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.