Letter from San Francisco: Amazon, again. by Guy Tiphane

Shall we talk about Amazon again? Doing so might give some of us a break from the neverending discussion about the artifacts of modern life: Facebook, Google, the iPad or the iPhone. I could rave about any of those businesses and their products, or I could lament their soulless attacks on small enterprises that fail to make and sell products by the millions. I could call for a boycott, or I could find a way to participate in their growth. The one constant is their growth and, we end up finding them everywhere, not unlike an invasive species, they become part of the landscape, and we forget how the original ecosystem looked.

Even the people who said they loved browsing at their local bookstore ended up doing just that, browsing, maybe even sitting down to read the first chapter of a new book, then putting it back on the shelf, coffee stains included, and buying it from Amazon or other discounter the following day. I bought from Amazon whenever I needed a title that wasn’t the shelves, or in the warehouse, of any bookstore. I was lured by offers that would reduce shipping costs to nothing. We have all participated in Amazon's growth. It's a growth that, to a certain degree, has simplified book distribution and marketing.

It all seems so surprising, to find out, on a regular basis, that Amazon entered this or that other business. Today I received an email from a San Francisco author, Vincent Meis, indicating there were “several ways to purchase” his book, Tio Jorge. One was to send him a cheque, and in return he'd send a signed copy. I opted for that one, it felt quaint but so... simple. Another was through createspace.com, which turns out to be, you guessed it, an Amazon company. Vincent indicated that he would get a better royalty this way than if you bought it through Amazon, where you can buy the Kindle ebook version.  Should you prefer to hear Vincent's lovely voice, he has read his novels into a series of podcasts on podiobooks.com; his books aren't available on audible.com, an Amazon company, which sells audio books by established publishers. Someone in Seattle has probably noticed that’s a gap to be filled one of these days.

There's much to be said about seeing how things go and adapting. Unlike traditional retailers, Amazon has developed ways to include people who otherwise would have looked for every opportunity to fight it as the giant predator it has always been. 

Not even ten years ago, Vincent's book would be sitting in a warehouse, at a high cost to him and his publisher, and he would hesitate to write another one. Now it is printed on demand, or sold in ebook format, requiring no storage costs other than a few megabytes on a computer disk. Had I had to wait to see it in a bookstore, had I not been able to view and hear parts of it, I wouldn't think about buying it. All this has been made possible in part by the Amazon empire. Even when an author uses another print-on-demand service like lulu.com, it seems imperative to have it listed on amazon.com, to give it more prestige. I think authors have bought the right to say, “Yes, my book is on Amazon,” when asked at dinner parties. Ironically that sounds better than being called a “published author.”

Bear in mind that Jeff Bezos, founder of amazon.com, would not have started an actual bookstore.  What he designed was a system of storage and delivery that could be replicated for practically any product that is easy to ship to people's suburban homes. The growth is inevitable, and in a sense it is smarter, even though it engenders a monster. As we consider the limitations of our earth's resources, streamlined operations start to make sense, and trips to the mall feel silly. We need to move on, see the wave coming, and ride it. (Warning: it may be like a tsunami.) 

This letter was prompted by the recent broadcast of Your Call, a radio program from San Francisco that you can listen to online. Follow the links to more interesting articles at yourcallradio.org.

© Guy Tiphane 2012

Guy Tiphane grew up in Laval and obtained an M.Sc. In Computer Science from Université de Montréal. He joined the founding team of Logitech, first in Switzerland, then in California, to write innovative software and to include users in the design of software and hardware. He obtained an M.A. in English Literature from Notre Dame de Namur University (Belmont, CA), winning the thesis award for his collection of short stories, Heating up the Fog. He lives in Berkeley.

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