05 August 2009

Books v. Superman

When I left work just over fifteen months ago I had carefully drawn up a budget to get me through eighteen months without having to think about finding a new source of income. This monthly budget included such trivialities as the mortgage, electricity, cable and food (not necessarily in that order), and essentials such as books. Thanks to the global recession my mortgage has actually dropped substantially over the last few months allowing me to spend a few weeks on the road without having to choose upon my return between eating in the dark or listening to the sound of my empty belly while reading at night. The option to cut back on my monthly book allowance never even enters the picture.

However as October approaches, the symbolic end of what I will come to call my "sitting on my backside" period, and I begin slowly to add up the total costs of my proposed new revenue generating venture (which, for the time being, we will simply call "Project Behemoth"), I have started to consider ways in which I could stretch my book budget to either a) encompass more books for the same price, or, and I know this will sound a bit radical, b) spend less on the same amount of books. Again, you will note the complete lack of an option c) buy less books, that's just crazy talk.*

With option b) firmly in mind I spent a bit of time this morning figuring out how to stretch my budget a bit further. I normally buy books in one of two places, on Amazon or in Hodges Figgis, the main bookseller in Dublin. I of course also frequent Books Upstairs, the Winding Stair, Cultivate in Temple Bar and the large second hand section of Chapters, but Hodges Figgis is my primary shop for mass market and recent publications, namely because of its loyalty card scheme that gives you €10 off for every €80 sent. Nowhere in Ireland seems to stock the majority of the specialized political, left-wing economic and ecological books that have been my mainstay recently, and thus I end up turning to Amazon with some frequency not to buy from them directly, rather to buy from resellers operating through Amazon's marketplace program.

This morning I took some time to look at the real cost of shopping through Amazon, and found out a few interesting things. I wanted to buy 'A Thousand Plateaus' by Guattari and Deleuze, not currently available in any Dublin bookshop. Amazon sell it directly for £14.24 + shipping, and it was also available new through the marketplace program from prices ranging from £10.81 through to £32.61, all for the same edition, from nineteen individual resellers. The Book Depository, a UK online bookshop, had the lowest price listed, £10.81 excluding shipping, and also sold it directly on their own website, outside of the Amazon marketplace program, where (detecting an Irish IP adress) it displayed a price in euro for me of €16.03. However The Book Depository offer free worldwide shipping through their own site and this is where the real cost of online purchasing becomes evident:
Amazon.co.uk: £14.24 + £4.98 delivery to Ireland (total €23.47)
Book Depository on Amazon: £10.81 + £3.94 delivery (total €18.01)
bookdepository.co.uk: €16.03 + free delivery to Ireland (total €16.03)
So interestingly while the same book appears cheaper to buy from The Book Depository via Amazon, its only when you are about to complete your order in the checkout and the shipping to Ireland is actually shown that you realise what a difference the free shipping from The Book Depository's own site makes.

To list products on Amazon retailers have to pay a monthly subscription, plus a commission per sale to Amazon, which for books works out at 15% ex vat of the sale price and £0.54 for shipping to Ireland. Thus on the £10.81 Amazon listed price The Book Depository pays Amazon £1.62, and £.54 of the £3.94 shipping also goes back to Amazon. So if they still manage to make a profit on a price of £9.16 on a sale through Amazon, it is interesting to speculate on the margins of the £13.57 direct purchase, even when the cost to them of absorbing the shipping cost is factored in.

In this light Amazon's own shipping cost of £4.98 to Ireland, on top of their full £14.24 price for the book, really starts to look outrageous. Ebay sellers have known for years to inflate the listed cost of shipping to increase their profit margin, although they might only make a few cents per purchase this way, the Superman III salami slicing effect starts to add up after a while. It looks like Jeff Bezos is also a big fan of Superman.

So the lesson for today is never judge a book by its cover price, or if you are a bookseller, perhaps 'A rising shipping lifts all titles'.


And before anyone suggests that even €16.03 is too high a price to pay for a book, in 1946 George Orwell wrote a short essay on the true cost of book buying, working out mathematically that while he did spend a lot on books, he spent less per year than the average man did on cigarettes. He finishes 'Books v. cigarettes' by lamenting the small amount of money the average person spends on reading:
"...it is not a proud record for a country which is nearly 100 per cent literate and where the ordinary man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood. And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive"

* To confuse things somewhat further, Project Behemoth will, if successful, actually introduce an option d) into the mix. And that's all I have to say about that for a while.

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