Friday, June 01, 2012

Amazon vs. The World

In the 90s I worked at a small independent bookstore. The bulk of our business was special orders, and the casual off-the-street customer would probably have been gobsmacked by the degree of HR we committed to that particular task. In hindsight, I certainly am. A single, off-beat order to a small publisher often required a series of phone calls (international long-distance, of course), and creative methods of payment before we finally procured the desired item, or were told it was out-of-print.

And that was just the small presses. The large conglomerates could be worse, giving conflicting messages on order status, and equipping their customer service agents with varying degrees of tactical evasion skills.

Then around 1995 or so our most devoted customers started showing up with screen-capture printouts that wreaked serious havoc on our time. Some dot-com startup was basically posting the entirety of American Books In Print -- and, worse still, British Books In Print -- and claiming that titles were "available" which we knew from bitter experience were anything but. The customer is always right, of course, so ... back to the phones we went, to commit a few more HR hours confirming what we'd already been told two years earlier.

That dot-com was Amazon, of course, and we followed its progress -- and its many, many false-starts (does anyone recall all those "Amazon Losses" headlines? We had a few years of them, enough to reassure me that Amazon was bound to tank) -- with keen interest.

These days, of course, Bezos & Co. are chortling all the way to the bank, and beyond. The Nation is running a series of articles exploring how far Amazon's reach extends, and some corners where it doesn't. Here is a good place to start.

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