Booksellers to America: Save the Post Office

From Publishers Weekly:

I recently did an experiment: I used my bookstore’s postage software to generate three quotes for shipping the same hardcover book to the same address. I knew how it would end up, but the results still shocked me. FedEx Home Delivery: $14.03. UPS Ground: $23.87. USPS Media Mail: $2.94. The results of my experiment are a clear reminder that without the United States Postal Service, independent bookstores have little chance of making it. The USPS enables the innovations indies need to survive.

My bookstore, the Raven, in Lawrence, Kans., has survived this far into the pandemic thanks to a few adaptations. One of the most crucial changes has been learning how to better ship books. While most of our business remains in eastern Kansas, without our long-distance orders we would have faced difficult decisions, like furloughing staff or cutting operations. Because we were ready to make shipping a bigger part of what we do, we’ve sent books to all 50 states. Even better, our team is intact and rent is paid. This would have been impossible without the USPS.

When the reality of the pandemic set in, the first thing the Raven did was offer free shipping on website orders. It was a desperate decision, one made out of fear and uncertainty. After it became clear our customers and community would follow us into a new bookselling reality, I ran a Twitter poll asking if people would be willing to pay $2.50 to cover shipping—99% of people said they’d pay. A poll asking people if they’d be willing to pay $15 for shipping would have had much different results.

Every decision we make at the Raven is informed by the fact that what we sell is available elsewhere at a cheaper price. In our new bookselling reality, we also have to consider that the monopolizing e-commerce competition offers free and fast shipping for those much-cheaper books. The widespread availability of free next-day shipping has permanently changed what consumers expect.

Amazon, the company largely responsible for these new expectations, can offer shipping as a loss leader. Amazon has also built its own shipping network from scratch. Independent bookstores can do neither of these things. Still, we have to somehow get a slice of the online book sales market without these cutthroat anticompetitive strategies. The USPS, by offering its inexpensive Media Mail option, provides independent bookstores a way out of this bind.

According to the office of the USPS inspector general, lower rates for educational materials originated in “the first federal postal policy, which recognized that disseminating newspapers at below-cost postage would advance the important social goal of educating the electorate.” In 1938, more than a century later, Morris L. Ernst, a lawyer and friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, ran a comparative-postage experiment not unlike my own. Ernst, working for the National Committee to Abolish Postal Discrimination Against Books, sent President Roosevelt two packages of equal weight. One contained books written by Shakespeare; the other contained “dirty magazines.” Shipping the Shakespeare cost 300% more. FDR was thereby convinced of the need for lower postage for books, and the book rate he subsequently implemented survives today as Media Mail. So Media Mail is more than just a cheap book rate; it’s the government’s show of confidence in the importance of well-read, well-informed citizens.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that the US Postal Service is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, regardless of whether they use the service, how much they use the service or whether they don’t use it at all.

From the (US) Government Accountability Office:

USPS’s overall financial condition is deteriorating and unsustainable. USPS has lost $69 billion over the past 11 fiscal years—including $3.9 billion in fiscal year 2018. USPS’s total unfunded liabilities and debt ($143 billion at the end of fiscal year 2018) have grown to double its annual revenue.

. . . .

Further, USPS has missed $48.2 billion in required payments for postal retiree health and pension benefits as of September 30, 2018. This includes $42.6 billion in missed payments for retiree health benefits since fiscal year 2010, and $5.6 billion in missed payments for pension benefits since fiscal year 2014. If USPS does not make any more payments for retiree health benefits, the fund supporting these benefits is projected by the Office of Personnel Management to be depleted in fiscal year 2030. If the fund is depleted, USPS would be required by law to make the payments necessary to cover its share of health benefits premiums for postal retirees. However, current law does not address what would happen if USPS misses those payments. Depletion of the fund, together with USPS’s potential inability to make remaining contributions, could affect postal retirees as well as USPS, customers, and other stakeholders, including the federal government.

Without bearing any ill will toward the owner of the bookstore in question, PG notes that he is effectively celebrating the fact that other people and other business organizations are providing a substantial financial subsidy to his private business.

PG is reminded of a quote from a respected economist, Herb Stein.

If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

Herbert Stein

3 thoughts on “Booksellers to America: Save the Post Office”

  1. Some people are just a bit slow upstairs… This guy just realized what Jeff Bezos figured out some 26+ years ago.

    Not as easy now, of course – Jeff had the advantage of no sales taxes to pay when he started shipping books out.

  2. We need special USPS rates for plumbing suppplies. Plumbers support the health of the nation, easily as important as shipping a book about zombies in high school.

  3. So, we need the government to subsidize a private industry that sells books. Cool. Can the government make that private industry promote and sell my books too? That’d be cool for my books and the other millions of books. Wait. Millions of books? That’d be a big store. Lots of square footage. Oh, we can just put that baby online and the company selling said books will cover shipping and pay the author money? Where do I sign up?

    Also, the typewriter store called and they want their government subsidy back.

    Mocking over. I love my local books stores. I buy books from them. But, this special snowflake mentality will be their downfall.

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