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.