Amazon is waging a war against “bookstores” and “book culture.” According to a new article from Salon, anyway.
Well, if Amazon is at war, I guess I’m a soldier. Of the last three books I’ve bought, two have been through Amazon, for my smartphone.
Why? Because they’re obscure business books that I was confident I wouldn’t find in a store. And it was easy.
The one thing I can’t stand in this debate about the future of books and publishing and authors is when people seem to think of Amazon or some other Corporation as a malevolent and unstoppable force.
So let’s stop with the overblown rhetoric and examine the truth about this situation:
If this is a war, most of us are soldiers
What has Amazon done to wage war against books, exactly?
The article from Salon argues that Amazon has cut prices across the board for books. Yes, making things cheap is now a war on books and book culture.
So what’s book culture – reading? Buying books? It can’t just be those two things, because Amazon has made reading easier than ever before.
The Kindle store and the Kindle app and the Kindle itself have granted people the ability to self-publish works that never would have seen the light of day. People in rural communities with little to no access to bookstores can read anything they want. I can buy a book from the 1980s in two seconds and read it while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store.
But “cheap books” is exactly what everyone hates, at least in the article:
“They’ve devalued the concept of what a book is, and turned it into a widget,” Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson told Salon.
“They” have devalued the concept of a book?? Who is this anonymous THEY? Amazon isn’t the only one buying cheap books. This is a team effort. Just look at what consumers have done – we’ve followed the technology.
We buy stuff from Amazon, because we don’t feel like going to a bookstore. Because we want the book now. The store isn’t close enough. They might not have it. The owner is cranky and the staff is unhelpful. Or because it’s cheap.
Whatever the reason, we click a button and get the book from Amazon instead.
A company is only as strong as its consumer base.
The technology argument
The rest of the article from Salon is not about a war on books at all, it’s about tax and labor practices. They sound pretty bad, albeit like cherry-picked examples.
In the comments section, there are a few people rolling their eyes at the author, saying that this is like saying car companies went to war on the horse and buggy.
How about iTunes, for a more contemporary example? Did the record labels declare that iTunes went to war on music? Did consumers care?
Technology companies make things easier for the consumer and succeed on that basis alone. Amazon is doing to books what Apple did to music.
I’m not saying this is good. At least as current business models go.
Adjusted for inflation, revenue in the music industry has halved since Apple launched the iTunes Store. Music and books are getting commoditized in the land of the free. But consumers are happily exploring the region and downloading stuff anyway.
Amazon isn’t waging a war against books any more than the avid readers who are buying books from Amazon. Making a product easier and cheaper and more accessible isn’t really waging a war on it.
What Amazon is really waging a war on is the idea of books and the idea of publishing and bookstores. That’s where the conversation should stay focused: the changing relationship between reader and “book” and reader and author, because that’s where we’re all going to learn something new.
5 thoughts on “Amazon is Not Waging a “War” Against Books”
July 29, 2013
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
On behalf of the American Booksellers Association, we are writing today to call your attention to how Amazon’s business practices are actually harming small businesses and the American economy. While Amazon may make news by touting the creation of some 7,000 new warehouse jobs (many of which are seasonal), what is woefully underreported is the number of jobs its practices have cost the economy.
For you to highlight Amazon as a job creator strikes us as greatly misguided.
As you’ve noted so often, small businesses are the engines of the economy. When a small business fails and closes its doors, this has a ripple effect at both a local and a national level. Jobs are lost, workers lose healthcare and seek unemployment insurance, and purchasing decreases. And while Amazon may now be boasting about the creation of jobs, any gains are elusive, and not a long-term solution.
The simple fact is that Amazon’s practices are detrimental to the nation’s economy.
The news this weekend that Amazon is slashing prices far below cost on numerous book titles is further evidence that it will stop at nothing to garner market share at the expense of small businesses that cannot afford to sell inventory below their cost of acquisition. In the end, monopolies are bad for consumers — and there are no examples in American history that prove otherwise.
For more than a decade now, Amazon has flouted sales tax laws in an effort to maintain a competitive advantage over Main Street businesses. To date, 16 states have passed sales tax laws to level the playing field for bricks-and-mortar businesses, and in all but three of those states Amazon (as well as Overstock.com) has fired its online affiliates in order to evade collecting and remitting sales tax to the state (two of the 16 states only just passed their sales tax laws). This has resulted in many online affiliates going out of business. Moreover, by eschewing its obligation to remit sales tax, Amazon has negatively impacted state budgets and services, as well as those of local communities.
In addition, Amazon’s continued practice of using books, both in print and e-book formats, as “loss leaders” in an effort to increase their already immense market share of the retail book trade and to up-sell large-ticket items has impacted Main Street retailers and the communities in which these stores are located in ways that can be calculated (job losses, store closures, a decrease in sales tax revenue, etc.) and in ways that simply cannot (urban blight, budget cuts affecting first responders and other community services, etc.).
All told, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, every $10 million in spending that shifts from Main Street retailers to Amazon results in a net loss of 33 retail jobs. That would mean for 2012 alone — using Amazon’s own numbers about its increase in sales — Amazon cost the U.S. economy almost 42,000 jobs just last year!
At a time when Main Street retailers, including indie bookstores, show promise of recovering from the recession, we are disheartened to see Amazon touted as a “jobs creator” and its warehouse facility used as a backdrop for an important jobs speech, when, frankly, the exact opposite is true.
Conversely, the value of a local business to its community cannot be overstated — whether through job creation or in the myriad ways it gives back to the community.
We would love to continue this timely and important conversation with you. We’ll bring together a group of real job creators to meet at your favorite local, independent bookstore! And we’ll buy the coffee!
Oren Teicher, CEO
American Booksellers Association
White Plains, New York
Thank you, this is a really candid response and I appreciate the extra context. But I think this is a much, much deeper issue about the automation of our economy and the race of technology against traditional retail businesses. What this kind of effort would need is a petition for consumers to sign that say they won’t shop at Amazon ever again. I view this as a consumer issue, rather than a business issue… because, like I said, the business exists and has its power from the consumer. Technology is the variable within that equation.
Thoughts on that view?
Automation may be inevitable, but the lack of sales tax is pretty inexcusable – why should brick and mortar stores be forced to pay sales tax when online business don’t pay any? It’s an absurd double-standard. And same is true for any business, between the online and the really real.
Oren Teicher – I think that’s a wonderful letter – and absolutely true. It is ridiculous that online business do not require sales tax to be paid. As Blaise has pointed out, Amazon does provide a service and for cheaper, but at this point they are essentially subsidized by the government because of the lack of sale’s tax over the internet. At least adding sale’s tax would create a more even playing field, instead of making things easier for the monolith.