Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Because I Can't Resist (and Amazon deserves it)

Box came today. Perfect condition. No padding necessary, it was a wraparound cardboard box. Beautiful, I think, my shipping problem with Amazon is on vacation!

I peel the strip, I open the box...

...and then begin the process to return two out of the three books contained therein. One of the trade paperbacks is not only bumped in the upper right hand corner, it translates to both covers and every single page having a fold about a half inch down. And the book looks twenty years old.

The hardcover looks in okay shape. Except for the dust jacket. All along every edge--top and bottom, front and back--it is wrinkled and crinkled like the book was rubbed the wrong way down someone's sweater.

The third book, which is brand new (it just came out), is okay. Not perfect--the back cover is scuffed and scratched a bit. But I'll keep it.

Amazon sucks. And yes, I am a sucker. I want their accountant to say, "What can we do to get these book returns down?"

I know! I know! The answer is...

Give a damn. Please.

No One's Going to Leave Me a Comment...

...on the post below, are they?

Of Mice and Meek Writers

And by "meek" I mean me.

This week the newest book from Stark House Press came out, featuring two classic books by Charles Williams and with a really, really (read: way too) long introduction by me. Here's the problem: I tried to write a piece on Charles Williams of the sort that hadn't been done before. Unfortunately, there's a reason for that--there's just not a lot of information out there.

A Spanish gentleman wrote a biography of Williams some years back. It's out of print but available from overseas but the real problem is that, um, I don't speak Spanish. It has an introduction from Williams' daughter and apparently features correspondence between Williams and Don Congdon, his agent, and I would have really liked to be able to read the words of the man himself. Given enough time, I suppose I could learn, or given enough time and money, I suppose I could pay for a translation, but--you know.

Anyway, as it turns out, Charles Williams is a wonderful writer of suspense and thriller novels. He passed away after killing himself in a somewhat controversial manner. Actually, its only controversial because there were different versions floating around about how he really did it. I obtained a copy of his death certificate to finally get the real answer.

But the problem with the intro for the new book, aside from its grotesque length, is that the nutshell conclusion is that while any individual Williams book is a good one, he repeats elements constantly throughout most of his books. For instance, ninety percent of the time the protagonist is an ex-football player. Why? Who knows. And if he isn't one, his enemy is, or else he's an ex-baseball player. Women have overlapping roles, as well, and at times he tends to was a bit prolix, especially in his earlier novels.

In attempting an honest evaluation of his work, I conclude that if you consider his work as a body, it suffers from the repetition--all too often you know what's going to happen with a certain character or simply that it's distracting to read about yet another ex-football player, etc. Again, read almost any individual book and chances are quite high that you will be very impressed. The issue comes when you read a lot of them (he wrote 22).

Many people seem to wonder why Charles Williams' books are not more well-known, are not more widely available. If David Goodis and Jim Thompson have experienced rediscoveries, why not Charles Williams? When he's good, he's really good. And guess what? He's really good almost all the time.

I think in my attempt at an honest appraisal of his work as a body, I may leave people with an unintended impression, that I have more negative feelings for Charles Williams than I actually do. The fact is, I love the guy's work, have read all of it, some of it multiple times. Did he take shortcuts sometimes? Yes. Did he repeat himself sometimes? Yes, if not often. But is he any the less compulsively readable? Absolutely not. I think that it's just hard to say both of those things in the same introduction and make anybody happy. The piece is probably a fail. Due to its length, an epic fail.

On the other hand, a swing and a miss is still a swing. Given the absence of longer, in-depth pieces on the man and his work, I did what I could. The effort was there, the conclusion (as all conclusions) is debatable, but I can only hope that what I wrote is actually informative and pleasant to read. And if nothing else, it's long. Sometimes the sheer weight of something is enough to be impressive. So I got that going for me.

If anyone out there picks up the book (and you should, because really, Charles Williams was an excellent, excellent writer), please feel free to comment on the introduction. I would be truly interested in any responses. Well, at least the ones that aren't ads for viagra and home refinancing.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Amazon's Worn Me Down Again

Yup, they've done it again. All the replacement books from Amazon came, and two, a whole two out of six, have arrived in what I would deem "as new" condition. The Henrietta Lacks book, and Augustus, have been shelved with satisfaction. As for the rest of them....

The Jacques Futrelle book is actually a rectangle shaped-book and not a parallelogram, so that's good, but the upper corner of the cover and some of the pages are bent. The Memory Key has a dust jacket with ruffled edges top and bottom. Virtually ALL of the books have "damage" like that. These are books that, if I lived near a bookstore and was going to buy a copy there, I would leave on the shelf.

Why then, do I keep them from Amazon, especially when I took the time to box up and return the Custer book (yet again)? Because they wear me down. I am convinced at this point that to buy multiple books from Amazon that are in the same condition you could get from a store (something a customer service rep from Amazon told me was their goal--but this was a few years ago) it would take five or six return/shipment cycles.

When this last batch arrived, there was no padding or packing material whatsoever, unless you count the inflatable sections of plastic that were laid across the top of the books--completely UNINFLATED. In that state it is a 2 mil. thick swatch of NOTHING.

I have to say, though, that the biggest source of the problem appears to be the handling of the books. In other words, Amazon's packers damage the books prior to their ever being put into an unpadded box or worse, a padded envelope. Amazon's biggest mistake appears to be that they treat collectible items like books, non-commodity items (at least for some) whose condition upon arrival is critical to the customer's satisfaction, like so much dog food in a box. They just don't give a damn.

This is why I get books with black fingerprint smudges across the pages, coffee cup rings on the covers, covers of large books torn away from the spines, dust jacket damage that couldn't have been caused in the box, etc. Again, they don't give a damn.

It's a hiring problem or a training problem or a managing problem but the bottom line is that they care not a fig for what they are doing. They're more than happy to send out replacement after replacement until the customer simply accepts the degraded quality. They demonstrate this repeatedly, and the time they told me that if I kept ordering replacements for The Letters of Saul Bellow they'd likely continue to arrive with the covers half torn off, I just took the refund and went to Barnes & Noble (online--again, I live in the sticks, people).

So instead of buying books from Amazon that are in good, "as new" shape, you are forced to define what you feel is "good enough" shape and re-train yourself to mediocrity. Those of us who build collections or libraries are more or less screwed, not least because B&N and Books-A-Million haven't done any better when I tried them.

A guy I used to know from UPS told me they threw packages around like I wouldn't believe. Youtube videos abound with package loaders misbehaving. This past week a FedEx employee was fired after a home security video showed the guy stopping twenty feet in front of the house and just frisbeeing the package onto the porch. The point is, the companies are so big it makes more economic sense for them to reimburse for lost or damaged packages than to pay attention to each and every one--except that they are rarely taken to task. The shipper has to file the claim, not the recipient, and when you're as big as Amazon, you just send a replacement. And the merry-go-round continues.

Remember WordPerfect? The number one word processor, scoffed at Windows, finally came out with a version but it worked like crap? Yeah, they're virtually gone now. How about Novell, whose NetWare operating system held over seventy percent (seventy percent!) of the market before losing everything to another Microsoft product, this one with networking built into the desktop operating system. How about Netscape, the first really popular web browser? Hey, I paid $29.95 for it back in the day. They were slaughtered when a cheaper (free) alternative appeared. MySpace? Eaten by Facebook. Many examples abound.

The takeaway here is that these guys thought they were too big to fail, had to much market and mind-share to be able to lose it so quickly. And they were wrong.

Amazon's wrong, too, but we won't know that yet until someone else comes along and offers the same products with a similar buying experience but with less damaged goods, and proceeds to eat Amazon's lunch. I will be the first in line to transfer my business.

Unfortunately, until that day, I appear to be stuck with Amazon. Lower prices, crappy product, easy returns. That's not a good motto, but accurate insofar as books go.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Fate of the Amazon 12

Today FedEx delivered the rest of the twelve books I ordered from Amazon: an order of eleven books, plus one they added to the shipment from another order. Out of the first box of three books that arrived yesterday, one was sent back and the other two, while not in perfect "new" condition, I kept anyway.

Buying books from Amazon is a compromise. They don't seem to understand that collectibles should get better treatment than commodities. I don't really care how they ship my 24 oz. bags of protein supplement, or the bags of guinea pig food we order. But books are keepsakes, investments, items with an intrinsic value that verges into an emotional connection for some people. These people, like myself, collect books. Amazon, as a bookseller, has completely given up trying to deliver a quality product.

Let's look at the nine books that arrived today. Five are going back. They have to. If they sold them to me for a dollar I might keep a couple of them but otherwise, no way. The George Washington book: dust jacket rolled up and ripped from the bottom an inch or so upwards. The Jacques Futrelle book: squashed out of shape so that the bottom edge of the front cover is lower than the bottom corner of the back cover. Both The Glorious War and The Memory Key have damage to the bottom edges of the dust jacket, the bottoms of the spines are bent inwards, and Memory Key has damage to the cardboard of the rear board. Augustus looks like the front cover plus the first hundred pages have been folded over, permanently damaging the book.

Out of the four I'm keeping, NOT ONE of them is without damage. Butcher's Crossing is scoffed and scraped, there are strange splotches of discoloration all over The Stranger, and Pulphead and Consider the Lobster look like they've been browsed as shelf copies at a book store.

Final tally: six are being kept, with varying degrees of satisfaction, six are being sent back with hopes for a better result.

Conclusion: Amazon is really incapable of providing the book lover or collector with a quality buying experience and it comes down to the handling and the packaging of the people who do the shipping. The boots on the ground, as it were, are trampling ones.

Now I have to box up the returns, affix the proper labels, and drive into town to Staples, the local UPS pick-up point. This is all part of buying books from Amazon: returning books to Amazon. The days when I used to look forward to a book's arrival are gone, replaced by vague hope and diminished expectations. Given my interaction with their customer support, this isn't likely to change ever, unless enough other customers rise up and complain, too. It doesn't mean you're being crusty, it means you're trying to help.

If you have stories like mine, and I can't be unique, please by all means share them with Amazon. They're easy to talk to. They just don't solve anything.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Amazon Packing Result 1: Okay, Meh and Fail

FedEx came today and delivered the first box of the Amazon 11 (12 counting the book from a separate order they're combining), a day early. That's pretty neat, but the shipping time is not really a concern for me--they've always done a good job there.

The first sign of trouble was when the driver handed me the box and I could feel and hear the books sliding around in there. Shouldn't happen. There should be packing material surrounding the books for just that reason. Sometimes Amazon puts in no packing material whatsoever, sometimes they put in the inflatable air packets but neglect to part with the air necessary to inflate them, and other times, like here, they put a cursory piece in the box that has no practical effect other than, I hope, to make someone feel like they did a good job.

The book on the bottom was the only hardcover in this shipment, the Henrietta Lacks book by Rebecca Skloot. It was face down on the bottom of the box and was actually the same size as the box. If the box's corners had been damaged, so would the book, but the box was unharmed and the book had damage anyway.

This is the kind of damage that should make book buyers insane: the box is fine but the book is not. In this case, the front board has a partial puncture, exposing the cardboard guts beneath. The dust jacket, which is actually 75% of a book's value (if you care about such things) was creased, folded, and bent right above the bottom edge where the board was punctured.

Why send this book in the box? Why? It's damaged BEFORE I get it. It's not like I'm not going to notice.

The other two books were trade paperbacks, both not unscathed. John Enright's Pago Pago Tango was on top and on the front cover were two shiny splotches. They weren't sticky and didn't seem to have any sort of feel to them, but fortunately they wiped off with a damp paper towel.

The second, Warlock by Oakley Hall, has both lower corners of the covers and pages flared outward. They're not bent and by carefully working the corners back inward, the book looks salvageable.

The result? In a fairly typical Amazon packing job of three books shipped loose with a single and singularly ineffective piece of padding, all three books arrived in less than new condition. One is flat out damaged and should never have been shipped. One had cover stains that were probably transfer artifacts from the packer's lunch break. The third seems to have suffered its damage because of its ability to slide unfettered around the insides of the box.

So the hardcover is already packed up to be sent back for a replacement, I will keep the Enright trade paperback, and I will barely keep the Hall. Why keep the trade paperbacks? Because, sadly, and this is the point, these two books, while not new and crisp and sharp and steeped in the atmosphere of new books fresh from the press, they are about the best that Amazon is willing to offer via their shipping process.

Let's call the order twelve books since they added the order of one book to the order of eleven. So the tally after one box with one fourth of the books:

New and perfect condition: 0%
Salvageable to a fairly high standard: 66%
Returned to Amazon on the next truck out: 33%

For Amazon, who prides themselves in customer service, and who indeed does have wonderful customer service, their woeful tradition or inability to deliver books in fresh, undamaged condition continues.

We'll see what the rest of the order looks like tomorrow. I always hope for the best but that's the point with Amazon the past few years: you don't expect good product, you hope for it. That's another reason why the delivery time isn't so important. When you have to ship so many books back, you already know you're in for a long process.

(By the way, I wrote an earlier blog post about trying to purchase a copy of The Letters of Saul Bellow. After several copies arrived trashed--I believe the front cover was pulled off the binding on one of them--Amazon told me the same thing would probably keep happening if I ordered more copies. I took them at their word, got the refund, and went to Barnes & Noble. I'd like to deliver that story to Jeff Bezos by drone.)

First Amazon packaging follow-up

The eleven book order has been broken up into two shipments which could be bad: more opportunity for bad packaging to allow for damaged books. On the other hand, a quarter fewer third books in the box means that many fewer to pummel the others. They did add another book from a previous order to bigger box, so tomorrow two shipments should arrive: one with three books and one with nine.

The question is how many will be damaged and sent back....

Yesterday I received a single trade paperback (NYRB's collection The Stories of J.F. Powers) in the ridiculous padded envelope through UPS method. This time I was lucky and the book was fine. This does happen but it's a roulette system and close to half the time I either have to send the books back or shelve a damaged item. This is how I measure my blood pressure these days.

I'm reading Conor Fitzgerald's first book, The Dogs of Rome, the third sequel of which will arrive tomorrow. I'm liking it a lot. It's one of those books that doesn't do anything spectacularly except keep you turning pages, which, bottom line, is really a good thing when reading any book, not just genre fiction. Fitzgerald is an Irishman living in Italy, and the past few years I've become a big fan of Irish crime fiction.

Other than the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy, I've completely missed out on the Scandinavian crime wave but I have been steeped fairly heavily in the Irish one. Okay, it may not be a wave but it should be. For those people who think private eye writing is dead, read the Ed Loy books by Declan Hughes and see where the ghost of Chandler went.

But back to the subject of the post, Amazon used FedEx so we'll see what happens....

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Goodbye, Chili dog

We have to put our dog down. He's thirteen, he has trouble walking and standing, went blind rather suddenly, and can't control his bowels or bladder. Lately he's been getting lost in corners and we've got to be very careful not to let him try to do the same with the corner with the pellet stove. This morning he fell in a hole one of our other dogs has been digging unbeknownst to us. And the ground was supposed to be frozen....

In the past, we had to put down a Golden when his kidneys failed. We came home to find him immobile, bloated and unresponsive. Before him we had a Dalmatian who spent the last two weeks of his life in a cage with tubes snaked up his nose and into his arms.

In that regard Chili is ahead of the game. But he can't see, can barely walk, when he goes to the bathroom like as not he'll fall backwards into it, and his days are now spent like his nights: laying in one place whining to himself.

We took him to the vet because we didn't think we could make a decision without his input. Basically he said that it would not be premature to do it now, and when I said I thought the best he would ever be was right there at that moment, amped up and excited because he was at the vet's, the doctor agreed.

Melissa wasn't ready yet, and we took him home. She was Chili's handler when she showed him way back when. He almost became a Champion--he'd won all his minors and just needed his two majors but we started having babies and it just kind of worked out that he retired.

This morning he started to go to the bathroom while he was eating breakfast. I was already working on the mess he'd made before I led him to his food. It really hit me that he's not getting better, he's getting worse, and I dread "the next phase," the one where it's time to take him in after you've waited too long. The vet made sure we knew that he thought that was the one place we didn't want to be.

Unfortunately, that's the one place when you know it's time to take them in. You can't feel good about it until you know there's no choice left at all, when they're already suffering past the point of there being any question at all of what to do. Chili's blind, can barely walk, can't find his food or water dish, falls down stairs when he gets to them, and has no quality of life. The reality is that he's not going to get better and whatever the next phase would be, we don't want to see him there.

So it's time. We're saying goodbye to our Dalmatian, Chili, nearing fourteen years old and still king of the roost to the other dogs, even to this day. We know we're doing the right thing but paradoxically it can only feel that way if we'd wait too long. Right now, it seems like there's an element of choice to the matter, but that's only because we're picking him and carrying him outside, carrying him to his food, carrying him up and down stairs, keeping him away from the pellet stove. His quality of life is laying on the couch and whining. And that's the best that can be said for him. He seems to recognize Melissa, or at least respond to her, but for the rest of us, he's ninety percent not there.

Goodbye, Chili. We love you and we'll miss you, you spotted marvel. May you forever rest in peace. We'll always remember the love you've given us for the past thirteen plus years. And if you don't know, few dogs love as hard as a Dalmatian.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Great Amazon Packaging Test

For those of us in rural areas (we're over a hundred miles from a Target, an enclosed shopping mall, etc.) Amazon is a wonderful addition to our choices as consumers. There's actually a Wal-Mart in town but I don't consider that a plus. I call it reluctantly beneficial, in other words, there just isn't anywhere else to go. Without driving over a hundred miles. On the other hand, I could be in Canada in less than an hour if my passport weren't expired.

So I use Amazon a lot. I'm a Prime member, which is supposed to be a plus because you get "free" two day shipping. Unfortunately, the packaging staff they use for Prime shipments is different from the ones used for non-Prime members. And they appear to be the worst packagers Amazon can find.

This issue applies mostly to book shipments. I ask Amazon repeatedly, every time I have to return a book, why on earth they think that sending a book in nothing more than a padded envelope through UPS is supposedly expected to arrive at my home without damage. Amazon prides themselves in customer service and unfortunately I have no reason to complain about how they handle issues, except for the fact that they refuse to address the underlying reasons for the issues.

Namely, their packing practices are bottom of the barrel. In the good old days, they'd do things like shrinkwrap books to a cardboard backing and ship the books in a box. This usually worked to perfection, though not always. Many times the books are already damaged prior to the packing, and that means the covers are folded, crunched, bent.

With Prime they'll put anything in a box without regard to the items' safety. I just got a 24 oz. bag of protein shipped loose on top of a hardcover book; it had been free to slide around and scrape and bounce all the damage it could do to the book. Amazon doesn't care.

In the past few weeks I've sent three books back. This is not unusual and I've written about previous incidents here. The problem doesn't get better, though, it continues to worsen. Every time I purchase a book, which is often, I no longer can look forward to its arrival; I now hold my breath wondering how many of them I will be sending back. In this same couple of weeks where I've sent three books back, I've also kept two that I really should have sent back. The books arrive with bent covers and gouges in the page edges but they have me beaten down sufficiently that every now and then I say the hell with it and just put them on the shelf.

I got one book last week that looked like it had been used as a coaster for a sticky bottle or cup of something, as well as beaten up pretty good. The replacement came, also damaged, but less so. Would I have bought that copy in a book store? No way. Did I pack it back up, trek to the UPS drop and ship it back a second time? Not on this occasion.

They here about it from me but they don't care one little bit. If an Amazon clone opened up and gave me the same service, I'd be gone in a heartbeat. I've tried it several times but the shipping practices again have let me down. Fingerprints in the books? Covers torn from their bindings? These things all happen prior to shipping. Why is there no quality control oversight in the shipping department? Surely Amazon can tell who packed what order and see whose keep getting sent back and then send them to Science Division for reprogramming to actually giving a damn about what they do.

In any case, unless people like me complain they will never improve. And as far as I can tell, I am the only one who complains, and the only one who gets sent books that should be new but are beat to hell. So I took my Amazon gift card and some Christmas money and ordered eleven books. They're shipping them all in one box. My guess is they're dumped in the box in random order with no packing material and certainly nothing to keep the books from countless collisions as they bounce and slide through the UPS system.

When the books arrive (scheduled for Saturday) I will report back on the conditions of the books. They are a mix of hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The potential for doing good here is real, but given Amazon's current practices, expectations must be kept low. My current guess is that I'll be returning for replacement four books.

(I had an order for some soldering equipment created but I had to cancel it. I can't re-do it until I have no books coming, otherwise they'll dump it all into the same box and I know the books won't survive the interaction.)

Here's a list of the eleven books:

1 of: Butcher's Crossing (New York Review Books Classics), Williams, John
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, Wallace, David Foster
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Glorious War: The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer, Hatch, Thom
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: The Memory Key: A Commissario Alec Blume Novel, Fitzgerald, Conor
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Jacques Futrelle's "The Thinking Machine": The Enigmatic Problems of Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., LL. D., F. R. S., M. D., M. D. S. (Mod, Futrelle, Jacques
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: The Stranger (Everyman's Library), Albert Camus
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Pulphead: Essays, Sullivan, John Jeremiah
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Augustus: A Novel, Williams, John Edward
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot, Rebecca
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Warlock (New York Review Books Classics), Hall, Oakley
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC
1 of: Pago Pago Tango (Jungle Beat Mystery), Enright, John
Condition: New
Sold by: LLC

 I'm expecting the worst based on real-life experience but hoping for the best based on unicorns and cotton candy rainbows. We'll see what happens.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Laugh Until You Cry

Get a Kleenex, put down your milk, and visit (or re-visit) this page on the entirely indispensable Brain Pickings site:

Their post today is a sequel to this one and once you dry your cheeks and explain yourself to others in the room, tell my you don't want to troll Amazon's site and do the same thing yourself.

Thank you, Maria Popova, wherever you are. Oh, man, the banana slicer review, and the random numbers book....