Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Essay: A Western Paradigm on Book Orders

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

A lot of the books I want to read aren't stocked in local bookstores (why they're not stocked in the first place is a different essay entirely). A lot of my readers might respond with "just order it from" (or -insert your favorite online bookstore here-) but that's honestly a Western paradigm. I call it a "Western paradigm" because of two things.

First is that book ordering isn't as convenient for us in the East, unless you happen to be Japan. There are two variables that come into play here: time and price. It's time that plays a significant role. If you're a resident in the US and you order a book from an online seller, it'll arrive in a few business days. As someone living in the Philippines, ordering a book from the local bookstore takes at least a month if not more (and within that time frame, a different local bookstore might have acquired that book along with their regular stocks). And I don't think this is limited to the Philippines as I was talking to Jason Erik Lundberg who resides in Singapore and book orders there take just as long.

The other variable is price and yes, you can leverage price (i.e. pay more) to acquire titles faster. Just look at Amazon's international shipping page. If I want to avail of the priority courier services (which arrives in 2-4 business days), it's costing me an initial $30.00 and an additional $5.99 for each item. $5.99 is easily the price of a paperback book so I'm basically paying double (the expedited shipping rate isn't more generous so the rates of local bookstores are actually cheaper). Book aficionados will have techniques to hasten the time or lower the costs, such as shopping at Amazon Japan (which has an English-site feature) or coursing the shipments through Johnny Air Cargo (you can have your orders shipped to their US branch and then they'll deliver it to you in Manila with cheaper rates) but you get the basic idea.

Why is this the case? It brings me to the second part of the "Western paradigm." Well, the reality is, a lot of the books we do read come from the West, whether it's the US or Europe. That's why shipping is expensive and why bookstores have to wait for their freight shipment (and if you think that's expensive, imagine the costs of local comic shops who need to ship their stocks via plane in order to deliver weekly comics on a timely basis). And as inconvenient as all of this sounds, at least I can order Western books. Unless a Philippine-published book is already on the shelves of local bookstores, it's unlikely that the said bookstore will be to obtain it. How's that for irony? It's nearly impossible to order a Philippine book from bookstores in the Philippines! (The best recourse is to order it from the publisher directly who may or may not have an efficient payment and delivery method. It doesn't help that we're an archipelago and Manila-centric.) And how about foreign titles from countries like China, Singapore, or even Japan? Unless a US or European distributor (i.e. Ingram or Diamond) is stocking them, it's highly unlikely that my local bookstore will be able to obtain them.

In some cases, such as the scenario with independent publishers, it's probably best to order direct. Shipping may just be as expensive, but occasionally there's a bargain or two that pops up (see Cemetery Dance or Small Beer Press's current promo). But the reason I recommend shopping at the publisher's site directly is because they have larger returns when you do so (and means they can produce more books that you enjoy in the future). Some publishers, for example, are actually losing money when you avail of the Amazon Prime service. And for US residents, you might want to patronize your independent bookstores (unless, of course, they give you crappy service) and some can also order books in the same time it takes online sellers to obtain them (they're getting their stocks from the same source!).

Unfortunately for us here in Asia, I doubt if these practices will change. Book orders will still be inconvenient and expensive and why a good chunk of a publisher's international sales will depend on local bookstores initially stocking their titles. The only glimmer of hope are eBooks or a variation thereof (for me the Espresso Book Machine is a variant because the titles it can print is dependent on the books stocked in its electronic database).


kaolin fire said...

GUD does its best to have various re-shippers, based on demand--we try to keep stock in the US, Europe, and Australia. I'm pretty sure we haven't gotten any hardcopy orders from the Philippines yet, I would have to look into whether there was any time/money saving to ship from Australia...

Eric Rosenfield said...

I would say ebooks would be your best friend. That's the beauty of the Internet.

Of course, lots and lots of book still aren't available as ebooks, and a lot of the ones that are are only available with crippling DRM, so that certainly isn't a perfect solution either.

Kaz Augustin said...

Following on from Eric's comment, the big publishers also insist on putting "geographic restrictions" on ebooks as well. (Tried -- failed -- to buy Iain M Banks' "Matter" from Fictionwise only a couple of weeks ago.) Which is frustrating beyond measure. Grrrrrrrr!

But indies, people! Independent small print/ebook publishers. They tend to be a lot more reader-friendly and should be supported.

jose elvin bueno said...

hi charles,

this is a late comment but...

i believe time and price can both be wrestled in favor of book buyers if only Phil post can be trusted to do its job.

amazon and most other bookstores do their shipping through US post. and unless specified, amazon will mostly ship using the same service until it reaches philippine soil. and then it will get lost in the maze and the red tape. aside from the time wasted waiting for Philpost to give a written note, there's also the pick-up part. i still remember the indignity of receiving an amazon order from the makati post office: they make you wait, they ask for a zillion of IDs, they open carelessly the package for all the world to see only to leave a greasy thumbmark on a numbered, signed, limited hardback.

and yes i agree. it's impossible to order a philippine book from a philippine bookstore. maybe it is because most philippine bookstore are office and school supply chains selling books on the side. they would rather prioritize the replenishment of legal envelopes than place an order for a local book.

Charles said...

Unfortunately Jose, while the Philippine post does have its flaws, much of the shipping time is simply due to transport time, whether that's the US post and the transition time (by ship or by air).

Local red tape only takes a few days in my experience. If the package is small enough (i.e. an envelope), they'll ship it to your house. Otherwise, you'll have to claim it at the post office.

You only need to show your postal ID.

As for opening the package, well, they do need to check and make sure that you're not receiving something illegal.