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How Amazon Controls What You Read while Abusing Employees

How Amazon Controls What You Read while Abusing Employees

For book lovers, Amazon.com has become a sort of Mecca. Thousands of titles, electronic or hard copy, matched with rock-bottom prices and efficient customer service. It’s hard to go wrong, and for those of us that own a Kindle, accessing new books has never been simpler.

What is the price we are paying for this access and how much control are we actually giving Amazon? If I ask the question: “Should corporations be allowed to dictate the books we read?” the answer would likely be a resounding ‘no!’ That said, how many people are really willing to take Amazon to task for their unfair business model?

First we must understand that Amazon basically owns more than half the market on book sales. Around 50% of all books sold in the USA are sold through Amazon and 65% of electronic books sales are also theirs. As George Packer at the New Yorker put it, “Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart.” And similarly to Walmart, some of their business models are extremely convoluted, especially when we look at their relationships with publishing houses.

When Amazon sends their contracts out, sometimes with stipulations making them non-negotiable, deals with media and publishing houses are made. Most publishers will do whatever it takes to work with them, including paying Amazon simply to put their book on its site. Unlike other book stores, publishers must pay into a ‘co-opt’ to be included on the website. This co-opt fee nets Amazon millions each year, never mind the percentage they make off of sales. If there is a hiccup in the process, Amazon has been known to remove the ‘buy’ button from books under the particular publishing house. But even more problematic, they’ll remove the ‘buy’ button for any act of subordination.

When the head of Melville House went on record criticizing Amazon’s policies, it deleted the ‘buy’ button from its Melville House collection. Later at a book fair, two Amazon officials approached Melville telling them to “get with the program.” After an undisclosed bribe was paid, Melville is now back in Amazon’s good graces.

When the Kindle emerged in 2007, it had more than 90% of the market in electronic books. This monopoly allowed Amazon to sell books for rock-bottom prices. Publishers, who had been encouraged to create digital copies of their works, were understandably upset at the lack of profit, and authors were similarly enraged.

Then Apple burst out onto the scene, creating competition, and causing dramatic rifts in contracts. One such rift, between MacMillan Publishers and Amazon, eventually led to Amazon deleting their ‘buy’ button as well (although it was brought back a week later under heavy protest from customers). Amazon is also on record telling smaller publishing houses that if they sold electronic copies of their books to Apple, they would be banned from the Amazon store.

This policy, of blackballing publishing houses for selling their products to other retailers, has been banned in the UK. However, this sort of corporate extortion is still considered legal inside the USA.

Yet, where Amazon has excelled tremendously is in their PR. Most see their website as a book-lover’s paradise. And one could claim that Amazon’s negotiating tactics are only hurting publishing houses, which are hardly innocent bystanders themselves.

However, Amazon’s employment policies have also earned them international condemnation. Much like Wal-Mart, Amazon has been accused of giving their workers in the UK ‘poverty pay.’ The national minimum wage around England is £6.31; currently workers in their factories receive £7.10 per hour with a chance of increasing it to £8.00 after 24 months. For comparison, the average starting wage at Wal-Mart is $10.00/hour.

Undercover footage from BBC showed how much strenuous labor is involved in this factory work, calling Amazon’s working environment a “risk for physical and mental illness.” Many employees walked an average of 11 miles per shift, and most were remotely timed and tracked by their employers throughout the day.

A group in England, called Amazon Anonymous, recently put a book up on Amazon’s site called “A Living Wage for all Amazon Workers.” Reviews went up immediately for the book, many of which called on Amazon to start paying living wages. In one example, a customer practically pleaded, “Amazon, please listen to your employees, campaigners, general public and your customers. Stop paying your workers poverty wages. Start paying them Living Wages! I want the people who process my Amazon orders to be able to live on decent wages!” Predictably, Amazon has since pulled the product.

But employee mistreatment isn’t just happening in the UK. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, one local newspaper noted that during a heat wave in 2011, ambulances spent the day parked outside their warehouses, which contained no climate control. Multiple employees fell sick from heat stroke and you’d think this would be enough for Amazon to change its ways. However, air-conditioners were not installed until the produce section was introduced to the warehouse.

It seems very clear that Amazon is driven by algorithms and profits, and for a multi-million dollar corporation that makes sense. Much like Wal-Mart, many people will continue shopping there, and that is their right and prerogative. But whether it comes to employee rights or literary freedom, we cannot pretend that Amazon has anything but the bottom line in mind.

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133 comments

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9:41AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

Thank you

10:25PM PDT on Jul 6, 2014

Unfortunately this isn't new. The way they treat their employees is beyond despicable.

6:30PM PDT on Jul 5, 2014

for several years, I've bought a LOT of stuff at Amazon. I'm part of the problem. I like e-books because my studio doesn't give me much room. I will get books from the library more.

12:27PM PDT on Jul 5, 2014

I think Amazon is very profitable, but I've seen some things lately from economic 'experts' who say it is not. They say they spend so much on shipping that their business model is unsustainable and will collapse. There's an ex-Amazon executive just in the past two or three days who came out and said, "Amazon is doing fine, everyone relax. Amazon's profits are down because they're re-investing them."

But it's up in the air. If the 'experts' are right, you won't have to worry about Amazon much longer. Again, personally I think Amazon is making huge profits.

8:55PM PDT on Jul 4, 2014

Thanks

7:31PM PDT on Jul 4, 2014

Shocking thanks for the update

6:10PM PDT on Jul 4, 2014

John c is right and if Paulat is going to compare wages a least use the same currency.
The Walmart employee on $10.00US per hour is actually earning 5.83BP per hour.
The Amazon employee on 7.31BP per hour is earning $12.54US per hour.
Comparison based on exchange rate 5th July 2014.
This is the type of manipulation that makes the entire article suspect.

5:10PM PDT on Jul 4, 2014

Thanks for the article.

1:08PM PDT on Jul 4, 2014

thank you.....I am suspicious of any BIG Business......because their #1 goal/priority is profit....not workers, not customers, no the future, not being good citizens or employers...

10:11AM PDT on Jul 4, 2014

Line C. - I've looked up a book or two on Amazon in the US and then checked the prices in Canada from Amazon....they are considerably more in Canada. So, no, buying from them is not saving you from inflated prices. Sorry.

And while we are on the difference in pricing in huge corporations between Canada and the US check out the large difference in prices between Ikea here and Ikea there. Canada pays more....it's a rule.

My solution is to not buy from either. And, yes, all the people who've reminded us of the savings at thrift stores (where your money goes to actually try to help....sometimes....Value Village is a privately owned company that gives pennies to charities while making millions off your donations) are absolutely correct. Plus, libraries should be used, in the States they are already closing some down, and many allow you to preorder your books so you just have to go pick them up so you only have to get dressed and leave the house for about an hour ;o) making them 99% as convenient as Amazon.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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Beth Buczynski Beth is a freelance writer and editor living in the Rocky Mountain West. So far, Beth has lived in... more
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