Amazon

Someone Disagrees with PG – Again

20 July 2019

PG has received a lot of comments about his post titled Amazon’s Upcoming Audible Captions Feature = Unhappy Publishers.

One of the responses which disagreed with PG’s assessment of Audible Captions as no big deal was from Marilynn Byerly. Ms. Byerly obviously put some time into collecting links to opinions that differ from PG’s, so PG thought he should promote the comment to a separate post so no one interested in this topic would miss it.

So, PV, you are a lawyer and your wife is a published author and you are fine with Amazon/Audible grabbing a book right without a contract or payment? It’s the author, traditional or self-pubbed, who gets screwed in these situations. Always. Since this is what they tried to do with Kindle rights grab, here are some good resources to study then give us your non-copyright lawyer opinion.

“Legal ruckus over the Kindle.” A fairly reasonable statement of the general facts of the case. http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null/121556

“Amazon Releases the New Kindle 2.” Includes some legal issues. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123419309890963869.html

“Book publishers object to Kindle’s text-to-voice feature.” Covers some of the legal issues involved. http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10161104-93.html

“E-Book Rights Alert: Amazon’s Kindle 2 Adds ‘Text to Speech’ Function.” Authors Guild statement. http://www.authorsguild.org/advocacy/articles/e-book-rights-alert-amazons-kindle-2.html

Copyright lawyer, Ben Sheffner, blogs on the controversy. http://copyrightsandcampaigns.blogspot.com/2009/02/authors-guild-explains-stance-on-new.html

“Kindle Text-to-speech is a lot of talk.” One of the better overviews of the legal questions involved. It also includes two versions, one by a TTS program and one by a human, of some text to compare the two methods. http://www.networkworld.com/news/2009/021109-kindle-text-to-speech-issue-is-a.html?page=1

“Know Your Rights: Does the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech infringe authors’ copyrights?” Ex-copyright attorney talks about the issues involved. The best overview I’ve seen. http://www.engadget.com/2009/02/11/know-your-rights-does-the-kindle-2s-text-to-speech-infringe-au/

“DRM White Paper AAP/ALA White Paper: What Consumers Want in Digital Rights Management,” Discusses the problems of TTS for publishers and audiobook companies because it isn’t adequately defined in a legal sense. No longer available online.

Unfortunately, due to yet another wild and crazy weekend at Casa PG, PG won’t have an opportunity to review all of Ms. Byerly’s links and prepare a response until early next week.

In the interim, feel free to comment on any of Ms. Byerly’s links or other issues you feel are raised (or not raised) by Amazon’s latest experiment with audiobooks.

Amazon’s Upcoming Audible Captions Feature = Unhappy Publishers

19 July 2019

From The Verge:

Earlier this week, Audible revealed that it was working on a new feature for its audiobook app: Audible Captions, which will use machine learning to transcribe an audio recording for listeners, allowing them to read along with the narrator. While the Amazon-owned company claims it is designed as an educational feature, a number of publishers are demanding that their books be excluded, saying these captions are “unauthorized and brazen infringements of the rights of authors and publishers.”

On its face, the idea seems useful, much in the same way that I turn on subtitles for things that I’m watching on TV, but publishers have some reason to be concerned: it’s possible that fewer people will buy distinct e-book or physical books if they can simply pick up an Audible audiobook and get the text for free, too.

And Audible may not have the right to provide that text, anyhow.

In the publishing world, authors and their agents sign very specific contracts with publishers for their works: these contracts cover everything from when the manuscript needs to be delivered, how an author is paid, and what rights to the text a publisher might have, such as print or audio. As an audiobook publisher and retailer, Audible gets the rights to produce an audiobook based on a book, or to sell an audiobook that a publisher creates in its store. Publishers say that a feature that displays the text of what’s being read — itself a reproduction from the original text — isn’t one of those specific rights that publishers and authors have granted, and they don’t want their books included in Audible’s feature when it rolls out.

. . . .

Audible tells The Verge that the captions are “small amounts of machine-generated text are displayed progressively a few lines at a time while audio is playing, and listeners cannot read at their own pace or flip through pages as in a print book or eBook.” Audible wouldn’t say which books would get the feature, only that “titles that can be transcribed at a sufficiently high confidence rate” will be included. It’s planning to release the feature in early September “to roll out with the 2019 school year.”

Penguin Random House, one of the world’s five biggest publishers, told The Verge that “we have reached out to Audible to express our strong copyright concerns with their recently announced Captions program, which is not authorized by our business terms,” and that it expects the company to exclude its titles from the captions feature.

Other publishers have followed suit. Simon & Schuster (disclosure: I’m writing a book for one of its imprints, Saga Press), echos their sentiments, calling the feature “an unauthorized and brazen infringements of the rights of authors and publishers, and a clear violation of our terms of sale,” and has also told Audible to “not include in Captions any titles for which Simon & Schuster holds audio or text rights.” A Macmillan spokesperson said that “the initiative was not authorized by Macmillan, and we are currently looking into it.”

The Authors Guild also released a statement, saying that “existing ACX and Audible agreements do not grant Audible the right to create text versions of audio books,” and that the feature “appears to be outright, willful copyright infringement, and it will inevitably lead to fewer ebook sales and lower royalties for authors for both their traditionally published and self-published books.”

When asked about the feature squares up against the existing audio rights that are granted to it, an Audible spokesperson told The Verge that it does “not agree with this interpretation,” but declined to comment further on whether or not the company actually has the right to go through with it.

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Jan for the tip.

This looks like one more instantiation of Big Publishing’s ancient credo, “New is bad, old is good.” Heaven forfend that books of any sort be improved without more money going to legacy publishers.

Absent a problem with the definition of “ebook” in the contracts between Amazon and the publishers, PG thinks what shows up in Amazon’s video at the end of this post is clearly distinguishable from an ebook.

PG suggests complaining publishers are attempting to extort more money from Amazon.

He predicts it won’t work.

If Amazon wants to play serious hardball, it can begin to delist audiobooks from major publishers which don’t agree to permit the new feature.

If Amazon wants to play a step-below-serious hardball, it can penalize audiobooks that don’t offer the new captioning feature in Amazon search results or tag those audiobooks with a warning to potential purchasers that the audiobooks are only available in an outmoded format or some such thing.

Back to even more serious hardball, how about declining to sell new print and ebooks released by publishers unless the accompanying audiobooks include the captioning feature?

If the publishers want to continue their snit fit, who are they going to turn to for sales, Barnes & Noble?

We See Book-Burning

12 July 2019

We see book-burning as a crime against humanity: it’s intolerable because books represent a kind of freedom to us.

~  Samantha Harvey

PG wonders where book-banning falls in the field of crimes or harmful actions against humanity.

To his way of thinking, book-burning and book-banning are two sides of the same coin – taking actions that are not calculated to rebut the opinions of authors with whom some or many disagree, but rather pursuing a course designed to remove political thoughts deemed by someone to be offensive or incorrect from all human perception.

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Harm­ful and Unde­sir­able: Book Cen­sor­ship in Nazi Germany

From The Jewish Book Council:

Read­ers may be famil­iar with the pho­to­graph of the Nazi-orches­trat­ed book burn­ing in front of a Ger­man uni­ver­si­ty in May, 1933. What is not wide­ly known is that Hitler’s gov­ern­ment estab­lished a rigid sys­tem of book cen­sor­ship and an index of unde­sir­able books that exist­ed until the end of the war. Inher­ent in Nazi ide­ol­o­gy was the claim to total dom­i­na­tion of the world of ideas.

In his new book, Harm­ful and Unde­sir­able: Book Cen­sor­ship in Nazi Ger­many, Guenter Lewy informs us that 5,485 book titles were banned by the end of the war. The entire cen­sor­ship process was imple­ment­ed by a num­ber of com­pet­ing bureau­cra­cies, but main­ly the Reich Cham­ber of Lit­er­a­ture (RSK). The banned books includ­ed those of alleged moral cor­rup­tion, works of Marx­ism and paci­fism, books and arti­cles per­ceived as dam­ag­ing the mar­tial spir­it and morale of the Ger­man peo­ple and those prop­a­gat­ing Catholic or oth­er con­fes­sion­al ideas, and works that fell into the catch des­ig­na­tion of ​fail­ure to live up to what was to be expect­ed in the new Ger­many.” But what of books and pub­li­ca­tions by Jew­ish authors and pub­lish­ing companies?

Nazi pro­pa­gan­da had long equat­ed being Jew­ish with being un-Ger­man. But an unex­pect­ed com­pli­ca­tion came with ban­ning ​Jew­ish” books: after the Nurem­berg Laws were imple­ment­ed in 1935, it became increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to deter­mine which ​Jews” were to have their books banned — three-quar­ter Jews, half-Jews, quar­ter-Jews? There was also the dif­fi­cul­ty of Jew­ish pub­lish­ing firms. In the 1930s the Nazi gov­ern­ment was in des­per­ate need of for­eign cur­ren­cy, and clos­ing down Jew­ish owned pub­lish­ing hous­es meant a severe loss of essen­tial income. How­ev­er, Joseph Goebbels, the Min­is­ter of Pro­pa­gan­da, insist­ed that cul­ture trumped eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty; and so many Jew­ish-owned cul­tur­al enter­pris­es were ​Aryanized.” Goebbels argued that ​the peo­ple of the poets and thinkers had let their cul­ture be admin­is­tered by Semi­tes,” and claimed that ​40per­cent of all Ger­man authors had been Jews,” who ​had devel­oped their deca­dent and cor­ro­sive ver­sion of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture in order to sub­ju­gate the Ger­man peo­ple, a step in the Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy to rule the world.”

Until 1938, the strug­gle against Jew­ish books was focused on those writ­ten by assim­i­lat­ed Ger­man Jews. The list of banned Jew­ish authors includ­ed such writ­ers as Vicky Baum, Emil Lud­wig, Lion Feucht­wanger, Franz Kaf­ka, Arthur Schnit­zler, Kurt Tuchol­sky, Franz Wer­fel, and Arnold and Ste­fan Zweig. In addi­tion, the Min­istry of Pro­pa­gan­da warned the book trade that no men­tion was to be made any­where of the works of Hein­rich Heine. One Nazi jour­nal pro­nounced that ​Heine is not a poet, he is a Jew.” Once World War II start­ed in 1939, the works of Jew­ish authors world­wide were either banned or placed on an index of unde­sir­able books.

Link to the rest at The Jewish Book Council

From Culture Trip:

The control of the Soviet government stretched long and far. Literature, being one of the most powerful forms of conversing ideas, was under the close watchful eye of censors. While some books were edited, some were completely banned. Here are ten works that were banned in the Soviet Union.

. . . .

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The novel Doctor Zhivago had a very unfortunate fate. The manuscript was first approved by the government publishing house, but some time later they retracted their decision. The reason was the anti-revolutionary sentiment in the book. Luckily, Pasternak had also sent a copy to an Italian publisher who refused to return his copy and went ahead to publish the book in Europe. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel, but under the pressure from the Soviet government, declined it.

. . . .

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

A seemingly innocent book about a traveller stuck on a deserted island, nevertheless this book made the list of foreign books unwelcome in the USSR. The main fault of Robinson Crusoe is the idea that one man can carry out so many heroic acts. In the views of the Soviet government, history is made by a collective effort, not by the acts of separate people. As a result the book was basically rewritten, skipping most of the time Robinson Crusoe spent alone and placing more emphasis on ideas of the importance of human society.

. . . .

Animal Farm by George Orwell

This story tells of farm animals that have had enough of being overpowered by their owners, and instigate a coup. New rules are installed to make sure that everybody is equal, but eventually some were more equal that others. The comparison to the 1917 Russian Revolution was evident and to no surprise the novel was forbidden by the Soviet government who didn’t appreciate the author’s irony. Animal Farm along with other writings of Orwell were forbidden in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Link to the rest at Culture Trip

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Spotlight on Censorship: ‘Eleanor and Park’

From The Intellectual Freedom Blog, sponsored by The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association:

Published in 2013, Eleanor & Park is a young adult novel of first love, acceptance, and self-image. For the first time, this New York Times bestseller is listed on ALA’s Top Ten Challenged Books list, clocking in at No. 10.

While there are a number of discussions and debates about the problematic depiction of race and abuse in the book, the reason most consistently reported to ALA for parental complaints is offensive language.

In an interview with The Toast, author Rainbow Rowell talks about the irony of these objections.

“Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear … I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are.”

On the first page, Park is pressing his headphones into his ears.

“He’s trying to block out the profanity! And Eleanor hates that her stepfather curses so much. She complains about it throughout the book,” said Rowell in the interview. “There’s also some pretty vulgar sexual language that the parents have objected to: Someone harasses Eleanor by writing gross things on her school books. It’s one of the more traumatic things that happens to her.”

During the 2013 challenge in Minnesota, Anoka High School principal Mike Farley explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the novel mirrors some of the same situations students find themselves in.

“We did acknowledge some of the language is rough, but it fits the situation and the characters. I deal with this stuff every day working in the school with students. Did I think the language was rough? Yes,” Farley said. “There is some tough stuff in there, but a lot of the stuff our kids are dealing with is tough.”

The parents challenged the book’s selection for school libraries, calling it “vile profanity.” They cited 227 uses of profanity or the Lord’s name in vain, including 60 instances of the “F” word.

“It’s is the most profane and obscene work we have ever read in our lives,” said one parent, Troy Cooper, to the Star Tribune.

In 2016, incensed Chesterfield parents were joined by Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase in demanding that Eleanor & Park be removed from voluntary summer reading lists, calling the books “pornographic” and filled with “vile, vile, nasty language.”

Ultimately, based on the recommendation of the review committee, Superintendent James Lane concluded that the book would not be banned. But it also can not be recommended. No books can be recommended by anyone in the Chesterfield County School District. Summer reading lists can no longer be distributed to students by teachers or librarians.

Instead of talking about language and the power of words like profanity or racial slurs, censors trash talk the novel and often the author, librarians, and teachers who recommend it. In both the Minnesota case and the Virginia case, the school librarians were threatened with disciplinary action and termination.

In both of these public cases, the book was retained in the school library.

Link to the rest at The Intellectual Freedom Blog


 

Why Is Amazon Blocking Reviews of the No. 1 Best-Selling ‘Justice on Trial?’

12 July 2019

From The Federalist:

Amazon is refusing to publish many reviews and ratings of the No. 1 best-selling “Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court,” according to multiple reports from readers who purchased the book directly from Amazon.

The behind-the-scenes dive into the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which was written by Carrie Severino and The Federalist’s Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway, debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s list of best-selling books.

The Federalist independently confirmed that many reviews by verified purchasers of “Justice on Trial” were not being published by Amazon. Some fake reviews from non-purchasers and reviews from those who clearly had not read the book, however, were published immediately. As of Wednesday evening, the online retailer had allowed only 16 reviews of the top-selling book to be published.

One reviewer whose critique was published by Amazon accused the authors of “stay[ing] away from using the term rape” regarding unsubstantiated accusations of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh during the confirmation process in 2018. A word search of the Kindle version of the book shows that the term was used 41 times by the authors. Another review, from an individual who did not purchase the book from Amazon, wrote that it was the “[w]orst book ever” and rated the book with one star.

. . . .

In a canned statement provided to The Federalist by an Amazon spokesperson, the company said, “Our policy includes a delay before reviews appear on our website while we ensure reviews follow our participation guidelines.” The spokesperson did not explain why troll reviews from commenters whom Amazon hadn’t verified have purchased the book were nonetheless published without delay while reviews from verified purchasers were quarantined and remain hidden.

. . . .

The company also refused to disclose the percentage or number of unpublished reviews written by verified buyers, or what the average rating was for verified purchasers whose reviews were being hidden by Amazon.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon employees were being investigated for manipulating product reviews in exchange for cash.

“The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice,” the Wall Street Journal noted. “Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.”

A 2019 expose published by The Hustle dove deep into what it called Amazon’s “massive fake-review economy.”

“Amazon likes to think of its marketplace as a merchant meritocracy where the best products get the best reviews by virtue of quality and honest consumer feedback,” The Hustle wrote. “But the vast size of the platform, coupled with a ferocious competition among sellers to get higher product rankings, has spawned a problem: A proliferation of fake reviews.”

Fake reviews have become such a significant problem that multiple services like Fakespot and ReviewMeta have popped up offering to help potential consumers sort the signal from the noise. Fakespot estimated that up to 30 percent of Amazon reviews are fake or unreliable.

Link to the rest at The Federalist

Amazon Investigates Employees Leaking Data for Bribes

12 July 2019

The following is from September, 2018. PG has no idea why he missed it.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. is investigating suspected data leaks and bribes of its employees as it fights to root out fake reviews and other seller scams from its website.

Employees of Amazon, primarily with the aid of intermediaries, are offering internal data and other confidential information that can give an edge to independent merchants selling their products on the site, according to sellers who have been offered and purchased the data, as well as brokers who provide it and people familiar with internal investigations.

The practice, which violates company policy, is particularly pronounced in China, according to some of these people, because the number of sellers there is skyrocketing. As well, Amazon employees in China have relatively small salaries, which might embolden them to take risks.

In exchange for payments ranging from about $80 to more than $2,000, brokers for Amazon employees in Shenzhen are offering internal sales metrics and reviewers’ email addresses, as well as a service to delete negative reviews and restore banned Amazon accounts, the people said.

Amazon is investigating a number of incidents involving employees, including some in the U.S., suspected of accepting these bribes, according to people familiar with the matter. An internal probe began in May after Eric Broussard, Amazon’s vice president who oversees international marketplaces, was tipped off to the practice in China, people familiar with the matter said. Amazon has since shuffled the roles of key executives in China to try to root out the bribery, one of these people said.

Internally, Amazon has worked hard to stop sellers from gaming its systems, but it can sometimes be a Whac-A-Mole situation as swindlers get more creative, according to former Amazon executives and other people familiar with the company’s thinking.

. . . .

Potential internal corruption is the latest challenge Amazon faces in upholding its platform’s integrity, after well-publicized problems with fake product reviews and counterfeit merchandise.

For the past few years, Amazon has recruited independent merchants to sell their products on the company’s marketplace, something that both widens the variety of products offered on the site and reduces prices. More than two million merchants now sell an estimated 550 million products on Amazon, representing more than half of all units sold on the site and contributing an estimated $200 billion in gross merchandise volume last year, according to FactSet estimates.

. . . .

One of the newer ways some sellers are seeking an edge over rivals is getting access to Amazon employees.

Some midlevel Amazon employees in China have the power to delete negative reviews and can access the email addresses of users who have purchased specific items and written reviews of them, said a person who has facilitated illicit transactions between third-party sellers and Amazon employees in southern China.

Brokers are the middlemen between Amazon employees and sellers who want negative reviews deleted or access to internal sales information. Brokers search for Amazon employees on Chinese messaging platform WeChat and send messages asking them if they would like to provide these services in exchange for cash, according to brokers and sellers who say they have been approached by brokers.

The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice. Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.

For less money, sellers can buy from Amazon employees the email addresses of customers who write reviews. This gives sellers the opportunity to reach out to customers who have written negative reviews and try to persuade them to adjust or delete those reviews, sometimes by offering free or discounted products, the sellers and brokers say. Amazon prohibits this practice.

Brokers also offer proprietary sales information, such as the keywords customers typically use to search for items on Amazon’s site, sales volume and other statistics about buyers’ habits, according to the people. Having this information enables Amazon sellers to craft product descriptions and advertisements in a way that boosts their rankings in search results. Amazon doesn’t disclose this type of detailed sales information.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

In PG’s personal shopping on Amazon (and before he saw the OP), he has become less and less likely to purchase products from Chinese sellers because of the poor reputation some have for honesty, accurate product descriptions and substandard customer service.

He realizes this practice is unfair to Chinese sellers who are operating honestly and if PG discovers a reliable method for identifying such sellers, he’ll be happy to purchase from them.

The OP has lead PG to conclude that some of Amazon’s Chinese employees are doing positive harm to both the company’s overall reputation and to honest Chinese sellers. These employees don’t seem to be planning for long-term employment with Amazon. Perhaps some are working for Alibaba, JD.com or other Chinese ecommerce competitors of Amazon. The fact that such thoughts have crossed PG’s mind make it even less likely that he will patronize Chinese businesses online regardless of what name is on the website.

Amazon to Retrain a Third of Its U.S. Workforce

11 July 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. plans to spend $700 million to retrain a third of its U.S. workforce, as technology threatens to upend the way many of its employees do their jobs.

The company announced Thursday that it will retrain 100,000 workers by 2025 by expanding existing training programs and rolling out new ones meant to help its employees move into more advanced jobs inside the company or find new careers outside of it. The training is voluntary, and most of the programs are free to employees, the company said.

“Technology is changing our society, and it’s certainly changing work,” said Jeff Wilke, chief executive of Amazon’s world-wide consumer business, adding that the initiative is meant to help workers “be prepared for the opportunities of the future.”

For example, hourly workers in fulfillment centers can retrain for IT support roles, such as managing the machines that operate throughout the facilities. Meanwhile, nontechnical corporate workers can spend several years retraining as software engineers without going back to college.

Amazon’s effort to upgrade the skills of its workforce is among the biggest corporate retraining initiatives announced, and breaks down to roughly $7,000 per worker.

. . . .

Amazon, like many corporations, has struggled to find an adequate number of technical employees, and the company is confident that more of its jobs will include a technical component in the future, Mr. Wilke said. The company has more than 20,000 open jobs in the U.S., more than half of them in Seattle.

. . . .

Amazon says it has made a series of moves in recent years to improve workers’ compensation and access to educational opportunities. Last year, the company raised the minimum wage it pays its U.S. employees to $15 an hour. The company had 630,600 full-time and part-time employees world-wide in the quarter ended March 31. It has about 275,000 full-time U.S. employees.

. . . .

Some of the programs offered by Amazon include more advanced training, such as its Machine Learning University, which will be open to thousands of software engineers with computer-science backgrounds to take graduate-level machine-learning skills courses without going back to college. Amazon employees, some of whom are former university professors, will teach the classes.

The training programs could help Amazon workers find jobs in different industries, the company said. The company is expanding a program for fulfillment-center employees called Amazon Career Choice. It pays 95% of an employee’s tuition and fees for certificates and degrees in high-demand fields such as nursing and aircraft mechanics, even though Amazon doesn’t offer employment in those fields.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG did a quick check and couldn’t find reports of any similar programs at Barnes & Noble or Penguin Random House.

Amazon Ruined Online Shopping

10 July 2019

From The Atlantic:

There’s a Gatorade button attached to my basement fridge. If I push it, two days later a crate of the sports drink shows up at my door, thanks to Amazon. When these “Dash buttons” were first rumored in 2015, they seemed like a joke. Press a button to one-click detergent or energy bars? What even?, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance reasonably inquired.

They weren’t a joke. Soon enough, Amazon was selling the buttons for a modest fee, the value of which would be applied to your first purchase. There were Dash buttons for Tide and Gatorade, Fiji Water and Lärabars, Trojan condoms and Kraft Mac & Cheese.

The whole affair always felt unsettling. When the buttons launched, I called the Dash experience Lovecraftian, the invisible miasma of commerce slipping its vapor all around your home. But last week, a German court went further, ruling the buttons illegal because they fail to give consumers sufficient information about the products they order when pressing them, or the price they will pay after having done so. (You set up a Dash button on Amazon’s app, selecting a product from a list; like other goods on the e-commerce giant’s website, the price can change over time.) Amazon, which is also under general antitrust investigation in Germany, disputes the ruling.

Given that Amazon controls about half of the U.S. online-retail market and takes in about 5 percent of the nation’s total retail spending, it’s encouraging to see pushback against the company’s hold on the market. But Dash buttons are hardly the problem. Amazon made online shopping feel safe and comfortable, at least mechanically, where once the risk of being scammed by bad actors felt huge. But now online shopping is muddy and suspicious in a different way—you never really know what you’re buying, or when it will arrive, or why it costs what it does, or even what options might be available to purchase. The problem isn’t the Dash button, but the way online shopping works in general, especially at the Everything Store.

. . . .

“They sent the wrong tea lights,” my wife announced recently, after tearing open the cardboard box Amazon had just delivered. “It’s the wrong brand, and 50-count instead of 75.” This is not so unusual, actually. Amazon moves a huge volume of goods, and its warehouse workers are poorly treated humans, not just robots. Errors are bound to happen occasionally.

On top of that, Amazon is more than willing to fix its errors. In most cases, you can return an item for a refund or exchange with a few button presses on the website or in the app. And when Amazon messes up, as in the case of our tea lights, the company usually offers free return shipping, and even free UPS pickup, so you don’t even have to leave the house to rectify the error. These are some of the reasons Amazon consistently ranks high in customer-service satisfaction: The company appears to give people what they want, including correcting problems when they arise.

But a customer-service orientation masks how Amazon has changed consumer expectations and standards as they relate to retail purchases. At BuzzFeed Newslast year, Katie Notopoulos wrote about how terrible Amazon’s website is, prompted by its offering her a subscription deal for bassoon straps (a product Notopoulos reported needing to replace once every two decades or so), and a warranty for bottle brushes (which cost $6.99).

. . . .

I recently tried to search for a heat-pump-compatible thermostat on the site. I got a litany of results, all thermostats for sure, but it was difficult to figure out which ones really worked with a heat pump. Eventually I gave up and resolved to visit Home Depot, which I still haven’t done. Another time, I tried to look for a 5-by-8-inch picture-frame mat on Amazon. But every other possible combination of mat came up instead: 8-by-10, 5-by-7, 8-by-8, 5-by-5. A hedge-trimmer battery I purchased came with a charger, but I didn’t realize it from the product description, so I ordered a duplicate charger as well—that charger arrived first, for some reason, and I had opened the packaging so couldn’t return it.

. . . .

Apparel and other items with many options are particularly confusing. Determining if Amazon has the color-and-size combination you’re after for a particular dress or pair of sneakers can be disillusioning—as I write this, for example, Adidas Samba shoes are available for $72.95 in a men’s size 9 without Prime shipping, but for $57.58 in a size 12 with Prime two-day delivery.

. . . .

That brings us to Germany’s Dash-button ban: It’s difficult to know exactly what the product costs when you press the button to order it. Prices on Amazon sway up and down in mysterious ways, driven by computational pricing models that consumers can never see or understand. If configured to do so, pressing the Dash button can send a notification to the account holder’s smartphone, which can be followed to confirm pricing and cancel the order if desired. From the perspective of German law, this isn’t enough; the default behavior is for the purchase to complete, absent sufficient information.

. . . .

The products available to purchase in the first place still feel arbitrary, as do their changing prices, their seemingly inconsistent availability and shipping times, the reliability of their arrival (thanks in part to Amazon Flex, the company’s gig-economy delivery service), and not to mention whether you actually get the product you ordered.

. . . .

But there’s a reason that we used to have shoe stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, bookstores, and all the rest: Those specialized retail spaces allow products, and the people with knowledge about them, to engage in specialized ways of finding, choosing, and purchasing them.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Nirmala for the tip.

PG says there is nothing like a collection of first-world complaints to make you realize that life in modern America is a totally hellish experience. Lovecraftian to the max.

Arbitrary product selection!! Such a thing would never happen at a proper book store.

Prices that change!! Different prices for different shoes!!

Bassoon strap sellers running amok!!

All of these micro-aggressions and micro-annoyances and micro-heat-pump-thermostat-uncertainties make one long for a return to an aboriginal lifestyle.

Or at least a serious book discussion with a knowledgeable Barnes & Noble clerk sporting detailed and colorful satanic tattoos running up and down each arm (presumably to help disguise needle tracks) and multiple lip piercings that produce a unique blurring of fricative consonants when he/she/they/us/we speaks.

At least, the Germans have retained their unique culture in the face of Amazon’s unremitting commercial onslaughts and microaggressions.

No Dash buttons for you, Helga! Es ist zu deinem Besten. Sorge dich nicht, sei glücklich.






New Ways of Selling Books Clash with France’s Old Pricing Rules

6 July 2019

From The Economist:

A book is so much more than mere ink and paper. So insist French booksellers, who for nearly four decades have successfully lobbied to keep the forces of the free market at bay. A law passed in 1981 bans the sale of any book at anything other than the price decreed by its publisher. Authorities are cracking down on those trying to flog the latest Thomas Piketty or j.k. Rowling at a discount.

The fixed-price rule is meant to keep customers loyal to their local bookshop and out of the clutches of supermarkets and hypercapitaliste American corporations. But the advent of e-commerce and e-readers has prompted questions worthy of their own tomes. Can you fix the price of a book if it is part of an all-you-can-read subscription service? Are audiobooks books at all? And what of authors who self-publish?

Tweaks have been made to preserve the principle of one book, one price. In 2011 the rule began to apply to digital tomes. Free delivery by online sellers was prohibited on the grounds it implied a subsidy on the delivered books (prompting websites to charge all of €0.01 for postage). But a new challenge to the policy is proving thornier.

Used books are exempt from the pricing rule. Third-party sellers on Amazon are accused of using this as a way to apply forbidden discounts: selling brand-new books as “second-hand” to make them cheaper. So fans of bleak fiction can purchase a copy of the latest Michel Houellebecq novel, “Sérotonine”, for €11.71 ($13.21) on Amazon, roughly half its mandated price. Its seller claims it is in “perfectly new” condition.

Amazon claims its practices are legal. But booksellers are fuming, and their political allies with them.

. . . .

Even with a plethora of subsidies, bookshops are among the least profitable retail businesses. Books are expensive in France—an odd way to encourage people to buy more. For now, constraining the market in the name of l’exception culturelle remains an article of faith for French policymakers. “On the internet you find what you look for,” Mr Riester told his literary allies. “But only in a bookshop do you find what you were not looking for.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG suggests that ebooks and the Internet make protectionist laws difficult, if not impossible, to enforce without governments attempting to disable the Internet.

PG has always loved books and bookstores, but acquiring a book through a physical bookstore is becoming a rarer and rarer practice for him (and, from the looks of the physical bookstores he has entered in the past couple of years, for a lot of other readers as well).

Amazon has spoiled PG by feeding his appetite for books on obscure and exotic topics (as perceived by most other readers) and, fortunately, PG’s local library offers an enormous online collection of ebooks through a regional library association, so an unrealistically high online price set by a publisher can also be avoided.

As an example, via Overdrive through his local library, PG is currently reading the ebook version of the English translation of Stalingrad, by Ukranian author (and Jew) Vasily Grossman, a long-suppressed book about the epic siege of that city by the German army during World War II. (PG first mentioned the book here.)

Given the publisher’s price for the printed version of Stalingrad, PG might not have risked adding it to his large collection of abandoned-partway-through-because-it-turned-out-not-to-be-PG’s-cup-of-tea physical books. Also, PG is less entranced by the chest-loading involved in reading thousand-page printed books while lying in bed than he was in former days.

Regarding the OP’s characterization of happy accidents of discovery in price-fixed physical bookstore, PG thinks most readers are far more likely to experience such discoveries online rather than in meatspace.

 

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