barnes & Noble is offering free wifi in its stores, and I think this is great: now it means that you'll see people under the age of 85 who hang out in the store all day without buying anything.)