The key to Amazon.com becoming the leading Internet retailer was not books. It was the way that Amazon packaged books for shipping.
I remember that when I heard about Amazon as an online bookstore, I was skeptical mostly because of packaging. As a writer and reviewer, I had already received hundreds of books by mail, sent from publishing companies who, presumably, knew how to ship books.
But they didn't. Almost all the books were put in padded envelopes or heavy paper envelopes. Many books from Europe were put in very flimsy envelopes. Rarely did any of these packages arrive without serious damage, usually a torn-open envelope.
Worse yet, the padded envelopes were often filled with that hideous cardboard fluff that would spread everywhere and, like glitter, could not be gotten rid of. And even on the few occasions where the envelope did not rip open, the books inside were often bent, spine-broken, or had pages accordioned into an unreadable mass.
That's because more than one book in an envelope, unless they're tied together firmly, are going to beat each other up in transit. What's inside the package causes more damage to the rest of the contents than any ill treatment from the outside.
But Amazon knew from early on that what books need is (a) edge protection and (b) firm attachment. They do not need padding, they need structure. So Amazon plastic-wrapped the books to a cardboard base, then put them in a sturdy cardboard box.
Single books had cardboard boxes that held them firmly in place, yet extended well beyond the edges and corners of the book to keep it from getting jammed, rammed, bent, or accordioned.
Speed of service mattered, of course, and so did depth and breadth of inventory. It was important for Amazon's success that ordering a book from them could easily bring it to your door within twenty-four hours, if you paid for premium delivery. But it was vital that it arrive in new condition.
And Amazon still packages books pretty well. We've had a few missteps over the years, but by and large, they know how to ship books.
Alas, now that Amazon has evolved into a department store with a great book department, "fulfilment by Amazon" does not mean that everything you order will be as well-packaged for shipping as the books.
For instance, ever since local stores stopped carrying the Country Life Omega Mood fish oil capsules that I take under doctor's orders, I've been ordering them from Amazon.
Amazon relies on their "partner" retailers for products like dietary supplements, and I've learned that nobody seems to know how to package multiple bottles.
When I ordered one bottle of my fish oil capsules at a time, I never had a bottle arrive damaged.
But when I ordered from an Amazon-linked pharmacy that offered a two-bottle package, I assumed that they must know how to package two fragile items within the same parcel. I was wrong.
They needed separate bubble wrap to keep them from breaking each other in transit. Instead, they were bubble-wrapped together, so that one bottle would impact the other with every jolt.
In fine darwinian fashion, the fittest bottle survived. The other arrived in fragments inside its little box; since it broke first, it no longer had the ability to damage its mate.
Ordering the bottles one at a time was the only solution I could think of to solve the problem of ignorant packaging.
It isn't just Amazon-related companies that make such mistakes. I once ordered a couple of porcelains from an art gallery and they, two, were packaged together and destroyed each other in transit.
Let's face it, shipping is full of risks, and anybody who's working as a packager has to be trained to know how to prepare different kinds of items to make it safely to their destinations. An art gallery once shipped me a framed original piece of art so loosely confined to its crate that the frame had room to pull away from the painting, whereupon the frame's hardware cut a deep gouge in the canvas. Apparently their shippers needed more training.
When UPS bought Mail Boxes Etc., one of the things they acquired was years of experience in packaging. I've watched the folks at many different UPS Stores wrap, cushion, affix, shrink-wrap, and whatever else the items needed -- and I can't remember anything being damaged in transit when the UPS Store (nee Mail Boxes Etc.) boxed it up for me.
But it was precisely because Mail Boxes Etc. had become rebranded as FedEx's biggest competitor, UPS, that FedEx refused to allow the UPS Stores to ship via Federal Express. This cut into their overall revenues, so ... FedEx acquired Kinko's and then made every Kinko's also become a packaging and shipping store.
Voila! FedEx/Kinko's stores were now competing directly with UPS Stores. Kinko's had way more experience at making large numbers of copies, so they win that part of the competition without a worry.
However, the Kinko's employees knew nothing about packaging, and cared even less than that. Boxing things up was just a weird new sideline that distracted them from the print jobs that they took pride in.
I learned immediately that I walked into any FedEx/Kinko's knowing more about packaging than any of the store's employees. Some got quite testy about my micromanaging, but how could I not take over when it was clear that not a single brain cell of any FedEx/Kinko's employee had been used for storing information or skills involved in packaging?
Weirdly enough, the situation has not changed. Everybody is better at packaging than the Kinko's people. We still rely on them for print jobs, because they're very good at it and take pride in their work. But packaging? Not so much.
Sometimes, though, when I'm traveling, FedEx/Kinko's is the only pack-and-ship store that's open late at night or early in the morning so I can have something packed and shipped before I have to leave for the airport. So I get to check up on FedEx/Kinko's progress now and then.
Now let's come back to Amazon.com. They got the excellent idea of offering subscriptions on non-print items that customers use repeatedly. They offer somewhat lower prices, but what attracted me was the idea of being able to order items that would simply show up at my door, month after month, without my having to remember to go to the store and buy them.
At first, the Amazon Subscribe & Save program didn't carry any products I wanted once, let alone month after month. But gradually their menu of available products grew until it included a few things that I actually want and need regularly.
That's because they've learned that it isn't the "Save" part of "Subscribe & Save" that will drive their business. Offering the lowest-price products for even lower prices will only appeal to one segment of the consuming public. I wasn't going to buy second-rate products just because they were especially cheap. If something has zero value to me, than any price is too high.
I intended to keep buying the brands I prefer, and so I would only subscribe with Amazon if they offered exactly the products I wanted.
About a year ago, they started offering them. It's still a very time-consuming job to shop their huge list of random Subscribe & Save products -- they really need to do a better job of indexing, because I don't have time to scroll through twenty screens for each product.
Naturally, the companies that first leapt at the chance to be part of the program were the ones that didn't have many customers in the first place. It was no surprise I'd never heard of them or their products.
Amazon's lower prices do not come from Amazon forgoing any of their profit margin. This is Amazon. They balance their books on the backs of their suppliers. That's why Amazon went to war with publishers who wouldn't bow to their unsustainable price on Kindle books -- at the wholesale price they insisted on, the publishers could not make enough to fund the value they add to the product, and authors would take a steep pay cut in their royalties -- but Amazon, which created nothing, would make money on every book.
(Now that Amazon has bought Audible.com, the same things is happening with audiobooks -- prices are kept so low that the finest producers of audiobooks are going broke, so the only suppliers who can make money are narrators who act as their own directors, editors, and audio engineers.
(This doesn't work well, but Amazon doesn't care, because they make money regardless of the quality of the product. [Shockingly, the Screen Actors Guild went along with Amazon's policy of letting narrators be their own engineers, thus cooperating in the destruction of union jobs.])
So I'm assuming, given Amazon's normal policies, that the manufacturers whose products are included in Subscribe & Save are supplying Amazon at a cost way below the normal wholesale price. Even if they aren't losing money on everything Amazon sells, they're certainly not making as much as Amazon is.
Yet more and more manufacturers seem to be accepting Amazon's terms ... and the result is that Subscribe & Save offers a decent number of products we use regularly enough for a subscription to make sense.
This includes Cottonelle toilet paper, Dial foaming soap, Finish dishwasher soap, Glad Forceflex garbage bags, SkinnyPop popcorn, Viva Choose-a-Size paper towels, and an array of candies.
The candies were to stock the big bowl of candy we offer to guests -- most particularly to the high schoolers who attend the religion class that my wife teaches on school days at six in the morning.
We expected that the Subscribe & Save items would be packaged with the same attention and care that Amazon lavishes on everything else they ship.
So you can imagine our surprise when our monthly box arrived with the Fiji water loosely stacked in the same box with the toilet paper and the candy.
Bottled water is heavy. When the shippers are tossing the carton around, the water makes one end of the package way heavier than the other. So it's going to slip and drop and get upended.
In the process, the Twix bars and Ghirardelli Squares were crushed by the package of water bottles. Mashed. Pulped. Inedible, even for a teenager.
It's not a bargain if the contents of the box arrive smithereened.
In addition, the bottles of V8 High Fiber that I ordered arrived cracked and broken. Yes, the bottles are plastic ... but these Subscribe & Save boxes get such a beating, and contain such a strange variety of items, that a tough plastic bottle can and does crack, covering everything in the box with V8.
So I no longer subscribe to the High Fiber V8, even though local stores rarely carry it. And even though my wife lives on Fiji water, constantly hydrating throughout the day, we had to drop that from my Subscribe & Save, too.
However, she started her own separate Subscribe & Save in order to buy the Fiji water, so it will never end up in the same box as the stuff ordered under my account.
You would expect Amazon.com to train their packagers to have as much sense as, say, a bagger at the grocery store. The eggs don't go into the same bag as anything heavier. Nothing goes on top of the bread or the chips. You know, common sense.
And when it's not going into a shopping bag that will always be carried vertically, but rather into a big box that will be tossed and stacked with any side up, and whose contents will be lurching about constantly, then you spend a little time making sure that the items will not pound each other into oblivion during shipping.
Amazon knows how to package and ship books. But other items, from other retailers? Not so much.
Subscribe & Save is still a great idea, and there are still items we buy that way. The toilet paper is not going to destroy the Finish dishwashing detergent. The Dial soaps will not be destroying the Glad ForceFlex garbage bags.
But they will all get dumped into the same box with all the care of a child dumping the contents of a toybox all over the floor.
I'm told that part of the problem is that Amazon treats their packagers the way UPS treats their drivers -- as if they were machines and not people. So the only way to keep their jobs is to work with relentless speed.
In other words, if they take a little extra time in packaging, they'll be out of a job.
That's a nasty problem that Amazon's management can fix. Quality, not speed, should be the highest priority. In the long run, Subscribe & Save will make more money if people come to trust that their items will arrive in good, or at least usable, condition.
I thought I had read all of Jane Austen's fiction -- more than once each. I have read or listened to Pride and Prejudice at least a dozen times in my life. I have watched all the BBC screen adaptations. There are no surprises left.
Except that I had never heard of Austen's novella Lady Susan, so I had no idea what to expect when it was adapted by writer-director Whit Stillman into the movie Love & Friendship (a good change; it sounds much more Austenish).
Even if I had known about Lady Susan, I doubt I would have read it. When Austen started writing, she worked in the epistolary form -- a story told through letters written by the principal characters.
I have little patience with epistolaries, for exactly the reason that I am impatient with "found footage" movies -- because the storytellers are rarely true to their form. Just as most found-footage movies contain many shots that the characters would never have filmed, and scenes that would never have happened with a camera rolling, so also most epistolaries do not sound like the kinds of letters the characters would actually write.
If the characters are going to be sacrificed for the sake of the storyteller's needs, why bother pretending? Just write the fiction -- and shoot the movie -- in the regular way, and stop pretending that the characters created the narratives and scenes themselves.
Jane Austen's first draft of Sense and Sensibility was written as epistolary, and while I'm sure the letters were sizzling with wit, I'm glad she thought better of it and wrote the final draft as straight narrative.
Lady Susan, however, she never even submitted for publication.
Does that mean the short novel was bad, the author knew it, and we're wasting our time paying attention to it? After all, Austen could have gone back and rewritten it in narrative form; she chose not to. Why?
I'll tell you why, because the answer is obvious as you watch the movie. The character of Lady Susan Vernon, played delightfully in the movie by Kate Beckinsale, is a moral monster. Even by our standards, she's remarkably deceptive and manipulative, with no qualms at all about the price other people have to pay for her schemes to succeed.
This is especially unconscionable when it comes to her teenage daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), because Lady Susan is determined to marry her off in a way that is financially and socially advantageous ... to Lady Susan.
In Jane Austen's day, Lady Susan would have been scandalous -- more scandalous than, say, Defoe's Moll Flanders, because Lady Susan is of a much higher social class than Moll Flanders, so her moral failings fly in the face of the common idea of the superiority of the upper class. Behavior like hers would seem so indecorous, so monstrous, that readers would have been outraged.
The normal mode for introducing a whiff of scandal into novels in that period was to make the character a victim of the machinations of other people -- not to make her the maleficent evil-doer herself. And you may be assured: Jane Austen pulls out all the stops. There really is nothing that Lady Susan would not do.
The novella subscribes to the morality of the day only thus far: Nothing indecent is actually shown (everyone's clothes stay on; no one uses crude language), and Lady Susan does get a kind of comeuppance at the end -- though, because she is so very good at seeming nice, few characters in the story would realize that she was hoist on her own petard.
(Have you ever wondered what "hoist on one's own petard" actually means? The petard was an early version of the hand grenade -- an explosive meant to be fused and then flung by hand. But fuses were unpredictable, so it happened rather too often that the person who lit the fuse, meaning to throw the petard into the midst of the enemy, was a bit too slow, or the petard was badly made. It therefore exploded in the wielder's hand, or so soon after throwing it that he was tossed through the air by the force of the explosion that he set off. To be thus thrown is to be "hoist," an old past tense meaning "lifted," "tossed," or "blown up." So the phrase means that someone was damaged by his own actions, by which he intended to harm others.)
This is a first-rate British period piece, meaning that the actors are well trained in their craft and effortlessly bring off the manners of the age while infusing the dialogue with all the dry wit that Austen is known for. If anything, Whit Stillman's script adds to Austen's humor.
For instance, at the movie's opening, each character is introduced with a brief label, consisting of a line that someone later in the film says about them. There are so many characters, related to each other in such complicated (to a modern American audience) ways, that without this guidance many moviegoers would soon be hopelessly lost. Do pay attention: There will be a test.
Yet these introductory moments are also witty.
(To fans of the Hangover movies, "Witty" means "funny in ways that invite the audience to think as well as laugh." No, let me amend that: "to think in order to laugh.")
My wife and I found the movie delightful and funny all the way through -- in part because nobody actually does anything visually appalling. All the indecencies are done by characters who never waver from the rules of good manners. Everyone is at great pains to seem respectable.
The best thing in the story and the movie is the character of Sir James Martin, played brilliantly by Tom Bennett. It's hard to steal a movie away from the likes of Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, or Stephen Fry, but the script gave Tom Bennett every opportunity; he owns this movie by the sheer exuberant honesty of his performance.
Sir James Martin is the man that Lady Susan is determined that her daughter Frederica must marry. He is a baronet -- the lowest rank in the hereditary titled class -- and, most important, he's quite rich; for comparison, his fortune is twice as large as that of Charles Bingley in Pride and Prejudice.
However, Frederica is desperate not to marry him. She is an avid reader, a self-educated woman who thrives on wise and well-informed conversation. And Sir James Martin is, to put it kindly, a bit of a fool.
To put it more accurately, remove "a bit of" and you're there. But his foolishness makes him one of the best of Austen's creations: He manages to say things that other people would discreetly leave unsaid, like constantly talking about how close he is to allying himself with Lady Susan's family, even though he is not engaged to either mother or daughter. He rattles on about subjects of which he knows nearly nothing, but freely admits his own ignorance.
So we cringe for him, because he embarrasses himself every time he opens his mouth. And yet he is so open-hearted and generous, so enthusiastic and humble and well-meaning, that by the end of the movie it's hard not to conclude that, fool though he may be, he is the best human being in the story. He has no malice and no ambition, except to be happily married to the Vernon mother or daughter (and he isn't fussy about which one).
It is not charming when a man persists in his courtship when it is obvious to everyone that the object of his offers of love is desperate to avoid him. And yet we remain charmed by this happily oafish man.
When the film ends, Sir James Martin is in a situation far worse than he deserves; but his very obliviousness saves him from pain. He has no idea how badly things have turned out for him, so he remains blissfully happy.
If you think you're happy, then haven't you achieved a happy ending, even if no one with any sense would envy you?
You will not scream with laughter and roll in the aisles. This is not a farce or a satire. While Love & Friendship will appeal to Oscar Wilde's audience, it never crosses the line into absurdity the way Wilde regularly does.
Instead, the audience in Austen's day could very well believe that there might be a person -- many people -- as unscrupulously selfish as Lady Susan. And while they would laugh at Sir James Martin as readily as they laugh at Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, they would not despise him, because in his foolishness he only wants others to be happy, and does not seek to trick or force them into complying with his will.
The result is a comedy that makes you smarter about other people, that makes you think about how good manners can be a fortress in which bad people can remain concealed, that makes you realize that a person can be despised or laughed at by others and yet remain good and valuable.
Love & Friendship is not medicinal, though it will be easier for audience members who are familiar with films set in this period to grasp what is going on. It is pure pleasure, for those prepared to enjoy it. It is the best movie of 2016 so far, in my opinion.
After the abomination of Hello, My Name Is Doris, I needed a good movie for grownups to help me get that taste out of my mouth. Love & Friendship has a high opinion of the intelligence of its audience. It's like attending a supper in the home of the wisest yet most genial of hosts. The conversation scintillates, the stories are memorable, and you come away feeling a little bit wiser and happier.
It'll be Father's Day in a few minutes, and let's face it, men are hard to shop for. Unless they tell you what they want, you're probably going to guess wrong -- on brand or model, even if not on the kind of item.
But sometimes, if the item isn't too expensive, it's worth buying something the man would never ask for because he's never heard of it, or because it would require him to change a habit or two.
Which brings me to wallets. These are not quite as personal as a woman's purse -- any man who thinks he can buy his wife a purse without her being there is crazy -- but there are things he expects his wallet to be able to hold.
Any man, well-padded or bony, gets weary of the backside pain that comes from sitting on his wallet -- or the lower-back pain that comes from twisting his body so the wallet doesn't give him a pain in the bum.
If he wears a suit to work, there are lovely billfolds designed for the inside suitcoat pocket. Of course, if he takes his suitcoat off and hangs it up or lays it down, it's not like that pocket is a safe.
I started carrying my wallet in my front pants pocket thirty years ago, but wallets designed for the hip pocket rarely fit into the front pocket. It was always a fight to get it in and out.
So I was thrilled when I first tried the Vermont Country Store's front pocket wallet. It has a curve made of extra leather that allows it to fit snugly at the bottom of the pocket and not shift around.
It's copious enough to carry all the credit cards I need for daily use (I have a supplemental credit card case when I'm traveling, to make sure that if I max out one card I have a spare or two). It also has to carry the amount of cash I usually withdraw from the ATM at one time.
Just google Vermont Country Store or Front Pocket Wallet. You can get it in black or brown. I've carried mine for years, and it has proven its sturdiness and functionality. Best wallet I've ever owned.
But that doesn't mean my mind is closed. Somebody was touting the TriHold wallet on Facebook, so I looked it up and found that Amazon sold it. More to the point, they sold it to me.
The TriHold is a three-panel wallet with a metal clasp that is meant to lock it down so it stays tightly folded in your pocket.
It doesn't have that extra curve of leather to hold it down at the bottom of your pocket. It slides in and out of your front pocket with ease -- but in my weeks of using it, it never tried to make an unauthorized escape.
It really does have a surprising amount of room for cards, and the money compartment is adequate. As long as you don't carry a lot of cash -- i.e., you withdraw only small amounts from the ATM each time, and the valet doesn't give you fifteen ones in change for a twenty -- your wallet should remain at a manageable size.
Mine didn't. I still had to put a couple of cards in the cash section of the wallet, and the result was that the wallet was holding just a little too much.
This meant that when I closed the wallet, the clasp gripped so tightly that it was hard to pry open again. I was constantly having to work my fingers under the leather, because the edge of the clasp was not comfortable to work with. Eventually, that would result in weakening the corners of the wallet.
Then came the day I withdrew too many bills from the ATM and got those fifteen ones from the valet. At that point I couldn't close the wallet at all.
The metal clasp wouldn't go over the metal part on the other side. The wallet stayed closed only because the tip of the clasp hooked onto leather, and that meant that every time I opened and closed it, I was damaging the wallet.
Yesterday I decided a one-month trial was enough. The TriHold is very well designed and I recommend it highly -- but not if you carry as much stuff in your wallet as I sometimes have to.
Still, it's worth a shot as a Father's Day gift. You can be sure the wallet is of high enough quality that the man will probably give it a try. And if he doesn't, well, he'll know you offered him something well-made.
Just go to Amazon and look up TriHold Wallet.
Or go to the Vermont Country Store online and look at the front-pocket wallet that I have used for years. It's also markedly less expensive, if only because there are no metal parts.
And while you're at the Vermont Country Store, you might want to look at the Squeeze It Coin Purse. I first found this kind of coin purse while I was in college, and whenever I find them I buy several, because every time I pull it out and use it, other people openly admire it.
That's because the design is so convenient and it looks so cool that every other coin purse looks kind of tatty compared to it. It also works great, as long as you don't overload it so badly that coins start leaking out into your pocket. So when friends admire it, I give them one of my extras at the first opportunity.
It costs ten bucks at the Vermont Country Store, and it comes in black and brown. It's way better than loose change in your pocket. And if one of your young children gives it to Daddy, he will give it a try.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com