Amazon versus Thalia – A Comparison

I’ve been an enthusiastic customer of Amazon.com and later Amazon Germany from the time I got onto the Internet on, because Amazon gave me access to the English language genre fiction I loved to read without having to special order books from the distributor’s thick “Books in Print” catalog with the Bible thin paper and teeny tiny print at the bookstore. The books were expensive, too, because the distributor usually added a high import fee to the US list price, and you had to make a downpayment at the bookstore – for a book you could not even be sure you would like. Or you might accidentally order a completely different book with the same title – yes, this actually happened to me and left me stuck with a not very good 1960s thriller. And special ordering only worked with books from mainstream publishers. Heaven help you if you needed something from a university press. You could special order such books at the university bookstore and if you were lucky, you’d even get them before the end of the semester. There’s one book that never showed up at all.

All those who complain about Amazon, the great Satan or whatever, would do well to remember that this was what book buying was like before Amazon arrived, particularly if you lived in the country far from major bookstores or abroad, where English language books were rare and precious and mostly by Victoria Holt or Danielle Steel. For people like me who were not well served by the local booktrade (and our bookstore landscape was pretty good, since Bremen did have a bookstore which carried a lot of English language paperbacks, including SF and fantasy), Amazon was quite literally a godsend. This holiday season I got a good giggle out of a news report about the growth of online shopping, which claimed that “three years ago, nobody would ever have thought of buying Christmas presents online”, because I have been ordering most of my books from Amazon for almost ten years now.

German competitors to Amazon showed up pretty early, BOL and buecher.de have been around since the early 2000s. However, these German online stores did not carry the same selection of English language books as Amazon, so I largely ignored them. Plus, I was always very satisfied with Amazon. There were some delivery problems in the early years, usually involving books from small presses, i.e. books I would never have been able to buy at all in the bad old days. But in the past five years or so, Amazon has been able to hook me up with any book I wanted, no matter how obscure the title or publishers.

In the meantime, German online booksellers have stepped up to the plate. Places like thalia.de and weltbild.de, the online arms of large brick and mortar bookstore chains, offer a wide variety of books, including foreign language books. Both have their own e-readers as well. And indeed, thalia.de has a higher market share in Germany than Amazon according to last year’s figures from the German bookseller’s association. But while I frequently shop at Thalia’s brick and mortar stores and somewhat less frequently at Weltbild’s, I never paid much attention to their online stores, because I already had an account at Amazon.

However, this Christmas season Amazon Germany failed me by claiming that two books I wanted to buy were out of print or at least unavailable. The books had still been available a few weeks earlier, plus Amazon was having one of its periodic punch-ups with a major publisher at the time. And the books in question were still available as e-books, but since they were volumes seven and eight in a series I have in paperback, I wanted those books in paperback as well.

Since Amazon did not have the books I wanted, I decided to check other vendors, starting with thalia.de. And indeed, Thalia listed both books as available and to be delivered within one or two weeks. The price was okay. So I ordered both books and promptly received an e-mail that they were sorry, but the books would take a month rather than the promised two weeks to be delivered. Which annoyed me a little, but hey, I had plenty of other books to read.

Then, in the first December week, I got an e-mail from Thalia about a 20% off coupon valid only that weekend. Now the German fixed book price agreement makes it impossible to offer any discounts on books, so these 20% or 5 Euros off offers never apply to books, which is what I want to buy at a bookstore. However, the fine print said that this particular coupon could be used on foreign language books (which are not subject to the German fixed book price agreement). “Cool”, I thought and went off to order two books I’d had my eye on for a while. Again, both books were listed as “available within one or two weeks” and again I got the “We’re sorry, but delivery of the books you ordered will take a month” e-mail. By now I was getting a tad annoyed, because if the delivery would take a month anyway, then why didn’t they say so on their website. Besides, if I had wanted those books in time for Christmas, they would not have arrived on time.

The first two books I ordered did indeed arrive about a month after I ordered them. Of the other two books, one arrived within the promised month. The other took five weeks and did not arrive for six days after I received the “We just shipped your order” mail. Now we have been having mail problems in my area, but six days for shipping is a joke, particularly since Amazon rarely takes more than two and usually manages to deliver the following day.

For more shennigans, Thalia included a delivery note in the package and sent me a separate invoice a few days later – for an order I had already paid for by credit card. I understand the need for a separate invoice, if someone chose the “against invoice” order option, but I didn’t do that. Plus, the cheaper “book mail” rates of the German mail system explicitly allow for including an invoice with the shipment, though personal letters are forbidden.

Now the books in question were not published by obscure small presses. Two were backlist books by Roc, another was a 2012 release by Avon (i.e. both Big Six imprints), the third was a 2012 release from Sourcebooks, which is a smaller publisher, but hardly obscure. Neither was a huge bestseller, though, at least not recently (the two backlist books has “New York Times bestseller” emblazoned on the cover). Amazon Germany lists both the Avon and the Sourcebooks book as being in stock and available for next day delivery.

So while I like Thalia’s brick and mortar business and wish them well, their online arm really can’t compare with Amazon regarding service and particularly speed of delivery. I suspect that Thalia would have been faster, if I had ordered Fifty Shades of Grey or another bestseller, but anything that isn’t a mega bestseller may well take a month to arrive. So I’ll stick with Amazon for all my online book buying needs, unless Amazon happens not to carry a particular book, while Thalia does.

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7 Responses to Amazon versus Thalia – A Comparison

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  4. Estara says:

    This!!!! Especially the first part about the time before Amazon.de – and we did not have bookshops who carried a good selection of English books.

    Maybe if I had lived in Munich.

    • Cora says:

      I got really lucky, because Bremen had a very good indie bookstore with a decent selection of English books, including a spinner rack with SF and fantasy, in the 1980s and 1990s. The store is still around, though much diminished. They stopped carrying foreign language books in the late 1990s, killed off not by Amazon but by a mail order business for English language books that was cheaper (and much slower) which took away a lot of the customers they got from the university. The mail order business was then in turn killed off, largely unlamented, by Amazon.

  5. Daniela says:

    Yes, this. Eveen in berlin getting books in English could turn into a major hassle. I think I once waited six (6!) months for the English version of E.M.Forster’s Maurice which was published by Penguin. The store (a university bookstore) had the German version but not the English one.

    I did find a few bookstores that were faster at ordering but it took a little odyssey to get to them. So I had to travel through half of Berlin to some obscure bookstore just to order (because they wouldn’t accept orders by phone) and then do so again to pick the books up.

    The import/handling fee was something like 100-150% of the actual book-price.

    Trips to London always resulted in a suitcase stuffed full of books :-D. I loved Forbidden Planet.

    • Cora says:

      I once tried to order a book on Canadian history that was required reading in a class at the Bremen university bookstore and was told, “Well, it will cost 75 DM and take approx. four months to arrive”, whereupon I went to the professor who promptly pulled the book from his reading list, because he had no idea it was so bard to come by. And I theoretically still have a book on order at the Bremen university bookstore, because it never arrived at all.

      As for the import prices, I regularly stun American readers by saying that I paid more for a US mass market paperback in the 1980s than I pay today, even though the US cover price has almost doubled. Meanwhile, foreign non-fiction, reference and coffee table books were rare luxuries. Some time ago, I came across a diary entry from 1989 debating whether to be a coffee table book on SF films which cost the then princely sum of 85 Dutch guilders and would eat up all of my birthday money (I eventually bought the book. Still have it, too, so the money wasn’t wasted). I would never pay that much for a book today, unless it was some rare academic tome I desperately needed.

      I hear you on the suitcase full of books. And Forbidden Planet got a lot of my money over the years. When a geeky neighbour kid traveled to London last year, I told him, “You must visit Forbidden Planet, it’s the greatest store imaginable.” The boy promptly came back with his suitcase crammed full of Harry Potter merchandise.

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