Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A bit more on Amazon

Amazon have also succeeded in infuriating the new book trade. More here from Scotland.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

How bookselling sites are squeezing the independents

In the early days of internet bookselling, there was AbeBooks, a Canadian company launched in 1996 whose mission was to provide a platform for booksellers to reach a wider audience, whilst maintaining their individuality. You paid Abe a monthly fee for listing your books, and another fee when a book sold. AbeBooks was a success: after all, it made sense to join together with other booksellers who had different inventories to yours. You reached customers you could never reach on your own, and life looked good.

Abe launched the British version of the site in 2002, and I joined in 2003. In those days, Abe were keen for you, the bookseller, to promote yourself. You could buy Abe bookmarks on which you were encourage to print your own details; you could have your own website mentioned on the page on which the details of your book came up.

Abe carried on growing, and started to feel the pressure for ever increased profits from its shareholders. Booksellers started to feel the pinch: fees increased. Slowly, Abe changed. Listers with enormous numbers of books, many of them print on demand, started to appear on listings. Often you would have to wade through page after page of these "books" to reach a physical copy. Abe dropped its belief that booksellers should be able to promote themselves: they initiated a range of nibbles at the ability of booksellers to communicate with sellers, though after furious protest from booksellers, many of these have been quietly dropped. You can, however, no longer mention your own website: you have to use the Abe storefront to give the buyer any additional information about yourself, and it takes a determined buyer to reach that and find your telephone number.

Abe used to allow booksellers to process credit card payments themselves; but then announced it would take over all payments. This it said was to maintain security for its customers; the effect on some booksellers was profound. Some no longer had the volume necessary to make processing credit cards themselves economic. All found that Abe now took a cut of the postage, of which previously sellers received 100%. All now had increased costs: Abe processing credit cards was much more expensive than your own provider doing it.

Many booksellers had already looked at what was happening, and decided that a website of their own was the way to go. A company called Chrislands provided websites specially set up for booksellers; easy to operate and set up - a tad samey in look, but efficient and bug free. I have one myself, and it's one of the best business decisions I ever took.

Abe then bought Chrislands in April 2008. In December 2008, Amazon bought Abe. It therefore owned Abe, the next largest bookselling site to itself, Chrislands, the major provider of websites to independent booksellers, as well as other companies Abe had already aquired: Fillz, Bookfinder and 40% of Librarything.

Many booksellers were already selling on Amazon as well as Abe. Amazon's attitude to its sellers was always more draconian than Abe: it had no history of having started as a service to booksellers, and it behaved like what it was, a large corporation with a very firm eye on the bottom line.

Over the years I sold on Amazon, the contact the seller was allowed with the buyer was cut, cut, and cut. Originally when you made a sale, you would be sent an email from Amazon including the buyer's email so you could contact them. Of course, if you did this, you were free to mention your own website on your email. Amazon then stopped sending sellers buyer's email information. There were, however, various places on a seller's account this information could still be reached, but Amazon have now plugged all those routes, and all communication has to take place within a service monitored by Amazon. If you promote your own website via those messages, you are in trouble. If you send any promotional material out with the book, you are in trouble. There have been successive user agreements tightening up regulations yet further, and threatening suspension from Amazon if you transgress.

Amazon have also been obdurate about raising their postage charge. It has been £2.75 per book for years, despite the fact Royal Mail raise prices every year. It is the bookseller, of course, who absorbs these charges.

All that is, I suppose, fair enough. You are using their site to achieve your sales, and you sign a user agreement you sign one, knowing what the rules are.

Now though, as I've reported recently, Amazon have decided that you may not charge less on any other site than you charge on Amazon. So, if I sell a paperback for £2.70 including p&p, I am undercutting Amazon, and that they won't allow. Either I raise the price on my site so it equals Amazon, or I leave.

I've left.

A comment on my post stated that it was more likely that Amazon would be going after the large sellers: that might be so, but as Amazon own Abe and Chrislands it would be easy enough for them to work out who was who. There would be far more fluttering of dovecotes on the Amazon and Abe forums if a well known bookseller was removed, rather than one of the anonymous megasellers. Obedience is what Amazon want. They do monitor sales and listings for transgressions: I was chastised several times for attempting to sell The Secret of Galleybird Pit by Malcolm Saville. Amazon maintained I was attempting to sell a proof copy as my listing contained the word "galley". In the end I gave up trying to sell that title on Amazon.

It is easy to offend Amazon even if you have done nothing wrong. One bookseller was wrapped over the knuckles and threatened with suspension for supposedly mentioning another site in a book description:

...the publisher of a book I listed was (from memory) (literally and this information appeared in the book description. Amazon threatened me with suspension because I had infringed their policy which does not allow any direction off-site. I rang and had quite fierce argument with support staff who said it didn't make any difference that this was the the publisher's name and unless I removed it the crime was sufficient to have my account closed out and being permanently banned as a seller.
Will Amazon's tentacles extend into Abe and Chrislands? At the moment there is no sign of this, but I confess I'm worried in case by writing this I could be jeopardising my business. I still sell on Abe, and my own site is powered by Chrislands. Although Abe has faults, it's a much better platform for me as a seller than Amazon, and without Chrislands I would really suffer.

Amazon have more power than they ought. It's unbalancing the secondhand book trade on the internet. And once Amazon have price parity, and legions of booksellers toeing the line, will they keep their minimum book price at 1p? I don't think so.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Pony Club Annual - the last issues

I've finally finished my investigations into the Pony Club Annual. After the publication of Pony Club Book No 14 in 1963, there was something of a hiatus. The next Pony Club Annual for which I can find any details was published in 1965, and was called Pony Club Annual 1966. There was a new editor, Genevieve Murphy, then equestrian correspondent of the Observer, who remained as editor until 1983. The annual's focus shifted somewhat away from the educational model of the annual under Alan Delgado, and was more obviously aimed at children. This was most apparent in the illustrations, which were no longer the naturalistic equestrian portraits from artists like Joan Wanklyn and Sheila Rose: instead, most articles had almost cartoon like illustrations. Although the content wasn't hugely different, there was a shift of emphasis away from articles of general horsy interest to articles about the Pony Club.

In 1984, Genevieve Murphy, after 18 years as editor, was now succeeded by Toni Webber. The format of the annual changed dramatically, and it was now published by World International Publishing Company Ltd. The annual had a complete re-design, with a new font, and multiple photographs instead of just one on the cover. Inside, the change was even more radical: the album was now in full colour throughout, and seemed to be making a conscious attempt to appeal to the younger reader: the illustrations took up much more of the page, and large blocks of text were generally out. The contents weren’t changed too much, and the colour photograph was now standard, but unfortunately, some of the illustrations were very poor indeed.

A major cut in costs had obviously been made: these annuals are very badly made, and in both my copies, the pages started to detach as soon as I read them. The 1985 version took a further dive in illustration quality. An excellent article by Elwyn Hartley Edwards on Is Your Gadget Really Necessary? ends up looking like a filler in an annual of the cheapest and nastiest sort because of its truly terrible illustrations.

When you look back at the standard of illustration in the 1950s, the difference is truly goggling. Alas, the standard was nearly as bad throughout the rest of the 1985 annual.

Despite these efforts to cut costs and make the Annual profitable, I can only assume they failed. The Annual stopped publication after the 1985 edition. Toni Webber continued to write for the Pony Club, but the Annual was now defunct, and so it remained until the Pony Club’s 80th Anniversary in 2009, when a new annual was published.

This annual was issued free to all Pony Club members, and is available on the Pony Club website. It was sponsored by the Animal Health Trust, and is liberally sprinkled with advertisements. The Pony Club presumably didn’t want to get its fingers burned again, and I assume had made very sure it will not lose money on this Annual.

It has an almost total shift of emphasis away from articles of general horsy interest and stories over to page after page of Pony Club doings, interspersed with a few slightly more general articles, such as Belinda Wilkins on the three generations of her family who have experienced the Pony Club. A better name for the publication would be The Pony Club Year Book - alas, in its current format, it is of limited interest to the general horsy reader.

I wonder if it’s pushing things too far to argue that the changing annuals have reflected changing society: from the slightly paternalistic push for education in the 1950s, through to the Me, Me, Me generation now, apparently interested in reading mostly about themselves. To be fair, I think this annual isn't really intended for a wider audience: it was distributed free to every member, and any outside sales I think are just a bonus. The final thing that makes me convinced this Annual is aimed purely at its members is the font. It’s tiny, and at my advanced age I struggled to read it.

However, this is the first Annual for a very long time: who knows what the future will bring?

I've waffled on at greater length here.

A little bit more on Amazon

I've done a bit more digging since my last post, and Farmlane Books are absolutely right: this policy has already been running in America for a couple of years.

There's been no movement from Amazon, unsurprisingly. I assume they have had their lawyers make as certain as they could that what they were proposing was legal under EU legislation: the same change will also apply to Amazon in France and in Germany.

I suppose in a way I am lucky because I can manage to extract myself from Amazon and only (only!) lose 20% of my income. There are many, many booksellers who cannot possibly afford to leave Amazon and so will have to comply with this policy. Anyway, I need to take up the slack somehow, so am going back to listing books on Ebay. I stopped doing this in August last year after Ebay imposed a free postage policy on sellers in many categories, which included books. They have now decided this wasn't wise, so I shall trot back into the arms of Ebay. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Amazon put the cosh on sellers again

I sell some books on Amazon, and they've just decided that you can only sell on their site if your prices there are at, or lower than, the prices you charge elsewhere: eg ebay, or abe (which they own, for goodness' sake) or your own site (and they also own Chrislands, who provide my sales site, so goodness knows what the long term implications are there).

This is added to the fact that Amazon already hit you for 17.5% commission every time you sell a book, in addition to the hit on the postage credit - currently 49p. So yes, the buyer may think every time you pay the £2.75 that that's going to the seller, but Amazon take their cut of it. Why? They're not buying the packaging, doing the packaging or taking the postage. And you pay a monthly fee (£28.75) as well for the privilege of listing on their site.

On my site I deliberately charge less than Amazon so that I actually sell paperback books. I think my paperbacks are generally very good value compared with Amazon: the vast majority come in at less than the penny books on Amazon once you add in postage, and the difference is even better if you buy more than one book, as I have a special paperback rate.

I am fed up with having the cosh of Amazon continually wielded around my head. My paperbacks are better value than Amazon, and with me you get a specialist service; the website; the forum and the blog. You will NEVER get all of that from Amazon.

Amazon have far more power than they ought, and they're not above trying to wield it. They tried with Print on Demand books, and it was only due to the perseverance of a small American publisher pushing Amazon to court that Amazon eventually backed down. Amazon have threatened to remove the Buy Now button for publishers who won't agree to their terms.

It makes me wonder about the long term future of Abe, which Amazon own, and on which many book dealers also sell. Amazon must be aware that their new policy will have an affect on Abe as well. One of the major differences Abe allows the seller over Amazon is that you can set your own postage charge: so no £2.75 no matter how often or how much postage prices go up. So, if you sell on Abe and Amazon, you will have to either raise your prices on Amazon so they equal your Abe price, or drop your Abe price substantially.

If Ebay have even half an ounce of sense, they will currently be working out how to attract booksellers over to them. Even Ebay have at last realised that their policy of imposing free postage on sellers in an attempt to compete with Amazon was a non runner.

Well, from now on I am boycotting Amazon, and I fully expect that as this policy will not have been reversed by 31 March, when I have to adhere to it, my books will no longer be listed on Amazon. I have cleared my Amazon shopping basket, and it will stay that way. If I have to wait to get a book, I'll wait.

More on the how the corporates are squeezing the independents here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Review: Alison Lester - The Circus Horse

Alison Lester: The Circus Horse (Horse Crazy 2)
Allen & Unwin - £4.99

The image above is the American printing of the book, having had a bit of a spend recently at Book Closeouts, an American company who sell bargain books!

I've heard good reports of this series, so was keen to see what it was like, now it's being published in the UK, having been a roaring success in its native Australia. This is the second book in the Horse Crazy series about Bonnie and Sam, aimed at newly confident readers, or as a read to, from 5-7 upwards. Bonnie and Sam are, I guess, around 9 or 10, and are indeed horse mad. The Circus Horse is about Bonnie and Sam's attempt to enter the local Talent Contest. They practise and practise a circus routine on their borrowed pony Tricky, having already had a go on Bonnie's dad's Hereford bull, Pedro, who proves that cattle can buck just as well as ponies. Alas, animal acts are banned from the Talent Contest because of the problem of insurance, but all of course ends well when the girls meet Bella Donna, circus equestrienne.

The illustrations are wonderful: quirky and full of life, and completely and utterly devoid of pink. The story is just as good; it's well constructed, beautifully observed, with flashes of humour. If I had a child of the right age I'd buy this like a shot: it's a book I could have read without being tempted to edit as I went, and surreptitiously flick to the end to see how much there was to go.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The majesty that is the Fancy Dress Class

Yet more delights from Ponies of Britain magazines ....

Firstly, you have the exhibit where the humans are definitely bearing more of the load (often literally):

Could Humpty actually see? What would have happened if the soldier had dropped the lead rope and the Shetland wall had been left to his own devices? The Guatamalan family below had obviously considered the danger of being unsighted. They only came second in their group, though, losing to the Loch Ness monster below.

This is another one which must have been a challenge while you were in the class. The pony's input here was really pretty minimal, though it looks as if he has a definite opinion on what the humans are doing.

A saintly pony: putting up with those glasses, but that was as nothing compared with

this amazing creation. The Ponies of Britain Magazine calls it "a little masterpiece of production", and it is. What a saintly pony that is, with not only two pairs of trousers, but a trunk as well. I wonder if he caused the same ructions in the competitors that the mammoth of earlier years did.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

World Book Day

Well, not quite - that was apparently March 4th. The Times today have a voucher for World Book Day, which you can use to buy a book for yourself, and another to give away. To support this, they have a feature in which they've asked various of the great and good what book they'd buy, and what they'd give away.

I always have a brimming list of books I'd like to buy, but top at the moment is Horses and Soldiers: a Collection of Pictures Painted by the late Gilbert Holiday, edited by Lyndon Holden, and published privately by Gale & Polden of Aldershot in 1938. Sporting artist Gilbert Holiday died at the age of 58, having spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair after a hunting accident. His works are not as readily accessible as those of his contemporaries, such as Lionel Edwards: he illustrated relatively few books and many of his works were commissioned by the military. Neither did he issue many prints. As I don't have a copy of the great work, I can't actually illustrate this section with a picture of it, but here is a copy of something I do have, Moyra Charlton's Three White Stockings.

Gilbert Holiday was supreme at depicting the horse in motion: below is an plate from Moyra Charlton's Three White Stockings, one of the two books he illustrated for her.

Three White Stockings (Putnam 1933) and The Midnight Steeplechase (Putnam 1932) are the easiest ways to get hold of Gilbert Holiday's work: both are readily available.

As to what book I'd like to give, I have I suppose to do that rare thing and write about a book which is actually in print. I'd give Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I found entirely engrossing. It points up the fact that history is, to some extent, a matter of how you interpret it. Whilst the facts of what Thomas Cromwell did are (in general) not in question, his motivation of course is. Having grown up with the belief, strongly shoved along by Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons,that Thomas More was all things good, I enjoyed reading Mantel's shading of his personality into something altogether more complex, and Cromwell's into something much warmer than the clever efficiency I have always admired.

If Wolf Hall had sold out, I'd go for Francis Palgrave's Golden Treasury: I usually have a book of poetry on the go: being a lark, I fall asleep early and fast and often the only thing I can manage to read (and I can't go to sleep before I've read something) is a poem. Palgrave's Golden Treasury was the first anthology of poems I read, as it was our standard school poetry textbook. I still think the book is a wonderful introduction to poetry, and was delighted to find out it is actually still in print. It has been added to over the years, and now features a post war section.

Pony Club Annuals

I've recently been studying my fine collection of early Pony Club Annuals, and what a treasure trove they've been.

When I was young, my mother bought me a magazine every week which was full of information - historical pieces, scientific pieces, and the thing I remember best, and which I looked forward to most: "This week's beautiful picture". Despite long discussions, neither Mum not I can remember what the magazine was actually called. I'm fairly certain it wasn't Look and Learn, but it could well have been The World of Wonder. That title set off a little bit of a cringe at its worthiness, and I do remember being embarrassed about admitting what I read at the time, so I wonder if that means it's it? Just not sure. I think I might have to scour Ebay and see if I can buy a copy, and will then have to reassure OH that no, this is not going to be another field of study; it's just to see if that's what it was, and no I am not going to fill the house with yet more runs of ancient magazines. No, really.

Anyway, it's the didacticism of those magazines; that urge to teach and inspire that was there in the first Pony Club Annual. I don't think that's a bad thing: I find these articles, from the picture feature on Riding Habits of a Hundred Years Ago, to The Spanish Riding School at Vienna, via John Cowper and The Diverting History of John Gilpin, fascinating. I think it's great that the Pony Club Annual didn't take a riding and pony care is all we do view, but tried to show its readers the whole scope of the horsy world: how the horse affected history; how we have affected the horse; its portrayal through the centuries and so on.

The early Pony Club Annuals really were things of beauty: the best of the current crop of equine illustrators were commissioned to decorate them. The first annual alone had contributions from Michael Lyne, Joan Wanklyn, Cecil G Trew, Sheila Rose, Peter Biegel, Maurice Tulloch and Marcia Lane Foster.

I just can't see a similar mixture succeeding now, alas. I can't answer for Pony Magazine today, but the general range of girl's magazines available now makes me cringe: daughter was not allowed when she was younger any of the be-your-own-Princess titles, despite her (completely truthful) claims that all her friends had them. Just couldn't do it. It's for the same reason that I disliked the Katie Price pony books and their focus on their protagonists' looks so much: yes, that's going to come. They're going to be obsessed about their looks, but please, spare them for as long as possible.

I bought her Aquila, in the hope that she might be inspired to love facts and finding out stuff as much as her mother. She enjoyed the magazine, but it has of course been superseded by teen magazines. I knew that was going to come, but I think Aquila helped me fight a valiant rearguard action until an in depth feature on what mascara was best did actually become the focus of her world, at least temporarily.

I've written more on Pony Club Annuals in their early years here.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


Usually I am a cheery composite of cheeriness, skipping round like Fotherington Thomas - hello trees, hello sky; Pollyanna-like in my determination to see the bright side, but frankly I'm struggling to see the merry side of washing sick off every article of bed clothing my daughter possesses. The winter vomiting virus is alive and well, and living in my house. It was living in me, but now I'm better, in time to nurse daughter. This, and the virus I had before I had the wvv, is why I've been quiet on the blog, and this post will be short as I have to go off and buy new vatloads of disinfectant. Daughter is being force fed Radio 4 (do wonder what she thinks of Patti Smith's early life) as the only spare bed is in my office and even for sick kids I do not do Radio Pop. Thankfully she has now finished being sick.

Hah. Oh no she hasn't. That caught us both by surprise. Wonder, as I rub poor daughter's back until spasm has passed at just how you prioritise all this. Daughter comes first, though can't send her to bath (infinitely easier to disinfect) to clean up as that is booked by her duvet, soaked and waiting its turn in the machine, so decant her into shower, rescue previous pyjamas, thankfully now dry - thank God for the Aga - sort her out and turn to the bed, which has well and truly bitten the dust. Daughter now moved to sofa, and pray, PRAY that when she is next sick she either makes it to the loo or the bucket. Sermon in church on Sunday said praying for stuff like parking spaces was OK, so think praying for daughter not to miss the bucket and get better soon will definitely pass muster. I hope. Also thank God that books do not live in my study, as prospect of infectious stock not good.