Getting Controversial: When Corporations Clash and Why I Shop at Amazon

I’m a liberal Democrat.  I’m Pro-Choice and I vote.  I don’t drive because burning fossil fuels has wrecked the environment.  I don’t shop at WalMart.

I do, however, shop at Amazon.

The Amazon feud with Hachette about e-book pricing, which, by the way, has gone on absurdly long, is not a matter of priority to me politically.  If Hachette chooses not to take care of its authors–Amazon did, after all, propose that Hachette writers should earn 100% of the e-book profits until the superstore and the publisher have reached a deal–how will my failure to buy other publishers’ books, classics, and used books support the publishing industry?

The Kindle does not concern me.  I have a Nook. I already pay higher prices for e-books than Kindle users do.  This is not my battle.

Pray, where would I buy books if not at Amazon?  I live in an insurance town.  The number of bookstores is minuscule.  We have Barnes and Noble and two tiny independent bookstores.  If not for Amazon, how would I find the books of Mrs. Humphry Ward, Pamela Frankau, and Margaret Wilson?  I very much prefer books to e-books.  Particularly in recent months, I have tired of reading on a screen.  Are others, too, going back to the physical book? One can hope.

Everyone in my family is liberal, and yet we all shop at Amazon.

Some groups of writers have organized against Amazon’s  decision to make Hachette books harder to buy, i.e., by not allowing pre-orders and claiming that the books will take one-to-three weeks to deliver.  According to the Wall Street Journal,  the Authors Guild, which has about 8,500 members, met with Justice Department officials in August to request an investigation of whether Amazon is violating antitrust law in its tactics with Hachette Book Groups.  Another group, Authors United, with more than 1,000 members, has written a letter to the Justice Department about the same antitrust issue.

This actually does not seem to me a huge number of writers.  The New York Times stresses the presence in Authors United of white male stars like Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie.  Can ordinary writers afford to make a big issue of this?  I very much doubt it.

So I was relieved when two highly-respected writers, Paulo Coelho and Germaine Greer, recently spoke in favor of lower e-book prices.

Publishers Weekly reported last week that Paulo Coelho told an audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair that change could not be stopped.

“It is a lost case,” Coelho said.

“Paulo, you’re saying the war is lost?” Juergen Boos [the fair director) asked.

“I’m not saying the war is lost,” Coelho replied “I’m saying we humans are still here because of our capacity of adapting ourselves. The war is not lost. It is the opposite. The war is won. Culture is now available all over the world. People can read.”

On Aug. 28 on BBC Radio 4’s “The Report,” Germaine Greer said,

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should,” she said. “They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle then it should cost you pennies frankly.”

Of course one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin, emailed the New York Times to say that Amazon’s treatment of Hachette authors was censorship.

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote (The New York Tin an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

One cannot sanction censorship.

I just can’t make everything my cause.  If I didn’t buy so many books, it would be easier.  I am not going to special-order everything I want from an independent bookstore and pay twice the price when I can order it myself.

Sometimes you have to do what’s good for yourself.

12 thoughts on “Getting Controversial: When Corporations Clash and Why I Shop at Amazon

  1. It’s a tricky one – I try and avoid Amazon because of the rubbish quality of sellers books I’ve had recently (and they really don’t care) and also because the censorship issue is worrying. I hate having someone decree what I can and can’t read. Luckily, The Book Depository here often matches them in price for new books *and* they deliver free whatever the cost, whereas Amazon charge under £10. So it’s The Book Depository for me nowadays! 🙂

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    • You’re right, there ARE other sites online. Amazon is just so much fun, though: great website, lots of information, and great service. The Book Depository and Abebooks are both very good, but Amazon owns them! (I’m sure they are separate businesses, though).

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  2. I still buy frrom Amazon but it’s when I want a specific book and I can’t buy it from another site. Often a book is available from another site (bookfinder.com is a general place). I don’t use kindles, ebooks or nooks or any of these devices. While away Izzy downloaded 8 books by Jane Austen onto my ipad so for the first time I was reading a book (MP) on a device, but I noted the edition lacked lines about how much specifically was Mrs Norris’s income in the third chapter so the reprint is not the best edition.

    Of course we must use all these new technologies and now everything has become commercialized as capitalism and its corporate structures and ruthless ethos has taken over. We are reaching one another, are we not?

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    • I use Bookfinder, too. (Amazon owns it now!) Abebooks is excellent, and I should remember to use it more often. (Amazon owns it.) It’s the convenience of Amazon that sends me there again and again. Amazon has all that great information about books at its website.

      Yes, the technology is owned by the corporations, but it doesn’t mean we can’t use it for the good.

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  3. I was just having this argument with someone yesterday, which was triggered by mention of Amazon’s worker-unfriendly policies. I don’t love Amazon, but at this point its loss would be difficult to fill. I work in publishing and understand that paper is one of the lesser costs of book production, yet I don’t believe ebooks should cost as much as, and certainly not more than, a paper book. Both Hachette and Amazon have some right in their arguments: Hachette was charging too much, and Amazon acted thuggishly. I live in Canada now, where there aren’t a lot of affordable buying options, so when my conscience and wallet war over the Amazon quandary, I remind myself that twenty years ago the evil players in the book business were the chain bookstores, which people now mourn the loss of when they fold.

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    • Liz, I just looked you up and am very excited to find that you are an author! (More books to read! Yay! ) Yes, I am concerned about what I have heard about the Amazon workplace though on the other hand a friend of a friend works there in Seattle and loves it. It is true: the chains were the enemy, and now we think they’re practically indies. I suppose something we can’t imagine will eventually take over Amazon. The changes have been so rapid. Independent bookstores lasted for–how long?–centuries? And now, since the ’90s, online shopping. I got hooked when a friend sent me a book from Amazon. I had said I wouldn’t shop there. Believe it or not, the website used to recommend small-press books to me. That doesn’t quite happen with the new technology, but they do have so many books and such good service.

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      • Thank you–I swear I wasn’t trying to plug myself! I’ve also worked as an editor, so when I hear people say that ebooks should only cost pennies, I want to chime in that they can’t cost pennies and still go through the editing process.

        I also use Abebooks and the Powell’s website, but Amazon still seems the best for finding books. Also, I own a Kindle, and it’s great to get all the public domain titles for free whenever I want them. The immediate gratification factor is hard to resist.

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        • I’m so glad I clicked on your link! As it happens I very much like “women’s fiction” (as Goodreads calls you) and will now look forward to reading one of your books! I’m thinking of reading your latest, Life Is Sweet, because I love all books about bakeries, tea shops, coffee shops, bookshops, antique shops. Plus I read a sample and it looks very amusing. And well-written!

          I’m in denial about the effect of online shopping on publishing and do know we’re heading for a train wreck, or have already had it. I’m such a Puritan in so many ways that Amazon is an indulgence. I do know really that ebooks take a lot of work–writing, editing, and things I don’t know about. It is so bizarre to see booksellers fighting with publishers, though I suppose this happened with the chains first. I remember hearing that Borders might be having effect on book covers, etc. And now we all think Borders was cozy (it was a good bookstore for many years, though).

          I, too, shop at Powells and Abebooks and I will have to make a greater effort to support them as well as all the other bookstores that depend on me!!!! That’s why it’s good for me to write a ME-E-E-E! post once in a while. It gives me other input.

          The Amazon website is fantastic, and that’s how I think it beats out the other booksellers.

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  4. If I can get a book elsewhere I will but very often if it is a hard to find out of print text that i want quickly then I have only two choices, go via Amazon or don’t get a copy. As you say there are only so many battles any individual can fight and I have had to adopt a compromise position here.

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  5. I hadn’t realised that AbeBooks was owned by Amazon! Sigh. I have had some good luck with finding things on ebay – there’s one shop that sells Folio Society books for very reasonable prices (I got a copy of Eileen Power’s Medieval Women from them – it has a great introduction and a very interesting essay on Power). I’ve found this a very helpful list in trying to work out options for buying books online with a clear(ish) conscience: http://www.socialbrite.org/2011/01/31/better-book-buying-10-socially-conscious-online-bookstores/

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    • Catherine, I do shop for books everywhere, though I should probably make another silly resolution never to shop again between the acquisitions from that trip to London and the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.

      What a great list! I have bought from betterworldbooks through Amazon, but it never occurred to me to go to their website directly! I’ve never actually bought anything at ebay. Kind of strange, huh? But I’m definitely interested in Folio books.

      It’s just so hard for me to give up the book shopping website I really like.

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