Next week Amazon celebrates its 20th anniversary with a bunch of Black Friday-like sales. Remember how innovative and exciting Amazon was going to be, and the announcements that founder Jeff Bezos loved books and wanted to invigorate literary culture? Let’s walk down memory lane briefly and think of a few reasons we wish Amazon an unhappy birthday.
1. The bookstore that used to be in your neighborhood
The most direct and tangible effect of Amazon’s arrival in the bookselling market has been to shutter actual brick-and-mortar bookstores that allow people to browse through books, connect with the literary zealots who work there, and see authors read. If you have a favorite indie – Powell’s or the Tattered Cover or Politics and Prose or Carmichael’s or The Regulator or Skylight – you know how valuable these places are.
And there are about half as many indies as there were when Amazon arrived, from about 4,000 to about 2,000, according to George Packer’s virtuoso New Yorker essay, “Cheap Words.” In this time the U.S. population has added more than 60 million people. And the number of indies has plummeted.
Of course, the chains Borders and Barnes and Noble did not help; the indies fell to them too. But any decent bookstore makes a town or ‘hood a better place. And now Amazon has helped kill off the chains and independents alike.
How did Amazon do this? Tech utopians will tell you it was with “innovation,” Bezos’s brilliance, and the ability to anticipate market trends. But a lot of it comes down to unfair competition. The bookstore in your neighborhood, independent or chain, paid sales tax; until recently (it varies by state), Amazon did not. Bezos actually looked into setting up shop at in Indian reservation as a way to avoid taxes more permanently.
What did we expect would happen when these institutions are competing against each other for customers?
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3. Destroying the profession of author
Amazon and the rise of e-books and the other digital shifts have not just damaged bookstores, the people who used to work there, and publishing folk as well. It’s undercut the advances authors use to buy time to write something – slicing it by as much as half.
Around the time of Amazon’s war with the publisher Hachette, a number of authors became vocal. One of them was Janet Fitch, author of “Paint it Black,” who prefaced an open letter to Bezos this way:
As a middle-aged woman who has had some luck as a writer, I’d like this profession of author to remain a possibility for young writers in the future—and not become an arena solely for the hobbyist or the well-heeled. What will be lost when working writers no longer can support themselves pursuing their ideas, their art? What will be lost to this country, if these most talented can no longer make a living? I am making this an open letter, because I believe we are at a crossroads, and decisions are being made now which will affect our country permanently.
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5. Its near monopoly in bookselling
Amazon controls something like two-thirds of the sale of e-books, and exerts an enormous amount of force in every aspect of the book trade. This is exactly the kind of thing Teddy Roosevelt feared would happen if big companies were left alone. In an important New Republic story, Franklin Foer called Amazon a monopoly:
That term doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart. Unlike U.S. Steel, the new behemoths don’t use their barely challenged power to hike up prices. They are, in fact, self-styled servants of the consumer and have ushered in an era of low prices for everything from flat-screen TVs to paper napkins to smart phones.
In other words, we’re all enjoying the benefits of these corporations far too much to think hard about distant dangers… The Internet-age monopolies are a different species; they flummox our conventional ways of thinking about corporate concentration and have proved especially elusive to those who ponder questions of antitrust, the discipline of law that aims to curb threats to the competitive marketplace.
So is it a monopoly, a near-monopoly, a monopsony (in which there is only one buyer), or something similar? However you slice it, Amazon is far too big and unregulated.
Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Gene, who said it was our ADS for the day, for the tip.