Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

August 26, 2010

Distribution, Technology & Small Bookstores

I’m going to surface for a few moments here, take a few gasps of air before I dive back down under the apparently infinite shipments of books currently flooding into my bookstore. Though my brains have been near-fried by fatigue and repetition, my outrage gland is apparently unharmed. I’ve let bile build up there long enough, and I’m looking at you, distributors. I’ve had just about enough of your shenanigans.

I am not a machine. It’s true that I work like a machine, and I have a encyclopedic knowledge of my product that rivals at least some databases. I can do some pretty impressive mental math too, but the analogy pretty much runs out there. I am a mere, fallible human being who works with other human beings, interfacing only with human customers who, anachronistically, enter the store and speak with us to obtain the books they want. We do, yes, have a computer in the store. For nearly four years now, it even provides us with internet access. But we do not run industry-specific software and we don’t have an electronic inventory system. We don’t “scan” books (unless we’re trying to read them very quickly) and when we “look things up”, we’re doing so in reference books. Nevertheless we’re a vibrant, healthy and extremely viable independent bookstore.

So look, I get that maybe you need to use all of these things – databases, scanners, computers and Cylons – to run your business, but something is going on here that goes beyond mechanization of tasks. Technology has to interface with people somewhere along the chain. It is meant to serve us, after all, it ought to be decipherable. But we’ve grown lazy, or maybe we’ve lost some skills, and it seems to me that increasingly, technology does not interface with real humans anywhere along the line. The system is made, instead, to interface with other machines. This is highly irritating if one happens to be a human.

Let me be specific. I received an order the other day – a smallish one – of about 60 boxes, 1300 lbs. This order contained between 20-300 copies each of a few dozen titles. Now, a human would expect if one had ordered 20 copies of, say, Don Quixote, that they might be found in one box, stacked together.  Maybe two boxes if they fit more nicely that way.  A human does not expect that the quantity would be split up over six boxes, interwoven with dozens of other titles similarly dispersed.  In order to find a complete quantity, the human has to open nearly all of the 60 boxes uncovering one copy here, two copies there, all the time sorting the books into dozens of incomplete piles.

How does this even happen?  The only explanation I can come up with is that the books are spread haphazardly over a conveyor belt which winds its way around the warehouse.  Specially trained packing monkeys grab books they recognize as they rattle by.  I’m sure this is no problem at all if the bookstore is scanning each book as it comes out of the box.  A computer keeps track of quantities as they arrive, yup, fifteen down, only eighty-five more to locate of title 4 of 109.  If it shows up tomorrow, in another shipment, no biggie.  The inventory system has got your back.

The human, simple being that I am, is angry and frustrated.  We didn’t need an inventory system until the books started being packed by monkeys and itemized by an inventory system on the other end!  I fail to see whose job got easier: instead we’re both saddled with expensive (and fallible) infrastructure to encode and decode needlessly.

Another example. Much like the bank or the cable company, the publisher and distributor is now a slave to “the system”. I’m sure you’ve heard this one: “I’m sorry ma’am, the system won’t let me override the hold on your cheque.” “I’m sorry sir, the system bills you for the whole billing cycle even if the service was cancelled a day in. The system will credit you next month.”

We order thousands of trade titles into our trade bookstore this time of year, every year. This year, an unscrupulous sales rep sold one of our professors on the idea of a “pack” instead of individual books – several trade books packaged together for meager savings to the student. The ISBN generated for said “pack” came from the college division. Suddenly the books – the same trade books we carry every year – have become college books, with a college discount. Saving to the student? $4.85. Cost to the bookstore? $3000. Outraged, we call the publisher to ask what on earth they were thinking. “Sorry,” we were told, “The system gives short discount on college books.” But we could just return these packages and reorder the books separately and save the money, we cry. To fill the second order, they’ll probably actually have to unwrap those stupid packages. Why not just give us the trade discount and save everyone some trouble? “The system.”

I’ll addend to these two issues my ongoing complaint that Indigo/Amazon has trained customers to think like machines too. “I need a book. Can I give you the ISBN?” No, you can not give me the ISBN. How about a title? Author? You’d cry if you knew just how many of these customers don’t have the title and author. They didn’t write it down, see. They just took the ISBN. And if that ISBN is old, out of print, or doesn’t have Canadian rights? Too bad. If we were Chapters, I suppose we’d just tell you we don’t have the book and move on. Silly humans that we are, we go to the trouble of sussing out what you’re actually looking for. And how much easier that would be if we weren’t all expected to be machines.

I wonder if, as in agriculture, smaller bookstores are starting to suffer under this pressure to mechanize. I know booksellers are supposed to “get with the times”, but thus far I’ve heard this in the context of selling online, competing with ebooks, and providing services in addition to just selling books. But that’s the difference between telling a farmer he has to open a petting zoo and telling him he has to buy a $1.5 million dollar thresher. You don’t need the petting zoo to grow carrots. You don’t need a cafe to sell books. And the thresher?