Is Amazon actually evil?

Jeff Bezos devil

Are you pro- or anti-Amazon? Or somewhere in between? Many people seem to be jumping to condemn them, especially now they’re in a not-so-secret dispute with the big publisher Hachette. Reading some of the increasingly lurid and extreme criticisms, I’ve felt my level of bemusement rising along with the rhetoric.

So, to get it off my chest, I wrote a piece on it a few days ago. I then had second thoughts about posting it, not because I changed my mind about the contents but rather because I’m never too sure how many people actually read longer opinion pieces like this. So if you don’t want to read it all (it’s about 1,400 words), here’s a very quick précis:

  • We don’t know the details of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, even though we can speculate.
  • So the fact that so many have jumped on the anti-Amazon bandwagon probably says more about their pre-conceived notions and/or their self-interest than anything else.
  • Much of the criticism levelled at Amazon has been extreme, hysterical, unfair, bizarre, short-sighted, hypocritical, or some combination of the above.
  • They are not a threat to the existence of books or literature – or at least, no more than the conventional publishing industry is.
  • Amazon aren’t perfect but they are generally very good at what they do.
  • They have, on balance, been a good thing for writers.
  • They are not an all-powerful monopoly, and what power they do have will not last forever.

That’s basically it. Do you agree or not? (And should I be saying ‘Amazon is ..’ or ‘Amazon are …’? Not quite sure.) Comments welcome.

And for those interested, here is the longer version …

Judging by the tidal-wave of criticism engulfing them during the past few weeks, since its dispute with the publisher Hachette first became public, you might easily conclude that there must be more than a whiff of sulphur lingering around the e-commerce giant. It certainly seems to have become highly fashionable to be anti-Amazon – a position that was increasingly popular even before the Hachette spat blew up, and has become exponentially so since.

Amazon have been accused of all sorts of things. A cynical monopoly, bent on using its dominant position to bully and control the whole publishing industry. (The fact that Amazon sells an awful lot of things that aren’t books doesn’t normally get much of a mention. Presumably TV manufacturers can look after themselves.) Attacking publishers, authors and readers. Even threatening the future of books, of literature itself. Tax dodgers. The mafia. Vladimir Putin. Darth Vader. I haven’t yet actually heard them being compared to the Infernal One, but I’m quite sure they must have been by someone, somewhere.

Here’s just one article summarising many of the criticisms levelled by Hachette authors, bookstore owners, and various industry spokesmen.

To be fair, I’ve also seen other opinion pieces that have attempted to restore some balance to the debate. See here, here, here and here for some examples. There are a number of reasons why I agree with much of what’s argued in these articles, and why I believe that the anti-Amazon frenzy is largely misplaced and bordering on the absurd. (Actually, more than bordering – it’s crossed the border, built a big house with a massive swimming pool, and taken up permanent residence.)

First, and most obviously, we don’t know the precise details of the dispute with Hachette. Too many people are assuming that it must be Amazon being greedy and unreasonable, because that fits in with an existing, widely-held narrative about them and their allegedly negative effect on the publishing world. But what if Hachette are trying it on? Or what if it’s simply a bit more complicated, less black-and-white than one of them being in the right and the other in the wrong? Things are rarely that straightforward in the business world.

Second, Hachette are not some weakling little indie. They’re a substantial multinational, one of the world’s leading publishers. Admittedly not as big as Amazon, but – crucially – be in no doubt they can hold their own in corporate guerrilla warfare. They know full well that the prevailing mood of the industry is solidly behind them, and that other major publishers will be secretly rooting for them. It’s not insignificant that it will soon be the turn of those other publishers to enter the ring with Amazon, and that the outcome of the Hachette negotiation and the precedent it sets will therefore be highly significant for them.

Also, the recent Apple saga demonstrated that the big publishers are not above collusion, and although there’s no suggestion that anything like that is happening right now, it’s clear that their interests are closely allied in this dispute. That might be another reason why Amazon doesn’t want to lose – they must know full well this isn’t a battle with Hachette alone. Also, Amazon are not the all-powerful mega-monopoly they are too often lazily portrayed to be. All those Hachette titles can be obtained from sundry other outlets, and already a number of those outlets have taken advantage of the situation by offering the affected books at a discount, including the new J. K. Rowling (sorry, Robert Galbraith). This is not a risk-free game for either side.

Third, much of the most strident criticism of Amazon has come from those with the most invested in the status quo, such as high-profile Hachette authors who have done very nicely from the conventional industry structures and business practices. Now those authors are entitled to defend their livelihoods of course. But never forget that this industry has given us inflated e-book prices, celebrity-penned ‘novels’, and Stephanie Meyer and an endless stream of Meyer wannabees. It is not necessarily the guardian of high literature, even if it’s very quick to claim that mantle at times like this.

Fourth, there’s a not-so-faint stench of hypocrisy clinging to much of the more strident down-with-Amazon rhetoric. Big publishers are suddenly earnest cheerleaders of the small bookshop, when until recently they’ve been too busy cozying up to the big chains to notice. Those same big chains have spent years trying to extract the best possible terms from publishers, yet now Amazon are vilified for doing the same thing. Big-name authors complain that Amazon have cut the discounts on their books – and yet the same company is criticised for forcing down the price of e-books, a move that will apparently destroy conventional publishing and the livelihoods of authors (and note how those two things are implicitly conflated). It’s not apparently such a big deal that publishers attempt to inflate e-book pricing while paying the same desultory royalty rates to authors. I know that publishing is a business, and a risky and (the rare Fifty Shades-like mega-hit aside) not outstandingly lucrative one at that. They have every right to fight their corner. But, please, spare us the woe-is-me, shining guardians of literature act. It doesn’t wash.

Fifth, it seems disingenuous at best to seek to blame Amazon for many of the changes that are sweeping the industry. To be sure they’ve driven much of this change, taking a key role in popularising e-books for one thing. But they invented neither the e-book nor the Internet. Electronic publishing was happening anyway. Of course, the major publishers would far rather have carried on controlling the whole thing themselves, rather than some upstart e-commerce company yanking the carpet out from under their feet.

I might also add here that the fear and loathing of Amazon misses the point that they won’t be dominant forever. The biggest players come and go. They always have and always will. Change was their making and change will one day be their undoing. It won’t be the defenders of the status quo, but another bright young upstart that works out the next big thing and does it quicker and/or better than Amazon.

Finally, I really think that Amazon has been a power for good in many ways. They have made a vast selection of competitively-priced books more easily available to everyone. They have made self-publishing easier than ever before (though they didn’t invent that either!) – and at royalty rates far higher than those offered by conventional publishers. (Not that you can directly compare them, as Amazon don’t of course provide all the value-add services of a conventional publisher. The whole topic of whether Amazon has been a generally good thing for writers or not is a complex one – but I think on balance they have.)

Crucially, their customer service is, in my experience, generally excellent and clearly superior to that offered by most other large (or even small) companies. When you deal with Amazon, they make it seem so easy you wonder why no-one else can get it right. Everyone plays lip service to this but very few other big corporations really take it seriously enough. This is no small thing – and I believe that it’s if and when Amazon stop excelling in this area that it could all start going wrong for them.

Note that none of the above seeks to paint Amazon as a paragon of virtue, an alloyed good thing in the world. They are a big corporation. They negotiate hard and take no prisoners. And sometimes they make mistakes. But they are exceptionally good at customer service, they have (for better or worse) enabled countless indie authors to realise their dream of getting their books ‘out there’, their website has made online shopping easier than ever before, and – best of all – they’ve managed to annoy a lot of people who probably deserved to be.

And they’re not actually evil.


How much do you value bookshops?


Let me tell you a true story. In 2012 my family went with some friends on holiday to Scotland. One day we were visiting a very pleasant, bustling little coastal town, popular with tourists. Strolling down the street we came across a bookshop. It was an independent, not part of a chain. I’ve always loved bookshops and find it vaguely painful to pass one without going inside – so, with the luxury of time on our hands, we did.

It turned out to be one of those TARDIS-like establishments that didn’t look very big from the outside but opened up pleasingly once inside. It was a well-stocked, attractive-looking place, and it had a decent children’s book section. Our party included a total of five kids, ranging in age from four to ten, so this was good. I’d already spotted an interesting looking tome in the shop window, our kids love to browse, so we were all set for an enjoyable experience. And the bookshop was pretty much guaranteed some sales – which, according to this recent article, was an opportunity they couldn’t have afforded to pass up too often. Or so you might think …

Before I proceed with my story, I want to pick out two quotes from the article in question. It’s about the ongoing decline in the number of independent bookshops in the UK. Specifically that means traditional, physical outlets – what in the US are usually called bricks-and-mortar stores (a phrase I find unreasonably irritating, by the way – the geeky pedant in the back of my brain keeps shouting ‘but the shops in malls are made of concrete and glass, surely? Wouldn’t physical be a better, more accurate term? – and shorter too!’ – but that’s just me).

Anyway. Here are the two quotes:

“The book trade, the government and the general public need to realise that if we don’t take action now, the future of our bookshops – and therefore the health of the publishing industry and reading itself is at risk.

“It’s great that there are so many ways now to consume literature but the independent bookshop is a crucial part of our culture and I would hate to see them disappear from our towns and cities.”

(Emphasis is mine in both cases.)

I wonder what you think of those statements. I suspect I’m far from alone in being broadly sympathetic, to the second one at least. I’ve already mentioned my affinity for bookshops. If my wife and I go shopping together, the ideal scenario is a clothes store and a bookshop in close proximity – then we’re both happy. I’ve also mentioned in a previous post how much I love the good, solid, unashamedly old-fashioned book made out of dead trees, and that I like to consume both paper and e-books simultaneously (well not absolutely simultaneously, but you know what I mean).

I do think bookshops are important, and I do try to buy actual books from actual, bricks-and-mortar physical stores on a reasonably regular basis, even when I know I could probably buy it cheaper from Amazon. But I also buy books from Amazon and I refuse to feel guilty about it.

Because I sometimes find physical bookshops to be – if I’m honest – slightly frustrating places. For the Amazon generation, accustomed to the ability to quickly find whatever you’re looking for from a vast available choice, scanning the frequently disordered and thinly-stocked shelves of the average bookshop does not strike me as being always the best use of valuable time. Unless you really are content to browse at leisure with no little or no preconceived idea of what you want to read next. Most independent bookshops are on the small side, but even the larger ones cannot realistically compete with the choice available online.

One of my favourite recent discoveries is Erin Kelly. Having read one of her novels, last year I went looking for another. This was actually her first novel, and it has been adapted for TV in the UK. I decided to try to buy it in a physical bookshop. Could I find it? Could I heck. Even the Oxford branch of Waterstones, a sizeable chain store, didn’t have more than one of her books.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise bookshops, especially small ones, for not having a particular book. But like I said, this was a good-selling, contemporary, mainstream title that’s recently been on TV. It’s not in the Fifty Shades of Grey League, but I would expect most general interest bookshops in the UK to stock it.

But then some bookshops don’t help their cause by wasting their precious floor space by opening cafes and selling toys instead of carrying more, well, books. Diversification seems to be the in thing, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a good idea. In one independent store I visited last year, I couldn’t see very many books at all for all the racks of greeting cards and novelty pencils; in fact if the sign outside hadn’t said ‘bookshop’ I might not have guessed what it was. If I want a cup of coffee, I’ll go to a café. If I want stationery, I’ll go to a stationery store. Some bigger stores might have room to spare to diversify, but I suspect most really don’t.

But I could have asked a bookshop to order that Erin Kelly book, couldn’t I? Yes, I could. And in the past I’ve sometimes done that. But, to be honest, why not then just order it myself online? Surely the whole point of physical bookshops is that you can see, browse and hold the books themselves?

But what about the human touch? Good old fashioned customer service? Ah yes. That brings me nicely back to my story.

In that bookshop in Scotland, my first inkling of trouble was when I was almost knocked over by a thunder-faced woman bustling down the aisle. She did not appear happy. She looked, in a word, stressed. Now I know what you’re thinking, and let me say I’m the first to admit that my kids are not always 100% perfectly angelic. But, honestly, we’d been inside that shop roughly three minutes and the kids had been OK. Seriously. They were not screaming, running, vomiting or hitting anyone. They were chattering enthusiastically. They were picking up books (not dropping, throwing or drawing on them). They were happy to be there, and my kids being excited by books is something I’m extremely keen to encourage. I would hope that bookshops might be too.

A few minutes later, as I was approaching the counter with a book in hand, I noticed that the above-mentioned stressed woman – who it seem was someone senior in the shop, perhaps the proprietor – was conversing with my ten-year-old daughter. Well, hissing more like. She (the proprietor) then turned to me, upon learning that I was the father of the errant child, and loudly informed me, in front of the whole shop, that my daughter had bent the cover of the book she’d taken off the shelf and had been carrying around the shop. (My daughter had done that because she wanted to show her friend, presumably because she liked it.)

I can’t sell that book now, complained the bookshop woman. (In fact, knowing my daughter, in all probability she was about to nag me to buy it for her.) She stared at me accusingly, as if I’d personally sanctioned the wholesale desecration of her shop and its contents. I felt about ten inches tall. I mumbled an apology. I returned the book I’d been carrying, the one I’d been about to buy, to the shelf. I then ignored my sons’ requests for other purchases and removed myself and my family from the shop as quickly as possible.

The results of all this were as follows. Ten-year-old girls in tears: one. Embarrassed and confused parents: two. Sales for bookshop: zero.

Now I admit this is not typical of my experience of customer service in bookshops. But ever since the Scotland Incident I’ve felt rather self-conscious when taking my kids into similar establishments. What if they make too much noise? What if (gasp) they slightly bend a cover?

It’s one reason why I don’t subscribe to a certain view of the books retail business. The one that has this spectrum of goodness with independent bookshops at one end, selfless bastions of culture, halos glowing atop their flowing, literature-loving locks; then from that moral high ground we proceed downhill through chain bookshops; then online retailers other than Amazon; and finally, at the extreme opposite end, at the very bottom, Jeff Bezos gnawing on a baby’s thigh bone.

Amazon are not perfect, and there are strong arguments that their dominance of the book market is not a wholly good thing. But the fear and loathing they inspire in some quarters is a thing to behold. As far as I can see they are a highly entrepreneurial organisation that is simply very good at what they do. Sometimes they make mistakes. No doubt they can be prone to exploit their dominance in a way that’s not to everyone’s taste or advantage. But every experience I’ve had of their customer service has been either good or outstanding. They offer an exceptional range at low prices. They have helped to drive the revolution of e-books. And they’ve never, ever made my daughter cry.

I’ll say it again: I like bookshops. I’d prefer to see them survive and prosper – the good ones at least. And I acknowledge that it’s a tough business, and I admire those who stick at it for the love of books. It’s easy for people like me to snipe from the sidelines. But the world has changed and is changing, and no particular business model has a divine right to survive. It therefore seems to me that instead of moaning about Amazon and spreading alarmist clap-trap about the death of publishing, culture or reading itself being dependent on their survival, independent bookshops and their defenders might want to adopt a more proactive, creative, customer-focussed mindset that doesn’t involve raging at Amazon, declaring themselves ‘Kindle-free zones’* or generally straining, Canute-like, to resist the tide of progress.

(* I have seen at least one bookshop in the UK proclaiming this on a sign in their window, and another with a similar message. The precise purpose of this escapes me, beyond attempting to make a proportion of its customers feel guilty.)

Now I’m quite sure that there are many excellent independent bookshops who are taking a more positive approach. No doubt it’s still not easy for them, but I wish them all the best.

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that in the future more independent bookshops will have to specialise. Trying to be generalist outlets, matching the range and price of the online giants, is a battle they can never hope to win. Subject specialism is one possible approach. Another is to jump on the localism bandwagon. If I had the money and time, I’d like to open up a bookshop showcasing Oxfordshire authors, including the self-published. My own books would be sold there, naturally; I mean, that would be one of the perks, right?

What do you think about physical bookshops? Do you think it’s vital they survive? Do you regularly buy from them? Do you think Amazon are the villains of the piece, the heroes or somewhere in between?