5 reasons to wish Amazon an unhappy birthday

As the online behemoth turns 20, let's remember how destructive it's been to the literary world

Published July 10, 2015 6:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Ross Franklin)
(AP/Ross Franklin)

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?

2. The way it treats workers

In the early days, Amazon hired talented writers and editors to help it advise readers on the books that might interest them. But before long, they fired them and replaced them all with an algorithm. “The spread of aggression and automation within Amazon as the company grew larger and larger,” Steve Coll wrote, “echoed classics of the science fiction genre to which Bezos was devoted.”

How has it worked out for the rank and file? Bookstores typically pay low to medium wages, but treat employees humanely, and clerks, buyers and managers get to spend their days evangelizing for books. In the Amazon era, their equivalents become sweatshop workers, almost literally: The Allentown Morning Call reported warehouse temperatures approaching 115 degrees.

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn't quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

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.

4. The “Gazelle Project”

Amazon has been bad for most, perhaps all, publishers, but it’s been especially harsh for independent publishers, as a New York Times story on Brad Stone’s authoritative book on Amazon, “The Everything Store” (as its title implies, Stone's book looks at more than the retailer's bookselling), points out:

The company’s relationship with those publishers was called the Gazelle Project after Mr. Bezos said Amazon “should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” A joke, perhaps, but such an aggressive one that Amazon’s lawyers demanded the Gazelle Project be renamed the Small Publishers Negotiation Program.

Mr. Stone writes that Randy Miller, an Amazon executive in charge of a similar program in Europe, “took an almost sadistic delight in pressuring book publishers to give Amazon more favorable financial terms.” Mr. Miller would move their books to full price, take them off the recommendation engine or promote competing titles until he got better terms out of them, the book says.

“I did everything I could to screw with their performance,” Mr. Miller told the writer. The program was called Pay to Play until the Amazon lawyers changed it to Vendor Realignment.

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.

There’s more of course: its inability to consistently make money even while driving local stores under, its experimenting with drone delivery, its announcing itself as a great deal for self-published authors but then changing the terms of its payment, its awful customer service.

But the key here is that Amazon, for all its convenience, has been a destructive bully, and without more resistance from people who care, it will continue to pillage. Twenty years from now, what will we have left?

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Amazon Amazon.com Books Bookstores Indie Book Jeff Bezos