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Why I'm In Bed With Amazon.com

©1999 John Tynes



As you may have noticed, I've set up a new area here at Revland--the Store, where you can browse & purchase from a selection of books, CDs, and movies that I want to recommend. The "purchase" part of that concept is executed by Amazon.com, the online bookstore/retailer, through an insidious little program of theirs called Associates. Essentially, if you put a link to a product they sell on your web site, and someone buys that product by clicking your link and going to Amazon for the purchase, Amazon pays you a commission. This commission is typically 5%, though it can be 15% if the product is a book from a major publisher that they discount.

I didn't set up the Store to make money. I'll be surprised (though pleased) if anyone buys a darn thing because they saw it in the Store. But I thought it would be an interesting exercise regardless, for several reasons.

First, I didn't have an area on Revland where I could recommend the works of creators I respect. I've done a couple of book reviews in Malfeasance Season many a moon ago, but that's not really the point of that exercise. Setting up the Store gives me a platform from which to point out good stuff. If you're visiting Revland, it's probably because you like my work for some reason. And if you like my work, there's a non-zero chance that you might like work that I like. So, the Store lets me point such works out. And as long as I'm plugging them, I might as well make use of the web's nature and provide an easy way for someone reading the recommendation to look up more information on the item and maybe even buy the darn thing. And as long as I'm doing that, I might as well at least make it possible that the time I put into the Store might be repaid in a way that will put soup on the stove, remote prospect though that may be.

Second, I really like Amazon. In point of fact, Revland was in bed with Amazon in the first month of its existence. When I set up Revland--well, I can't recall if I actually called it Revland back then--in the summer of 1995, Amazon was brand-new, too. At that early stage in Revland's life, I had a links page, like everybody else on the web. There was a link to my favorite band, Negativland; to my then-favorite computer game, DOOM II for the Mac; and to this funky online bookstore called Amazon.com that I thought was the cat's meow. At a time when you could swing a dead cat on television, in a magazine, or in public spaces, and not hit a single URL, Jeff Bezos saw the future of e-commerce and was in tune with the power of computing enough that he knew just how to realize it. If you were goofing off on the net in the summer of 1995, Amazon.com was like a strange visitor from another planet, and it came bearing gifts. A few years later, Amazon continues to evolve, revealing strengths and flaws alike. I think they're a pretty fascinating company, enough so that I own a chunk of stock in them. (Full disclosure, there.) So I have no problem endorsing/promoting them on Revland, 'cuz I was doing just that right from Revland's birth.

Third, I think this is the way a lot of e-shopping/surfing is going to happen in the future--through referrals. How many terrific books, movies, or bands have you encountered and enjoyed because someone whose opinion you trusted suggested that you give them a look? But even among our circles of acquaintances, there's no guarantee that you're going to encounter the stuff you deserve to. You and your friends may already have covered that ground and are low on suggestions, or perhaps the people you spend time with simply have different tastes in some crucial area. "Intelligent agents" and the like on the internet are nowhere near advanced enough, as any list of "You might also like this crap..." on an e-shopping site will demonstrate. Reviewers in the media often have either limited opportunities for advice or are too broad-based to uncover the gems you ought to find. You don't need someone to tell you about the latest John Grisham potboiler; you need someone to tell you about that thing you've never heard of and never will without their help. I think having something like my Store might be a good idea for a lot of personal sites, because we all have our special areas of interest and enthusiasm, and finding a way to share them is fun for everyone and benefits the creators whose works we recommend.

Fourth, I think real-world bookstores are overrated. Here's where I'm going to get in trouble. See, a lot of literati/book-lover types get all misty over Ye Olde Bookstores, all of which were apparently staffed by English Ph.D.'s with tastes you respected and who devoted their every waking moment to ensuring that they could provide you with the best, most insightful advice as to the world of books. These literati turn sort of snuggly at the memory of Their Favorite Bookstore, and this Meg-Ryan-in-wool-socks sort of sappy haze descends over any semblance of reason. Soon they're beating drums for the lot of small, scrappy bookstores fighting off the big chains, because those small, scrappy bookstores were always better and they didn't stock five hundred copies of the aforementioned John Grisham potboiler. You know what I'm talking about?

Well, I call bullshit on that. I live in Seattle, reputed to be a book-lover's paradise. (Portland's got us beat, actually.) I look for three things in a bookstore: a deep selection within topics I'm interested in; comfortable places to read and the ability to do so without buying anything; and good author appearances because that can be really special. You know what? There's not a single damn bookstore in book-lovin' Seattle that accomplishes all three of these things. Elliot Bay Books has the deepest selection, Barnes & Noble lets you read all day, and the University Bookstore brings in the best selection of authors.

(A digression about places to read: Elliot Bay has a nice cafe, but you can't go there with stuff you haven't bought, and the University Bookstore doesn't even know what a chair looks like. Barnes & Noble does, and there's lots of them and they're cushy, too. I go to Barnes & Noble once or twice every darn week to sit and read magazines that I would never, ever buy or subscribe to. I read 'em, I put 'em back on the stands, and I leave. Hah! But you know what? If I've been meaning to buy a book anyway, there I am in Barnes & Noble--might as well pick it up while I'm there to read their dumb magazines. It's good business sense to let people read in your bookstore. Yeah, I know it's not a library; but there isn't a library worth a damn where I live. Besides--putting my disgruntled publisher hat on--those magazines and books are returnable, anyway, so it's not like they really care if someone gets sticky chocolate all over Entertainment Weekly if it gets them in the store on a regular basis.)

Then there's this notion that your small, funky bookstore will be better able to help you find a good book, or have any useful advice at all. Please. Except for the owner/manager, those people are making six bucks an hour to run a cash register. Why would you expect them to know about the thousands of titles they carry?

I worked in a funky little books/comics/records store once, a real Ye Olde kinda place, and if you happened to ask one of us about the narrow little range of things we were excited about, we could quote you chapter and verse. But odds were that we didn't know what you were talking about and if we did, we'd probably mock you behind your back for being such a philistine.

If you're a customer or a manager, you have no right to expect the underpaid staff to be English majors, or the equivalent thereof. When I was in college, I worked for the campus computer labs. They required us to know both the operating system and the major programs for Macintosh, DOS, and Unix. We're talking a degree of knowledge and ability that big companies pay through the nose for. And they paid us six lousy bucks an hour. The school bookstore cashiers made more money than we did--seven bucks--and I can't imagine that they had to know anything besides how to push register buttons.

Now when I first started at that funky little store, I was hot to help people and give advice and so on. But once you work retail for a while, it pretty much crushes your soul. Your bosses may be nice, but there's no career track in funky little places like that. You may have great taste and be helpful, but you're still not going to be making a real living wage there. There's no real incentive to be knowledgable except for your own naivete and pride in your taste, and that wears off quick. I think it's unfair to have those expectations about poor working stiffs, and it ticks me off when I hear some sap ranting about how much better the service is at the little store than at the soulless corp-o-rama. It's only better because that helpful staffer will be gone in six months from soul-crushing burnout, on to another dead-end job in the service sector, and another helpful staffer who mistakenly thinks it's cool to work at a cool store, who is deluded into thinking that their approach to this job really matters one whit, will step in to take their place. It's just a damn job, and a piss-poor one at that.

Boutique bookstore managers, even the nice ones, are still slave drivers. It's not their fault; that's the tiered economic structure we're stuck with. But the mythical obligation of knowledgeable, tasteful service at minimum wage is an oppressive, elitist one, and I wish it would die. I expect a bookstore worker to know where the different categories are located, to make change from a twenty, and to handle special orders. Anything more substantial and you're perpetuating the myth.

Elliot Bay is a great bookstore with a great selection. But why should I think some random person behind a counter might have tastes that will help me in my quest for a good book? There's a lot of freakin' books out there. Just because you work at a classy bookstore with good inventory doesn't mean that your favorite authors wouldn't get into a drunken brawl with my favorite authors at an ABA party.

Besides, I hate talking to salespeople. My goal when I'm shopping is zero salesperson interaction. I like to find things by myself, without some naked mole rat quivering at my elbow.

(Hmm. You know, I've been whacking away at this little essay for an hour or so now, and while my overall goal is still to explain what's up with this Revland Store business, the preceding paragraphs should make it clear that my unconscious agenda was to rant about something that's been stuck in my craw for a while, only I hadn't really taken it out of said craw and given it a hard look. You never know where an essay is going to lead, you know? I didn't realize that I had such strong opinions on the subject of bookstores until I started writing this, and I certainly didn't intend to veer wildly into a polemic. Yeah, that's Revland for you. Bait-and-switch city.)

To wrap up this rant, I believe Amazon.com makes sense for books and similar products. Why print far, far too many copies of a bunch of books and ship them all over the country--racking up huge infrastructure charges, contributing to forest depletion, and filling our highways with doped-up truckers--when you could print an appropriate amount, store them centrally, and send them out when there's a customer for them? (Or ideally, print them on demand--but that's a technology still in its infancy.) The people who complain about "book wallpaper" at the big chain stores--how the local Barnes & Noble has hundreds of John Grishams and three Sherman Alexies--should shop at Amazon. It's the most efficient, least wasteful method of book sales currently available to the general public. (You geeks with your e-books, back off! You're ahead of the curve.)

And given that Amazon's approach is so sensible and so much less wasteful than traditional bookstores, the one question remaining is how do you recreate the browsing experience? Without rows of books to walk through and ponder, how do you find new stuff, or related stuff? The answer is you go to a specialist--your buddy Dennis who's up on the history of the atom bomb, or Heather who likes Chinese folk tales. And when you run out of specialists in your social circle, there's people in the extended social circle of the net.

Hence, the new Revland Store. (That was worth reading 2,300 words, wasn't it?)


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