Watching Amazon fight with Hachette was starting to feel like watching your parents fight – you can’t take sides because as a book lover they both offer you different, but highly valuable, services. Plus they’re grown-ups, and they should really know better. As the saga has gone on, and Amazon has made more and more enemies both in and outside of the publishing industry, they now seem less like the ugly side of a justifiable battle, and more like the playground thug out to steal everyone’s lunch money. It only adds to this image when Amazon’s people respond like infants (see their famous George Orwell misquote in an open letter to ‘readers’) and throw tantrums which manifest in the removal of certain books and pre-order buttons, and generally making life miserable for the authors and their customers.
And that is the saddest side of the whole debacle. Amazon’s monopolising, money-grabbing tendencies are punishing writers, who often seem to be discussed in a pained ‘think about the children’ manner. While Amazon and the mighty publishers squabble over who should get the most money from the books they produce and sell, they seem to unashamedly sail past the notion that the people who should be earning the most from their books are probably the writers since they, you know, WROTE THE BOOKS. And as they plough through each publishing house like so much wheat and chaff, it appears as though Amazon is just too big. It’s too resilient. Amazon have enough fingers in enough pies to bump along quite happily without the good favour of the odd publishing house for a while, but how long can even the biggest publishing houses survive without Amazon? With the grinding down of major book retailers, publishers are no longer able to take the revenue from the high streets they once could – Amazon is our high street now.
It was in fact eBook profit margins that triggered Amazon’s myriad disputes, and not those of the physical books they are toying with – Amazon naturally wanting a bigger slice, the publishers naturally saying no. Amazon’s ailing profit margins have shaken their share price, and it seems more and more like the company is becoming a victim of its own business model. The problem is, saying no to Amazon is sort of like saying no to the mob. Their actions in the last few months have infuriated many people in the literary community, and Dennis Loy Johnson, founder of Melville House, even exasperatedly asked the New York Times “How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it”.
It does, however, look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There is an increasingly large variety of places we can find cut-price and out of print books, both physical and online, but until recently Amazon was the one we all knew. They can knock huge percentages off the RRP, while smaller sites can only do up to around 35% off before they start losing money. I think 35% is enough. It may now be in our hands as consumers to rob Amazon of its monopoly, simply by shopping elsewhere.
Publishers and authors are angry, and are beginning to experiment with different ways of selling their books online, such as HarperCollins revamping their website to make it easier for customers to buy their books directly from the publisher. Penguin Random House also launched their new site, My Independent Bookshop, a few months ago, offering a completely new way to buy books online. The site emulates the experience of walking into an indie bookshop and being told what is really worthwhile buying, by people worthwhile listening to: booksellers and writers. Each virtual shop set up by an author or bookseller is given a name and a street, giving the shopper the sense of meandering through winding literary avenues. You can also buy the books being recommended to you via Hive, the Gardners Books e-commerce arm – there’s no steering us towards Amazon here. And best of all, this isn’t only a boost for independent online book sales – shoppers can choose a real world indie bookshop which will receive a percentage of the commission, as well as act as a pick-up point for the books bought via Hive to encourage consumers to take a trip to the physical shop. Another indie online store, The Best Little Bookshop, launched their new bookselling site in beta last month, spotting the gap in the market: there is room for an independent online bookshop which can show us an altogether more appealing shopping experience. They show us beauty as well as substance by presenting an endearing selection of recommended titles on the homepage, as well as adding an area that presents us with ‘Small press and Handmade’ titles for the true connoisseur.
It’s important now to avoid buying books on Amazon, not only because it can be a much more enjoyable experience on another site, but for the sake of diversifying the market – save us all from falling down the Amazon rabbit-hole and instead reach out for an altogether more benevolent, and beneficial, method of book buying.
Lovely online bookshops for happy browsing: