The more I think about the latest Amazon outrage, and filter through my lack of shock, then my sadness at my lack of shock, then my sadness at my sadness of my lack of shock, the thing that really bothers me is that Amazon seem to be obsessed with making decisions that make people angry at them. Which seems like a terrible way to run a business. Which bothers me because I really want to fix it, even though this is a company which is so actively trying to put me out of work that I would not be surprised if its next move was to issue bounties for the still-functioning brains of actual human booksellers. It seems like it would be easy for them to make a few quick changes, spin every accusation that people throw at them, and become bullet-proof. To wit:
If they started collecting sales tax and, hell, even donating to local charities? (They can even do it Pepsi Refresh style and get a sick amount of free advertising out of it!): “Amazon has been grateful for our years of providing tax-free shopping to our loyal customers because it allowed us to grow into the company you know and love today. But it’s time for us to start giving back to the communities that we care about. We don’t just want to provide the books on your child’s desk. We also want to help fuel the bus that gets them there.”
If they allow Kindle users to download ebooks from any retailer?: “Amazon is so confident in our device and the seamless Kindle reading experience that we’re happy to allow our readers the freedom of choice. We’re proud of what we’ve created and we think you’ll choose us.”
If they take the 90-day exclusivity requirement away from KDP Select?: “Amazon has been excited to help foster the careers of an incredible number of independent authors. But we’ve decided that it’s in the best interests of all readers for their work to be as widely available as possible at all times.”
(I don’t think they need to address the unionization issue, since nobody else is.)
I do read the comments sections on the Internet, so I know there are a lot of people who like Amazon and what they do, and do not consider these to be bad business decisions. But the dominant media narrative, at this point, seems to be: “Amazon Is Large Company That Screws Over Little Companies And Is Allergic To Paying Taxes, Possibly On Purpose Though It Is Hard To Tell. News At 11.” There are plenty of corporate citizens that do Amazon-like things all the time and avoid that sort of labeling, because they make other business decisions that cover them over. Given that, I can’t understand why Amazon just makes the bad ones unabated.
This is why I am always wary of the full-scale attack that so many people level against Amazon, aside from the fact that it is exhausting. As a company, they could turn the tables on the hundreds of WHY AMAZON SUCKS blog posts with one well-written press release. I don’t want to make lists of the reasons why Amazon sucks because I feel like I’m handing them a blueprint for rehabilitation.
Many people want so, so badly to like Amazon, and many people already do. (See: comments sections on any article talking about Amazon.) Any effort they made towards making the world a better place would be embraced wholeheartedly by consumers and publishers, who mostly, when it comes right down to it, just want things to be convenient and cheap. If Amazon started reversing any of their more unsavory decisions, they might lose money in the short-term, but I think they’d end up making more money in the long-term, by cementing the loyalty of an entirely new set of consumers who always sort of want to buy things from Amazon, and sometimes give in and do, but feel guilty about it. I am sure Amazon knows that this description fits a great many people.
I think that this frustration comes in part from my envy of their reach. I do envy anyone who sells books who has that sort of audience. As much as I love my job, I sometimes wish I was Pennie Clark of Costco. She has this amazing thing called “Pennie’s Pick” that runs in the Costco newsletter each month. She picks a book every month and thousands of people buy it and read it, no questions asked. Can you imagine how a hyper-local bookseller like myself might crave that sort of influence? Ahhhhhh, I can think of so many books that I wish I could expose to that size of readership, and which deserve that many readers! There are a lot of great things about a small business, but any book proselytizer worth her salt is always going to think about what life would be like with more parishioners.
This access to readers must be why these bad decisions irritate me. Amazon have access to more readers every day than I have seen in ten years as a bookseller, and they piss their goodwill away foolishly and, most unforgivably in an era of shortening attention spans, continue to drag yet another ten, twenty, thirty, forty inches of newsprint away from discussing actual books, and whether this one or that one are good and fun and worth reading. This is, all assertions to the contrary, an incredible time for books. There are so many good books coming out right now we could each double our reading time and still not find room for all of them, and that’s not even taking into consideration the wealth of classics on which we are perched. And instead of talking about them, we are talking about Amazon and whether they are nice. Again.
At this point I am thinking one or all of the following must be true:
- The company culture at Amazon is in some part developed on the back of a scrappy underdog mentality that can only, given their current dominance, be furthered by deliberate business decisions that allow the company to feel like a misunderstood victim
- The marketing department has hard data showing that given the general miasma of free market exhortation in modern political discourse, consumers respond enthusiastically to offers that deliberately and overtly screw over competition, in large enough numbers to make any negative press a moot point
- This is all part of an elaborate campaign to make decisions that compel Amazon’s competition and detractors to come out in numbers ruing their predatory and unethical practices, which given the reactive nature of the Internet will give Amazon’s defenders endless chances to label the detractors as old-fashioned, elitists, nostalgia-hounds, and/or Luddites, further cementing the “Amazon vs. the world” brand story
- Amazon has studied the possibility that they could make more money long-term by gaining the loyalty of customers who would be swayed by more ethical business practices, but has also realized it wouldn’t be worth the investment
Oh, never mind, I just feel so tired of all this. I was tired of it years ago. Aren’t you tired, Jeff? Can’t we all just take a nap? Or maybe just lie on the couch and read awhile?
(NB: I have made some changes to this blog post since I originally published it; most of them were grammatical, but in particular I changed the section on KDP Select because I was describing it wrong. Thank you to @MidnightRem on Twitter for pointing it out and helping me improve it.)