I have a confession. I’ve shopped at Amazon before. It wasn’t even that long ago, and I knew the ideological folly I was allowing myself to fall into. I instantly realized I had made a mistake. After receiving my confirmation email, I told my mom “I feel like a whore told me she had several sexually transmitted diseases, and I still paid her to screw me without protection.” I was immediately inundated with a hypocrite’s sense of guilt and shame. I used to just shop at Abebooks, but Amazon acquired them in 2008.
August 22nd is Ray Bradbury’s birthday, and I think it’s important that we take the time to analyze the way we interact with books in his honor. For example, would Bradbury find it sadly comical that Amazon’s best-selling tablet is called the Kindle Fire? Would he consider tweeting an apt title for the terse form we utilize prolifically in social media? In many ways, he seemed more prepared for this evolution than anybody.
Before we go any further, I should express that I am in many ways a proponent of electronic publishing, not some hermit living in the woods throwing darts at a picture of Jeff Bezos. (Although I’ve joked about adapting this lifestyle several times) However, I personally read all of my books in print. Print is a format I am comfortable with, and I will never be able to read a book in any other form. It’s what I grew up with, and print supports the way I like to receive information and learn.
But the importance is not so much digital versus print, but instead the championing of content. Recently, I talked to a publishing professional that expressed the importance of electronic publishing as a way to curate content, i.e., publishers have the chance to enrich online content whereas traditional print has limitations. The question then becomes how are we best reaching and encouraging readers? Electronic publishing is a present reality, one that has the potential to disseminate literature on a profound level, and therefore the debate should not be how to outlive digital media, but instead, how to hone it and enable readers, rather than harm them. Moreover, we should be analyzing what content is beneficial online, and what content necessitates locality. A bookstore will always be a necessary place to interact with books and people, learn about community events, and benefit from face-to-face discussion.
Yet, Amazon has in many ways tried to eliminate these significant literary havens, attempting to convince customers that nothing more is needed than a reader and a writer. At first look, this design might seem tacit. After all, a writer creates content, and that allows readers the ability to absorb it. Yet, Amazon’s method is simplistic and specious, and overlooks how we productively sift through the massive amount of content, how we genuinely talk about language and literature, and the ways we develop colloquial connections. Again, this is not to suggest online content is better or worse than physical content, merely that they are inherently different, and one mode should not dominate by the monopolistic assault Amazon has been attempting. (And achieving)
Mainly, in my mind anyway, Amazon is a nefarious example of literary despotism. The Amazon Corporation has endangered readers, authors, publishers, distributors, and anyone attempting to find integrity of content. By attempting to consume every facet of the publishing and literary communities, pigeonholing authors, and undercutting booksellers, Amazon essentially limits the way in which content can be produced and disseminated. The several main factors that are particularly nocuous include: deleting and controlling content remotely, diluting local literary communities, endangering local bookstores, compromising author integrity, providing poor work conditions in their warehouses, flagrantly destroying competition, and publishing content without proper rights.
I believe the first factor would be remarkably terrifying to the late Ray Bradbury. Amazon’s electronic reading devices allow the rental of books rather than permanent ownership. Hence, Amazon retains the ability to remove content from your electronic reader at any time, deleting it from your personal library in a way that seems eerily similar to dystopian censorship predicted in Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. An ironic example of this happened with the works of George Orwell, in which a company acting through Amazon’s Kindle Store sold electronic copies of Animal Farm and 1984 without the rights, and after Amazon became aware of this debacle, they remotely deleted the copies already sold. While Amazon was clearly attempting to mitigate a bad situation, the implications of their ability to remove content illuminate an entirely more horrifying set of problems. Primarily, how do we know certain works of writing can’t potentially be deleted entirely? And if this has happened, has Bradbury’s sci-fi nightmare on some levels been actualized?
What next bears unyielding importance is the methods by which readers are informed of news, essays, and literature. To reiterate, technology as a whole offers a tremendous amount of significant resources and forums. After all, without the Internet you wouldn’t be reading this. However, local bookstores provide communal centers to exchange information, discuss ideas, and learn about local events. One thing I have noticed when I ask people about their Amazon Kindles is that they want to tell me about all the things it can do, but never what they are actually using it for. When I ask someone about their tablet, they instantly brag to me about the size of their electronic library, the ability to utilize various social media on demand, and the portability it provides for easy, light travel. However, rarely does anyone actually tell me what they are currently reading on the device, and moreover, they seem distracted by the various other functions and capabilities of the machine. This of course is both my personal experience and generalization. But, I challenge you to ask someone about a printed book they are reading or carrying around, and find them not excited (or at least amicable) about discussing the content, language, and ideas. Bookseller Steve Bercu elaborates:
“Research bears out that the percentage of those who discover new titles in a physical bookstore far outstrips that of those who learned about a new book online. Algorithms are still a pale substitute for a bookseller’s insight, knowledge and passion.”
Hence, the inherent value of physical bookstore stands not only on the ability to browse, but also on the reliability of human intelligence and inquiry. (Let’s also note here, in case there was a counterargument, that Amazon owns Goodreads, one of the main sources of online book discussion)
Another flaw in Amazon’s business model is the risk of isolating authorship to a small crowd of bestsellers. Robert Levine, author of Free Ride, expresses, “If you’re a writer, you usually want to sell books for money, to you know, like live on…Amazon wants to propagate a platform.” The obvious danger here is that we unfortunately live in a money-driven world, and if authors can’t afford to write or find incentives to produce work, we are potentially losing remarkable works of literature. The gap in sales between bestsellers and the vast majority of book deals has always been a reality, but the amount of self-publishing success stories is minuscule. The sheer amount of self-published content risks devaluing literature and diluting the market, in some cases leaving brilliant work lost in a vague, impossible-to-navigate, online cloud.
Amazon’s price matching has further disadvantaged authors in such cases as author James Crawford, in which over five thousand copies of his book were downloaded on Amazon for free, rather than the original price the author listed, robbing Crawford of thousands of dollars in sales. Again, this is not to suggest that all authors utilizing Amazon are disenfranchised, but rather noting that the company’s blatant lack of discretion is overall more injurious than enabling.
A last point worth noting, Amazon has been seen overworking and endangering their warehouse staff. One of their warehouses in Pennsylvania notoriously even kept ambulances on call in the parking lot to keep up with the amount of workers passing out from dehydration. Workers are also subjected to mandatory overtime and breakneck productivity pacing, many times being threatened with job loss. And while Amazon claims to be producing thousands of new jobs, they seem to spend little time thinking about how many better jobs they are potential destroying. While they have announced thousands of new warehouse jobs, they are generally low wage and continue to run their staff ragged under exhausting and hazardous work conditions. The American Booksellers Association sent a letter to President Obama, in regard to his recent visit to Amazon’s Chattanooga plant, stating, “We are disheartened to see Amazon touted as a ‘jobs creator’ and its warehouse facility used as a backdrop for an important jobs speech, when, frankly, the exact opposite is true.”
Fearing Amazon therefore is not by any means then a failure to adapt to the future or an unwillingness to embrace technology. The publishing industry is certainly examining the coalescence of literature and technology on every level from the individual to the universal experience. The fear comes from seemingly having no say in the process of evolution. If we are merely moving in a particular direction due to the autocratic rule of an unwavering tsar, then on a basic level Amazon maintains control of our content, means of production, means of readership, and interaction with language on a personal, communal, societal, and global span.