This post has been prompted by my friend Amanda Green’s post on Amazon. To whit, by the implication that Amazon killed Borders that others have flung up.
This is a touchy subject, because although I was informed that nice ladies don’t discuss politics, religion or coitus in public, I’ve found that the touchier subject is money: making it, keeping it, wanting it.
We’ll start by all the cries of greed that are so fashionable. People decry greed in stentorian accents, and are usually the very people who, if they had the slightest understanding of how to do it would be soulless, greedy rich people ala Scrooge.
But let’s establish there’s such a thing as too much concentration on making money. When Dan and I were young and very broke (as opposed to middle aged and merely broke) we had a friend who belonged to a money-making group. He invited us in.
This group didn’t focus on stocks, or real estate, or… it was just “how to make money.” They shared deals, encouraged each other, etc.
We went to two meetings and then reluctantly each of us told the other that’s not what we wanted to do. I mean, we wanted money, don’t get me wrong. We wanted money so we never had to make it two days on an egg, a handful of flour and some dried mushrooms; so that a cat illness or a broken car were not the end of the world (we’d still like those last two) so that we had security.
But spending the whole time, all the time, just plotting how to make money and how to make the money grow? Um… no. It was like making money was an all-consuming interest to these people, and we had others, like music and writing.
The other time I found the limits to my greed was “when we were rich” — Dan made about double what he makes now, though still under the “very rich” of our president’s obsession. We had money to go out to eat every day if we so wished. We had money to go to movies and amusement parks, to take our kids on historic tours of other cities and to just have fun.
But the job required Dan to travel five days a week. If he were offered something like that now? Sure. I would just pack the cats and go with him. The cats (soon to be only three) can stay at certain hotels. We’d be fine. BUT back then we had a six year old and a nine year old, and it didn’t occur to us that we could just homeschool them around the country (it seems like a very difficult thing until you actually try it out.) So I had to stay with the kids. And it was killing us. We decided we didn’t need that money as much as I (and the kids) needed Dan at home.
So, yes, at least for me there is such a thing as “too much greed” but I would not judge for other people. Our friends in the investors club — who are probably now multimillionaires — were wonderful people and in fact got us out of a really tight corner a couple of years later. We lost touch with them, and I’m sorry for that, because they were good people. It’s just making money was their interest/hobby. It’s not for me to judge anymore than it is for anyone to judge the fact I like to make stuffed animals.
However, in certain circles wanting to make money is the ultimate sin. Of course, people who think that way are also people who have unlimited greed for power, including over who gets to make money, so I’d like them to gaze lovingly on my middle fingers while I discuss how to sell.
My background for this, other than writing which is a weird field (though the rules still apply) is of growing up with tradesmen and observing my grandparent’s best friend across the street, who ran THE general store. Also, in various ways, I sold several things because my parents didn’t believe in allowances and believed in ingenuity.
So when, at four or five, I told mom I wanted to sell as much as I could of the crop from the tangerine tree (instead of the extended family making themselves ill on tangerines and still losing half to rot) she not only approved but gave me tips, like to put on a dress and act nice while selling the tangerines from our stoop. Others of my commercial ventures, like publishing a neighborhood newspaper (handcopied. I DREAMED of a mimeograph) puzzled them more. And by the time I started “rapid language courses for travelers” they’d given up on being surprised, and just did things like consult me on the furniture they should buy for the receiving room I used for the lessons.
Anyway, the point being, I’ve ran businesses and I’ve seen people running businesses, and I know what — other than an ability to lick miles of tape, metaphorically speaking — it takes to make it.
So we return to Amazon vs. Borders, or let’s face it, Amazon vs. Barnes and Noble who is on the same butter-greased merry slide to h*ll with less excuse.
Did Amazon kill Borders? Well, only if you look at it as assisted suicide.
Borders grew and became very big by having a system. The system was ordering to the net. They ordered only proven sellers. The way they did this was by looking in the computer at the author’s name, and seeing how many of his hers or its (must be post binary) book they had sold. Then they ordered just that number.
This system worked magnificently while Borders was a small bookstore, in a small town, and before the publishers tumbled onto it. Two things Borders didn’t take into account: the variety of regional tastes and the
violence corruption inherently possible in the system.
The publishers did. Oh, they did. You see, NYC publishers had for a long time wished to be able to forecast exactly how much a book would sell. This because after the eighties round of mergers, they were run by corporations that didn’t understand books aren’t widgets and that it was impossible to say something like “the last historical mystery sold 100k copies. So this one will sell that” when the periods, characters, authors and writing style are completely different.
For middle managers in publishing houses, it is necessary to forecast how much a book will sell so you can calculate an advance, and I understand selling too much is about as bad as selling too little.
So. They latched onto the ordering to the net system. Particularly since in a couple of years every chain bookstore and a few independents were using it.
What it was first was a good way to have disposable writers, who never earned out their advances, which doesn’t mean that the book didn’t make money for the publisher, because that’s another matter. (I pride myself in the fact that while in this role at Berkley I STILL earned out advances, though they usually took the book out of print right after the first earnings check.)
If you didn’t “push” a book onto the shelf, (And there were ways the publishers would PAY for the push — say for 100 copies per store, which the stores thought was just more free money) the default stocking was 2 books. This meant even if you sold all the books, you could only get two on the shelf next time. But given increasingly short shelf times, the more common things was one of two: either the books were never unpacked (these were low priority books, why should the staff bother? Neither of my two first books ever made it onto shelves locally, though they were in the system) stayed in a closet and were marked as “didn’t sell” which means next they ordered none, or the books went on the shelf but due to low visibility sold only one. The other one might even be shoplifted, it still showed as not having sold. The end result was the same. Next book you only stocked one. And one book in a shelf of books, good chance of not selling, means your career was over, at least under that name. (And you could ride this carousel several times. I did it at least three times.)
If you were lucky, your “career” lasted three books.
The way to beat the system was to stock so many that you couldn’t fail. If you had fifty to a hundred books per store, you were going to sell a large amount, regardless. The code for this, btw, was “the publisher has high confidence in this book.”
The trick was that no one was reading the books. Well, maybe someone at the publisher’s, but certainly no one else. (And I wouldn’t bet on the publishers. I know several books of mine were only “read” on proposal, except by copy editors.)
And the problem is that this is a lousy way to sell books to real people. Real people who read are, yes, influenced by externals on a book. There are names I’ll buy sight unseen, and time periods that I’ll buy without much thought. There are certain characters that appeal to me. None of these require reading the book. BUT in the end I’m buying the book to READ. As are most if not all (!) readers.
So in the end the style, character construction and FEEL of the book count.
But they didn’t in the push model.
What we noticed as readers was that suddenly it was possible to go to the store and come home without a single book, disconsolate and upset saying “I guess no one has our tastes anymore.”
And let me tell you, even while utterly broke (which is worse than just very broke and happened a couple of times while Dan was unemployed and we had little ones) we set aside money for books, according to RAH (genuflect)’s plan to budget luxuries first. When the world was an endless shower of sh*t, I remember walking home from a grocery store gloating at a book I’d found and couldn’t wait to read. It lit up the whole week.
But we found we could no longer discover books to read. A lot of our old favorites were no longer on shelves and we stupidly assumed they just weren’t writing anymore. And we didn’t find any new ones.
Then there was Amazon. While packing I found the thermos cup Amazon sent me at their one year anniversary, to thank one of their best customers. Mind this is one of the two years we were “rich” and I put the knife into our bank account to the tune of several thousands of dollars.
The search was pokey, and you couldn’t read a sample online, and I couldn’t have the book right away, but I found a few hundred books (when going full clip and not, say, rebuilding a house from the foundation up I can read six books a day. I used to pack a separate suitcase of books for vacation) I didn’t know existed, some published three, four years ago. And I could read.
I never looked back. When Borders collapsed, I realized I hadn’t been inside one for years. The last time I was at Barnes and Noble was to buy gifts for friends. Not books. Little diaries. We still have all the Barnes and Nobles in Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins on our GPS (I found while looking for the hazardous waste disposal site. Chill. Not spent uranium, just excess paint. Yeah, I know.) We just never visit. (We don’t call or send flowers either.) Particularly now when I could be “reading this book in seconds.” And I am. Often.
So, did Amazon kill Borders? Well, kind of sort of. In the same way that Amazon, if not killed, dealt a big blow to traditional publishers. Which is why they’re hated.
But this is not killing. It’s more like if you were sitting on top of a powder keg and a spark from your neighbor’s barbecue set it off.
Look, the whole “push” model was so enchanting — and in the hands of humanities majors took no time at all to become a “let’s push worthy books” whether “worthy” meant “agrees with my politics” or “flatters me by being incomprehensible, and therefore I must be very smart to read it” — so alluring, that I understand why people caught in the corporate grind fell for it.
On the other hand they forgot the essential thing: selling books to real people. You know, people who read.
They forgot that the customer had a say on what they bought or not.
No wonder all of these people decry the “capitalist” system. They want to tell people what they can and can’t buy. For their own good, of course.
But capitalism is NOT a system. It’s simply the way humans trade, as natural to us as trading shiny pebbles is to some penguins. Even in the deepest, darkest communism, free trade appears in the form of a black market. Sometimes the ONLY flourishing thing in the whole d*mn mess.
So, the one thing you can’t forget, if you want to survive as a commercial entity, is that consumers count. That what people has to buy matters. That you can, yes, try to package some of those tangerines everyone is sick of in silk paper and some people will buy them, but the backbone of your system has to be something people want and are looking to buy.
And the only way to find out what people want is to make it available, and then get more of this if it sells like hotcakes.
NOT to keep the stuff people might want away from them and telling them they can ONLY buy the stuff you want them to have.
Because that’s not how commerce works. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars in education to obliterate humans’ instinctive trading skills.
So, Borders. Yeah, Amazon helped it kill itself, by existing. But it wasn’t murder. At most it was assisted suicide.