Everybody’s talking about Amazon right now. And for once, they’re not talking about Amazon with the respectful awe that typically accompanies Amazon chatter. (“They’re totally creepy, and I love my local bookstore, but I got five pounds of basil, a Doctor Who shower curtain, and six gift-wrapped copies of My Struggle delivered to my front door in less than 24 hours for 20 bucks, soooo…”) The conversation right now feels different. Last week, Gawker’s Tom Scocca called for an Amazon boycott, citing the company’s omnidirectional “ruthlessness” and, as he put it, Amazon’s apparent attempt to “extort” financial concessions from a major publisher. Jack Shafer at Reuters wrote about the pain and heartbreak of closing his Amazon account, but he felt compelled to do it for a more personal reason: He thinks Amazon’s snotty corporate attitude is embarrassing its customers. (“I take it personally that the company doesn’t think it owes me even a half-baked explanation for why I can’t buy some books from it.”) For the first time since Amazon began, ordinary people are talking about the company not like it’s a magical blowjob-dispensing internet genie, but like it’s a common playground bully.
So what happened? In a nutshell: Amazon is picking a fight with Hachette Book Group, the third largest publisher in the world. Hachette refuses to buckle under Amazon’s demand to sell their e-books for less than Hachette believes those books are worth. In response to their perfectly valid concerns, Amazon is gleefully shitting in Hachette’s pool. Customers searching for Hachette books on Amazon face a variety of frustrations: Sometimes, the books take weeks to ship (for customers accustomed to Amazon’s nigh-instantaneous Prime shipping, this is like being asked to wait for the duration of three lifetimes and one Terrence Malick movie for a book to arrive). Amazon isn’t allowing customers to preorder upcoming Hachette titles, including the newest J.K. Rowling novel. Sometimes, as with Sherman Alexie’s best-selling novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, customers can’t buy the book from Amazon at all, with the retailer urging them to shop from another vendor instead. The problem is, in a post-Amazon world, the number of other vendors is significantly diminished: Amazon’s tendency to cut prices below profitability has resulted in scores of shuttered booksellers across the country. We now live in an America dotted with “bookstore deserts,” where people would have to drive for hours, maybe even a full day, to browse the stacks at an Amazon competitor.
The Hachette dispute started early in May, but a February New Yorker piece written by George Packer set the stage for all this anti-Amazon discontent. Packer interviewed Dennis Johnson, the publisher of small independent press Melville House, who has long been the only publisher willing to go on the record about his distaste for Amazon’s sketchy business practices, and his perspective in Packer’s piece helped cast the retailer in a dimmer light. Anonymous publishers complained about Amazon’s “squeezing [their] nuts” in order to score bigger discounts, and Johnson told stories of arrogant Amazon employees complaining about his anti-Amazon bias, urging him to “get with the program.” (Over the last few years, Johnson has also become the nation’s most dogged anti-Amazon journalist; Melville House’s blog, MobyLives, has been a consistent source of information for the myriad ways Amazon has been strong-arming publishers, workers, and local governments out of money in dogged pursuit of the bottom line.) Packer’s article seems to have broken some sort of pro-Amazon spell in the media: Recent coverage of the Amazon/Hachette dispute has not been kind to Amazon. A simple Google News search reveals Amazon’s problem in headlines:
“Amazon Bullies Publisher…” (The Mac Observer, May 16)
“Amazon Is Messing with Book Sales for a Major Book Publisher” (Business Insider Australia, May 23)
“Amazon Escalates Its Battle Against Publishers” (Boston.com, May 23)
“Amazon Moves to Tighten Grip on E-books” (Houston Chronicle, May 23)
“Amazon Tightens Noose Around Hachette…” (PC Magazine, May 26)
“Amazon Turns Screws on French Publisher” (The Register, May 28)
“Authors Angered over Amazon’s Dispute with Publisher” (NPR, May 29)
Here’s the thing: This tactic of Amazon’s is not new. They pulled all their “buy” buttons for books published by Macmillan in 2010 over a similar pricing dispute, blocking customer access to books by authors like Charles Stross, Hilary Mantel, Jeffrey Eugenides, and John Scalzi. But for whatever reason, that business dispute didn’t capture the general public’s attention the way this one has. This time around, people care. “Sad how many of my fellow liberal authors are silent about Amazon’s libertarian bullshit,” Sherman Alexie tweeted on May 23. But the ranks of outspoken anti-Amazon authors is certainly larger than ever before. Novelist Mary Doria Russell called Amazon “evil”; local author Jamie Ford tweeted that Amazon was being a “bully,” and responded to criticism by tweeting, “It’s hard to sympathize with a $58 billion corporation that gives little to charity and rarely speaks.” Best-selling novelist James Patterson mused on Facebook that he doesn’t understand how this tactic “is in the best interest of Amazon customers.” In a speech at Book Expo America on May 29, Patterson had even stronger words: “Amazon… wants to control book selling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy. If this is to be the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed, by law if necessary.” Social media is full of anti-Amazon sentiment. And the protests are expanding to the real world, too: University Book Store recently put up a display of Hachette titles that they’re proud to carry, boasting that their customers don’t have to wait to start reading.
Amazon boycott threats are popping up everywhere. The retailer has become so ubiquitous in their daily lives that some would-be boycotters are expressing worry about an Amazon-less world. It’s not as bad as they think it will be: In 2012, the Seattle Times published an editorial by local author Maria Semple about the necessity of shopping for things in person, in your community, rather than “in a flurry of clicks.” She’d somehow been tricked into thinking that she just didn’t have time to go to stores. “Shopping on Amazon had made the idea of parking my car and going into a store feel like an outrageous imposition on my time and good nature,” Semple wrote. “Amazon had gotten me out of the habit of going to bookstores, to shoe stores, to toy stores. So I simply got back in the habit.” So was it the huge hassle that she’d somehow made it out to be? Not at all. “Guess what? My life didn’t change one bit.” And it made her feel more connected to the world. “We need to preserve our neighborhoods, our small business, our local economy. Isn’t having a toy store in Ballard worth circling the block for a parking space and paying $4 more for a board game?” (By the way, Semple’s best-selling novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a hilarious send-up of Seattle tech culture, is one of the books you can’t buy on Amazon right now, thanks to their anti-Hachette campaign.)
For the first two weeks of the Amazon/Hachette dispute, Amazon maintained a stony silence. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Amazon’s corporate strategy has always involved a complete lack of engagement with the press, unless the coverage is guaranteed to be as positive as an Amazon press release (like 60 Minutes’ embarrassingly gushy profile of Bezos earlier this year). I’ve been writing about the company for six years now—one of my first stories for The Stranger focused on the company’s complete lack of charitable giving—and I call their PR hotline (206-266-7180) on a regular basis, giving them the opportunity to explain their side of all kinds of stories.
Off the top of my head: Some reasons I’ve called the hotline through the years have included the wholesale removal of unauthorized copies of 1984 from Kindles without the device owners’ consent, the mistreatment of Amazon’s warehouse workers, the fact that less than one-sixth of the company’s senior executives were women, and, again, the lack of charitable giving. (To be fair, they do give a very little bit now to literary causes, including $5,000 to the Stranger Genius Awards to fund the literature award for the last few years. But in comparison with other large local corporations like Microsoft or Boeing, they’re impossibly stingy.) I’ve left countless messages on that so-called PR “hotline,” which I imagine as a dusty answering machine sitting on a broken table inside an abandoned warehouse somewhere in South Seattle. Amazon has never, not once, replied to any of my queries. Sometimes late at night, struck by a sudden insomnia, I have to fight the urge to call the hotline and sing Bryan Adams ballads to the answering machine, just so it knows somebody cares.
But this Hachette affair must be hurting the company’s bottom line, because Amazon finally felt the need to respond. On May 27, in a Kindle customer discussion forum deep on Amazon’s site, the “Amazon Books team” posted a bitchy, six-paragraph statement (with comments locked, of course) about the situation. Hilariously, Amazon—which, I repeat, always refuses to comment to journalists—complained about the “relatively narrow point of view” in the media coverage. Amazon groused that people care about this story because it involves “a book publisher instead of a supplier of a different type of product,” they labeled Hachette a “$10 billion media conglomerate,” and they assured customers that if you order “1,000 items from Amazon, 989 will be unaffected by this interruption.”
This is the kind of tone-deaf response you get from a self-congratulatory and insular corporate culture. Customers complain that Amazon is placing money above customer service. Authors contend Amazon doesn’t understand that a bookseller’s intellectual and cultural duty is different than a typical retailer’s mission of profits above all else. And Amazon replies with a huffy libertarian screed about “product” and “items” and “units” and a short lecture about the free market? The arrogance of it is perhaps the most baffling part of this incompetent response: How do you make nearly $75 billion in annual sales and not once think of hiring a decent public relations department?
When he started Amazon in 1994, Jeff Bezos’s personal traits—cheapness, a libertarian loathing of taxes and government intrusion, a lack of sentimentality, a mistrust of the media—proved to be the perfect foundation for a burgeoning corporate culture. Twenty years later, the company he founded is a caricature of those early, hungry days, and that culture is starting to leak out into the world. Somehow, this is the future we live in: The largest bookseller in the United States is a transparency-hating libertarian corporation that doesn’t think about art except as units to be moved. Their goal is to put their competition—authors, publishers, retailers—out of business, and Bezos designed Amazon to be as relentless as possible in pursuing that mission. (Bezos originally wanted to name Amazon “Relentless.com,” before some sane friends talked him out of it; to this day, if you type “relentless.com” into a web browser, you’ll land on Amazon’s home page.)
Seattleites who would never set foot in a Walmart are passionate about their love of Amazon. Ideals become easy prey when convenience is at stake. And it’s a matter of perception, too: Walmart puts its low-paid employees up front, parades their lack of dignity around for customers to see. Amazon gets to hide its poorly treated employees in warehouses, far from public view. Walmart’s cheaply made goods, all lined up and hanging on a rack, evoke the assembly lines of China. Amazon’s cheaply made goods, delivered individually in an attractive cardboard box to your door, seem like something magical; they don’t bear the fingerprints of people working for pennies a day in slave-labor conditions. All the ugliness of Amazon is behind the scenes, hidden behind a thick wall of corporate silence, and for that concealment, any number of people who consider themselves good citizens are willing to trade their loathing of Walmart for a deep and abiding love of the Great Walmart in the Sky. Turns out, that love might not be unconditional after all.