Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Piaw versus The Post Office

One of the consequences of being a self-publisher and self-distributor of books is that I'm continually running up against various weird limitations of the post office. Despite that, the post office is still the best service for a self-publisher:
  • It's relatively cheap. ($2.24 for Engineer's Guide and $4.95 for Independent Cycle Touring
  • Daily pick up from my mailbox, even on Saturdays. This is pretty cool.
  • An unlimited supply of free envelopes for Independent Cycle Touring. Having to pay for my own envelopes is one reason why I have to charge $3 to ship Engineer's Guide.
What's not so good is that Independent Cycle Touring is one pound to ship. Yes, between the large form factor, and full color pages, it's a heavy book in more than one sense of the word. That exceeds the 13 ounce limit, so I can't do what I did with Engineer's Guide and stick a stamp on it and leave it in the mailbox. In fact, the mailbox that came with my house wouldn't even fit the book! Fortunately, Pardo came by and replaced my tiny mailbox with a huge rural sized mailbox. Now I can ship 5-6 copies of Independent Cycle Touring at once, if I am ever so lucky as to get that many orders at once. The problem then is the 13 ounce limit: I once shipped a copy of Independent Cycle Touring in a flat-rate envelope with a flat-rate stamp, and it bounced right back. I took it to my local post office and the carrier there said that the only way to by-pass this problem is to use the USPS web-site to buy a printed shipping label. That also has the side-effect of being potentially cheaper to ship books, but I have to use up my supply of $4.95 stamps first, so that'll have to happen before I switch over entirely to on-line shipping labels. Note that I can't do that for non flat-rate envelopes, so I have to stick with buying stamps manually for Engineer's Guide. With all this, you would think that I'd be tempted to ship media mail, which gets a special rate for books. This doesn't work. For one thing, it's actually not any cheaper for Engineer's Guide, and for another, in the age of Amazon Prime, other self-publishers/self-distributors have reported that people complain when books take as long as a week or two to reach them. It's just easier to use first class mail and not have to deal with the customer complaints. Media mail also doesn't always bounce if the destination is mis-spelled or mis-named. Another strange thing with my two books. Engineer's Guide obviously gets a lot of technologically sophisticated customers. Not so with Independent Cycle Touring. I once got a call from a customer who thought he had ordered a book but when I checked my records, I had no sale record for him. It turned out that he did not actually realize that he had to click the "buy" button and then the "confirm buy" button after that on Google checkout. As a result, I'm going to have to put my phone # on the page for Independent Cycle Touring for people who need help ordering.

Little details like this is what makes fulfillment challenging. It really gives you respect for on-line retailers like Amazon who do this all the time for millions of customers.
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