Maybe We Can't Live Without Amazon

By Meghan McNamara

I say it a lot these days: Amazon is taking over the world. 

We buy our gadgets from Amazon, our groceries—some might even say our news, if you count the fact that Amazon's president and CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns the nationally syndicated Washington Post. Soon, we may even buy our healthcare from this behemoth online retailer. Often, our dollars support Amazon in ways we aren't even cognizant of

Amazon's influence isn't hyperbolic; this company is redefining the way
we purchase and pay for almost everything these days.

What started out as an online book retailer has quickly, in the span of just twenty years, spiraled into a nationwide dealer of goods and services. And there’s plenty about that which might give government regulators cause for concern. But what most of the Amazon-consuming public likely isn’t privy to, is the complete lack of regard (or seeming disdain) that the company continues to show the publishing community.

It’s no small secret that independent publishers get short shrift with big box stores, but these days, Amazon is extending their indifference as far as big publishing houses, distributors, and authors.

For Stillhouse Press, this is hardly surprising. In 2017, we had two titles listed as “Unavailable” on their publication date, despite showing up for presale for months leading up to their release. What’s more, warehouses showed the titles as "in stock," but after several hours on the phone with out-of-country call centers, Amazon unapologetically told us there had been a “glitch in the system,” and we needed to be patient while it worked itself out.

 Source: Twitter,  @kellyforsythe_

Source: Twitter, @kellyforsythe_

In the end, our distributor couldn’t force Amazon's hand on the matter any more than we could and the books continued to show up as unavailable for the better part of the week that followed. As a result, we ended up returning to Ingram’s distribution arm, for little reason except that they had more pull with Amazon than the smaller distributor we had been using.

Stories like this are a dime a dozen—and hardly the only thing Amazon is doing to undermine small presses. Last November, Goodreads.com—one of the many businesses owned by Amazon—took their previously free book “Giveaway” option to market. What had once functioned as a grassroots marketing tool for indie publishers and self-published authors is now a $119/book marketing investment.*

Why offer something for free when you have the power and visibility to charge for it? seems to be the modus operandi here. And sure, it seems like an excellent way to pull in even more in profit, but some are dubious about whether or not the program will stick around. As an indie press or self-published author, often times the funds just simply aren’t available.

 Source: Swenson Book Development

Source: Swenson Book Development

Perhaps one of the most palpable areas where publishers are starting to feel the impact of Amazon’s capitalist ways, however, is with the company’s [in]famous "buy button."

 Amazon's "Buy Button," now available to the highest bidder.

Amazon's "Buy Button," now available to the highest bidder.

With the exception of books, Amazon has historically offered their buy buttons to the highest bidder—the party that could offer a new good at the best (read: cheapest) price, regardless of who had brick and mortar rights to distribute the product. The emphasis on new is important here, because with booksellers, it should—in theory—be the publisher who holds the only new copies of a just-published or forthcoming book.

Not only does allowing third parties the right to a book's buy button undercut publishers, distributors, and authors (who see no dividends from books sold by third parties), but it ultimately begs the question: Where are these third parties sourcing their "new" books from? Some publishers have attempted to stand up to Amazon, but it doesn’t look like the company has any intention of changing its policy.

So... where do we go from here?

If my bookshelf and the recent Association of Writing and Writing Professionals conference (AWP) are any indication, the independent literary community is as ebullient and self-supportive as ever. But, if it is to continuing flourishing while the most popular platform for sales continues to re-write the rules, we in the book-buying community have to adapt our habits. 

I get it : it's simply easier to buy your books from Amazon.
It's faster, often even slightly cheaper. But lately I've thinking about how important ease really is in the book buying process.

Last week, while surfing the web and drinking my morning coffee, I came across a book that gave me that "I have to have this" feeling. I get it often, sometimes twice a week (to my partner's dismay). I navigated easily to the Amazon site. As a Prime customer, it could be on my doorstep in two days. 

But I didn't end up adding the book to my cart. Instead, I called my local bookstore, One More Page, and spoke to a human (terrifying, I know). It took five minutes. I chatted with the woman on the other end of the line, exchanged pleasantries, told her I'd see her in a week. It will take about five days for my book to reach the store. But that's fine. I can wait. In fact, I am already looking forward to the trip, to the inky goodness of freshly-printed pages and colorful rows of un-cracked spines.

Maybe we can’t live without Amazon — where would I buy my fancy French sea salt, or those perfectly sized tension rods at a moments notice?— but we can change what we depend on it for, and I would argue that books should not be one. #BuyBetter

* As of press time.