Monday, October 30, 2006

Amazing Amazon

If I had my druthers, as they would say in rural America, I would much prefer to buy my books whilst rummaging around the dusty shelves of second-hand emporiums. Not that it’s often much good if you’re searching for a specific item but it’s a lot of fun. My father got me into the habit when I was young, and he had an interesting philosophy when borrowing books from the public library. In those days, you were allowed to take out four books. He would select two that he wanted to read – and two, totally at random. As he said, you never knew what you might learn. It struck me as being a pretty good ploy and I’ve applied it ever since, even when buying. As I have always felt that there was some law relating to not leaving a bookstore empty handed, this has salved my conscience on many an occasion. Unfortunately, where I live there’s a serious shortage of such establishments, reading not being high on the list of priorities in this agrarian community.

The solution is, of course, the internet. And E-Bay is a valuable resource, although I don’t think that scrolling through their pages is a patch on browsing in a second-hand store.

But when it comes to locating specific books, Amazon and their fellows are hard to beat.

However it seems that even they have, if not feet of clay, at least a suspect little toe. For the other day, an author was surprised to see a book of his listed there. His surprise was compounded by the fact that, not only had he not written it, but that, as far as he was aware, neither had anyone else. And intriguingly, it even had an Amazon sales ranking. He seemed to be more amused than upset, and some wag suggested that signed copies of the first edition would do well on E-Bay!

No doubt most of us were under the impression that Amazon, on receiving a copy of a book for listing, would hand it to the most junior staff bibliophile for his approval. He in turn would pass it up the chain of command until it reached the senior most man, holding the title of Royal Approver of Books for the Inclusion on Amazon Listing. Surely he would be a man with an immensely domed forehead, wispy greying hair and with pince-nez balanced on the end of his nose. Having weighed the volume in his mind, checked the page count and, not finding it wanting, he would apply the Holy Seal of Amazon Approval to the flyleaf and pass the matter back down the line to the Putter Upper of Items on the Website chappy.

Well, apparently it doesn’t happen that way. Some nerdy guy in the computer department snatches bits of trivia out of cyberspace and, no doubt a frustrated author himself (or it may be a her, who knows?) decides to exercise his artistic talent and create a phantom book.

Whilst I was chuckling over the story, it suddenly occurred to me that something similar had happened to myself. A few years ago, I wrote a little book designed as a freebie for potential clients. Out of force of habit, we allocated it an ISBN number and had a few copies run off. On reflection, as it was to be given away, we decided not to publish it but to issue it as a free download from my website.

Much to my surprise, it suddenly appeared on an Amazon listing, devoid of a good many details, which was just as well, as Amazon would have had a tough time fulfilling any orders.

It’s a bit like wandering past your local estate agent and finding that, unbeknown to you, they’re listing your house.

Presumably Amazon must have twigged that they were a little premature for the listing eventually disappeared.

A recent minor embarrassment was when they discovered that some of the effusive blurbs for books were authored by who else? Their authors! And it also worked for me in a reverse sense.

Early this year, a book of mine was published exposing a major offshore investment fraud. There was a chorus of boos from those who had already made money from the scheme and also from those who hoped to make some in the future. An orchestrated attempt was made to discredit myself and the book, the most dramatic being a suggestion, on a public internet forum, that a hit man should be despatched to take care of me. Apart from being a trifle illegal, it would have been self-defeating. My demise would have done wonders for sales, I suspect.

A more reasoned suggestion was that one star reviews should be submitted to Amazon to inhibit the sale of the book. A number did so. But Amazon quickly spotted that the “reviewers” did not match up to the listed purchasers and thus nixed most of the reviews. It has sold quite well.

On this basis, I would be tempted to ignore such reviews, unless, of course, it’s one I’ve written myself!

In spite of this, I am a great supporter of Amazon, although I do wish they’d stuck to selling only books. It seems they have branched out into all sorts of exotic hardware and gadgets plus music CD’s of artists that I’ve never heard of.

Amongst other items, they keep trying to sell me a thing called an iPod. If I knew what it was I suppose it would help. but I don’t. And I was never any good with wind instruments so I'll never learn how to play it.

And then again, perhaps it’s just like those books, a figment of their imagination.


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