How Amazon Buys Seattle's Silence

Why isn't this literary city more outraged about the company's strong-arm tactics? Let us count the cash...

Comments

1
seems like a good deal, to me
2
Thanks for this, Eli.

For the past year I've been leading the effort to get Seattle designated a UNESCO City of Literature. I'm also an ex-Amazonian, having worked there twice, first in Customer Service from 1998-2000, then in Media Merchandising as an editor from 2004-2007. And I'm an author whose books are for sale on Amazon. My relationship with Amazon is so complicated and convoluted that the only way I could really do it justice would be to write a book about it, but I'm having too much fun writing my novel instead. I've attempted to write essays about my experiences at Amazon over the years, but reflecting on that period of my life depresses me horribly, and I've so far failed to capture those experiences in prose.

Since you mentioned the UNESCO Creative Cities bid (which I appreciate; thank you), I thought I'd try to shed some light on our organization's relationship (or lack thereof) with Amazon. I have stated in public that the Seattle City of Literature project will neither pursue nor accept funding from Amazon. UNESCO Creative City designation will create opportunities to collaborate with other cities to share, promote, and nurture the creation of literature internationally. Amazon has a presence in many of the cities that UNESCO has designated, and, as you know, their international reputation has suffered in recent years owing to issues related primarily to labor and taxes. The bid document we submitted to UNESCO a couple months ago inventoried Seattle's literary treasures--our independent bookstores, library system, ten-thousand years of First Peoples oral traditions, presses etc.--and didn't mention Amazon at all. We simply can't afford to take on the baggage that would come with their support, and they have demonstrated that their values as a business are often incompatible with the values of those who create and love art.
3
Man, the attacks on Amazon are getting pretty lame.

Really guys, Amazon is a pretty decent employer, provides a great service, and has pumped a lot of money into the Seattle area.

Stop being such jealous hipster douchebags.

Do the "writers"(LOL) a the Sthwanger hate every person or company that is successful? If being poor and a failure some badge of pride for you people?
4
Amazon, and its support of ebooks has refilled in a huge increase in the number of authors able to get published. The old model favors aa small amount of wealthy author. The amazon model supports a large number of fairly paid author.

Why is the stranger siding with people like James Patterson instead of the people who would never have been published without ebooks?
5
I agree with highside's comment. Also, I heard a high school teacher on NPR talk about Kindle books vs. regular books. He said, "When I see one of my students sitting under a tree with their Kindle reading Silas Marner that's fine with me.
6
If you're in the middleman business, making your living by skimming off a percentage, and a technology business finds a way to cut you out of the deal, you're fucked.
7
"Over the years that Amazon has been relentlessly unsteadying the way books are created and sold..."

Which was something that was desperately needed.

There are plenty of readers not really into the whole bookstore scene, nor interested in picking sides between big publishers and big booksellers.
8
This is certainly a complex situation, but I'm not sure anyone is letting Amazon off the hook.

I feel like someone tells me how much they hate Amazon pretty much daily -- whether it's for ruining the book publishing industry, or ruining Capitol Hill. (15 years ago, we all complained about how Microsoft was ruining traffic by dragging everyone to the East Side. Now we're all complaining about how Amazon is driving up Seattle rents by having their offices in-city.)

I will say that as an author, I sell more books thanks to Amazon. As a reader, I buy more books thanks to Amazon. (As a reader, I *also( got Elliot Bay Books more than I used to, thanks to its relocation.)

I'm all for questioning Amazon when they do gross things (the Hatchette dispute is a major public relations fail), and I suppose I have a skewed impression since I work in publishing/media and live in the Hill... but if this is "silence," then I'm confused about what noise would look like.
9
Oh, God. Some self-publishing blog must've picked this story up. Bring on the ranty comments about "gatekeepers" and millionaire authors!
10
Wait, is Jen Graves' twitter now a self-publishing blog? I MISSED THE ANNOUNCEMENT!
11

Amazon is the perfect business.

We need more of them.

12
i still don't understand why i'm supposed to side with the biggest book publisher in the world.

by that logic, am i supposed to side with the big, stupid record companies that fucked artists for years? was i supposed to defend them when in their lumbering uselessness, they failed to update their business model in a changing technological landscape? should iTunes start to strong-arm them for negotiation over retail prices and royalties, should i through my support behind Universal, EMI, Warner and Sony?

and why? just because they signed a bunch of artists?
13
This article is a preposterous stretch. Do you seriously think that anyone--ANYONE--in Seattle was considering mounting a "Books Now" march and then thought "Wait, Amazon did fund that streetcar, so maybe I won't"? Do you seriously think that a dispute between a publisher and a retailer is on the same level of social justice, warranting the same amount of grassroots outrage and civic action, as WTO and marriage equality?

The constant hit pieces on Amazon by The Stranger are getting very tiresome. By all means, report on what they are doing, but stop making them out to be some sort of supervillian.
14
The tax rate for any employee, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or even Index Newspapers is and should remain determined by Federal and local tax laws, not according to how much you hate the company.
15
I am far more bothered by the working conditions in the fulfillment centers than the effect they have on bookstores or what they are doing to large publishers.

16
The literary world has a tendency to be self-pitying, entrenched in a "I wish more people would put down their iPhones and read a poem" mentality (see Jonathon Franzen, et al). If media forms, or business models, such as independent book stores, are becoming less and less relevant to contemporary society, maybe it's time to look in the mirror and figure out how to become more relevant.
17
@9 what, those people should be left out of your "conversation"?
18
Oh no, a local enormous multinational company is "unsteadying" the business model of another enormous multinational company!!!

This is the problem of any sane person how? Also, what #15 said: if you wanna give amazon grief, give it to them over the conditions in their fulfillment centers, not over the fact that -- quelle horror -- a distributor and a producer are having a spat about a wholesale price point. JK Rowling will be fine folks.
19
My piece on Bezos' sparse voting record:
http://www.geekwire.com/2014/election-re…
20
Can't we all just get along?

It seems like a deal could be brokered by a local government (preferably not one drunk on the Amazon cash cow) which would be to the benefit of both local/regional bookstores and Amazon, Stipulations in such an agreement might include revenue sharing by Amazon in exchange for brick & mortar bookstore readings, among others, with enforceable, monetary punishments for either side acting in bad faith, etc...
21
Book publishers are incredibly convoluted and made it incredibly difficult for writers to publish for years. Why are you backing them over a company that made it so much easier for writers to get their work out?
22
I have very mixed feelings about Amazon as a company and its business practices. Whenever they do what ostensibly are "bad things," I have to remind myself that it's not that they are evil; it's that they are an amoral corporation whose charter is to satisfy the shareholders.

I'm commenting here, though, to give Amazon credit for doing one "good thing," even if that "good thing" was motivated entirely by self-interest rather than good intentions. That is their decision to double down on their South Lake Union headquarters--in a transit-friendly, density-promoting location next to downtown.

Compare Amazon's decision to comparable companies. Microsoft threw a monkey wrench in this region's development and traffic patterns when they decided to build their corporate campus on a rabbit hutch out in far-flung Redmond. They've only recently begun to make partial amends by moving more of their corporate footprint to downtown Bellevue. And look at Apple building its retro-futuristic new campus in an auto-dependent part of Silicon Valley while so much of the Bay Area tech industry is revitalizing San Francisco, whether San Francisco likes it or not.
23
Honestly, I think the "is-Amazon-bad-for-books" question is more or less still an open one. I buy that Amazon's tactics in the Hachette negotiations are skeezy and bad for Hachette authors, but I question whether they're necessarily symptomatic of a larger problem that should give Seattleites moral pause.

Labor and tax issues, now those strike much more of a chord. But really? Books? Amazon is so much bigger than books (and books remain, in their own way, so much bigger than Amazon).
24
If Malcolm Gladwell is against it, I'm a for it.
25
@9, hadn't seen any "ranty" comments, until yours. Just sane, rational questions and observations.

In fact, yours was the first comment that was more of an attack on people who might dare to disagree with the article than with the substance of the article itself.

It really doesn't inspire confidence in your critical thinking.
26
amazon also makes it very easy for anyone to sell almost anything (new or used) to anywhere in the country. surely this has to be good for opening economic doors and creating some income for a wide variety of people. it also keeps lots of items out of the trash and re-uses old items.

im also wondering how of the revenue at amazon has anything to do with books any more. with streaming content, retail goods, and AWS, books cant be that important to their future
27
and for all that the city would let Uber, Bezos pet project, to have anything they wanted over the ossified established system of taxis, towncars, and, limos, yes? but oddly enough, they didn't... hnh.

amazon is a big-ass employer locally (for now... but wait until they get all the fulfillment robots in place) so, like Boeing, for example, it's generally eeeevil, and what it wants it tends to get [sad-shrug]
28
I'm getting confused about the narrative here...

Seems like it wasn't too long ago that Amazon was being taken to task for NOT spending money locally--that they weren't sponsoring enough things, that they were sitting in their corporate towers and hoarding all of their gold...like Smaug. NOW, we're complaining that they're busy spending that gold buying our silence...

And it seems like the previous narrative that Amazon was ruining the book business because how could a brick and mortar/mom and pop book store compete with a behemoth that sells every book at the lowest price with cheap and fast delivery...and now we're complaining that they've denying people access to some books by some very popular authors. Wouldn't that be a great thing to happen for book stores? ("Hey! We've got the Sedaris and Rowling books that you can't find from Amazon!" sure seems like it'd be a good lure to get people into a store.)

And finally, the idea that a streetcar or a nicer museum is what quells a volcano of anger against Amazon. I don't sense a lot of anger from people who like the convenience that Amazon provides--shop whenever you want for nearly whatever you want and have whatever you choose delivered to your front door in a couple of days, if not less. We've gotten used to that convenience--so anger only bubbles up when an Amazon Prime purchase takes three days to arrive rather than two, or when a micro-cost update pushes the price of the thing you were thinking about buying up a dollar rather than down six cents.

Yes, Amazon should have good working conditions for its employees. That's a narrative worth pushing. (Of course, one wonders if "not shopping Amazon" is the way to make certain that happens...)
29
@18: Pedantic note, since we're talking about a French publisher: it's "quelle horreur". :)

And agreed -- so far, I haven't seen anything about Amazon's treatment of Hachette that seems notably different from other (admittedly rough) negotiation tactics used by many companies in the past -- publishers included. It's not how I'd run a business, but that's probably why I'm not running a business.

Beyond the "won't somebody think of the children … I mean, books" argument, I can't see why anybody would side with one behemoth over another in this dispute, based on the limited information I've seen so far.
30
Eli, when I'm deciding whether or not to publicly criticize Amazon, the question of their contribution to the city's and economy isn't the primary thing on my mind. The primary thing on my mind is the fact that friends and family work there, many of them young college graduates who have plenty of student loans to pay off and are making good money at Amazon.

I think (in response to some of the comments) that it's a mistake to ask as if we're primarily concerned with Hachette in the current dispute. There are plenty of situations in which a massive publisher would be the bad guy, and they still can be here. The salient point is that if Amazon negotiates to sell Hachette's books at a massively reduced price, that gives them a significant advantage over small or independent bookstores who don't have the same negotiating power as Amazon. It's not even as much about consumers as it is about those smaller businesses.
31
Also that should read "city's services and economy" and "act as if." I'm terrible.
32
I don't think there's a simple answer here. I do like the suggestion made earlier for Amazon to partner with local bookstores for mutual advantage. I'd love to be able to order online with my local bookstore getting a cut of the sale, in exchange for whatever marketing deal could be made. The big problem, of course, is that Amazon is big enough that any negotiation it has with local booksellers is likely to be exploitative. The role of government is to figure out how to regulate the marketplace so that everyone from writers to publishers to retailers gets their due. Maybe what's needed is an anti-trust action that prescribes a remedy whereby Amazon cuts in local retailers, authors, and publishers for a fair cut. That would be worth it even if it raised the costs of books somewhat.
33
Seattle has the luxury of worrying about the success of multiple fine book store. What percentage of the population of the US ever lived within 10 miles of a "indendent" bookstore where they could find, buy or order any book they wanted. Since 1996 anyone with internet does.

The book business as far a I can tell has always been hard, still is.

34
@32. How much money should amazon share with independent book stores in Alabama who only carry books by Jefferson Davis and Rush Limbaugh. Or do you mean cool local stores in seattle that are committed to "literary" pursuits.
35
* after all the articles berating amazon for not donating to local (but completely mainstream) art organizations in seattle like MS or Boeing, the claim that amazon has bought the city is rich.

** no mention of Bezos' $1M contribution to marriage equality prop.

Having a sugar daddy is complicated isn't it Goldilocks.
36
@9: That is the most juvenile, reactionary comment on this post. Obviously, anyone who dares to disagree with your hate for Amazon is a shill and an apologist, and will be dismissed out of hand.

Way to promote healthy, thoughtful discussion.

37
"That, ultimately, is the question Seattle now faces in this fight: Are we willing to actually suffer for our love of literature?"

Where's literature going?

Did you mean to say "our love of bound, paper books and Big 5 publisher-set pricing?"

And @9--
What a snobby fucking comment. True colors from the advertiser-published weekly scribbler.
38
Book publishers are incredibly convoluted and made it incredibly difficult for writers to publish for years. Why are you backing them over a company that made it so much easier for writers to get their work out?


It's shit like this that makes me think maybe Amazon isn't completely disinterested in public relations. That, even if Amazon won't respond to press inquiries, it will send commenters to blogs to flog the party line.

I need to see some real data that Amazon's self-publishing model benefits more than a trivial number of people. Yes, the self-publishing model puts your writing "out there", but it doesn't guarantee that anyone is going to hear about it, is going to give a shit, is going to review the book, is going to buy it. It doesn't guarantee any kind of income at all. At least the traditional publishing model gives you an advance *regardless if your book sells*.

That's the benefit to the traditional publishing model for authors. You get a little payment upfront, and the publisher assumes all the risk. The publisher also pays for editing, book cover design, ads, advanced reader copies, good press, and placement on bookstore shelves. Think you can sell your book without any of that? Good fucking luck. You'll need it.
39
@38--

The "traditional publishing model" only benefits a trivial number of people.

And you can only be a successful band if you get on a major label. Selling out is your only option.
40
How Amazon Buys Seattle's Silence
-AKA-
Not Biting The Hand That Feeds You
42
Amazon is not bad for books. Amazon has been good for books (like highside said): more people are published, more people have access to more books, and books are cheaper.

Traditional publishers did as much to destroy the book market themselves, as well. Before the rise of Amazon, the Big Five major publishers in New York had stopped cultivating new authors and carefully curating annual line-ups, and they were churning out tons of pabulum that people weren't interested in buying. I mean, look over the sale table at Barnes and Noble even today, and see what all crap is out there passing for "books."

Looking for easy ways to save money and cut corners, publishers stopped offering competent in-house editing and copyediting, outsourcing this or requiring manuscripts that they considered to be edited and copyedited already. Editors started leaving publishers en masse to work as agents instead, getting their cuts of manuscripts they discovered (and edited) when sold to a publisher. There is huge turnover in editors at all publishing houses because people start young, learn the ropes, and then exit to make money elsewhere, leaving traditional publishers in an endless cycle of brain drain. None of that has anything to do with Amazon; it's self-inflicted injury.

Consider also the not-insignificant contribution Amazon has made to the publication of TRANSLATED fiction in the United States. The Big Five have traditionally steered clear of translations because, frankly, they didn't (and don't) have the in-house expertise to evaluate books to buy rights on and they are generally clueless how to nurture translations into publication-ready form. They are also afraid to offer the American public literature that doesn't conform to Americans' white-bread expectations of what a book should be like. Amazon is the largest publisher of translated works in English now, and readers have access to a much bigger range of literature from many other countries than ever before.

The demise of small booksellers has come with numerous trade-offs, but it's less Amazon that's responsible for their demise than the onward march of technology, which would have rendered small booksellers obsolete one way or another. Meanwhile, lots of good has come from the electronifiation of books: lower prices, easier and broader access to books, more authors getting published, and more translations being published.
43
@42,

Serious question. Have you seen the caliber of author that self-publishes on Amazon?
44
The $$$$ Amazon spends on the local economy via jobs/construction is vastly more important than the potential losses bookstores/publishers/writers may incur. Sorry that your $800 studio is now $1500, but don't try to feed me some bullsh that adding thousands of middle income wages to Seattle is a travesty and we should shame Amazon. Does the stranger really think that a majority of us would like SLU to go back to what it was 10 years ago? What was it? A bunch of vacant industrial buildings, yes now its overpriced for some, but at least its getting used and those that live there are putting their $$ locally not out of the city/state.
45
Paul Constant said it all in his comment, took the words out of my mouth again.
46
The internet was the death of the printed book. Why would I buy from a bookstore or even AMAZON if I can just go download a PDF copy of whatever I want for free.
47
Is this a DAILY thing for The Stranger now?!?
48
@43--
http://www.thepassivevoice.com/12/2013/o…

150 Kindle Direct Publishing authors each sold more than 100,000 copies of their books in 2013. Top sellers this year include “Hopeless” by Colleen Hoover and “Wait for Me” by Elisabeth Naughton. The best-selling Kindle Direct Publishing author during the holiday season was H.M. Ward.

Hugh Howey's Amazon Self-Published sci-fi series "Wool" has been sold to 20th Century Fox for film rights.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Howey

49
Here's the wonderful contribution of bestseller literature from Hachette.

http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/books/b…
50
Man what happened here? I stop reading SLOG for a couple of months and now you're comparing a multi-billion dollar company (Hachette) to the 15 NOW campaign!?
51
@43: The quality ranges, obviously. You have T.R. Ragans on one end, and you have Joe Schmoes on the other end. The caliber of publication isn't really the point, however. The point is that the Big Five publishers, which are ironically fairly provincial in their New York-centric outlooks on literature, no longer act as the gatekeepers keeping authors and readers at arm's length from one another. Over time, self-published authors will professionalize and learn what they need to do with their manuscripts before they put them out for them to sell well.

Another thing, though, is that Americans have been trained to be extremely sensitive to writing that doesn't conform to 1950s ideals of editorial practice. People go ballistic over dangled participial phrases and misspellings and incorrectly placed commas even if the meaning is perfectly clear to someone with a brain. As readers we collectively lack any hardiness or fortitude when books don't hold our hands though them. This is in some ways a uniquely American phenomenon, one that other societies suffer from less. So, while authors learn how to self-publish more effectively, we as readers will also need to adapt to texts that are in various states (if we want to read such fare). No one is forcing anyone to consume such material, but it's good that it's increasingly out there.
52
Sorry, Stranger. I don't see why the city (or anyone, for that matter) should get outraged that a given business model has become obsoleted.

As much as I enjoy browsing through used bookstores on the odd occasion, just seeing if anything looks interesting, I don't do that very often. 95% of the time, I already know what I want, and a noticeable portion of the time, the local bookstores don't carry it. Amazon nearly always does, and it's never for a higher price. It's always the same price, or less, and I have the option to keep paper completely out of the picture, which is fantastic.

So, please, dear Stranger, why should I be outraged by a situation where I benefit 100% of the time? Why should I be outraged by the opportunity to more conveniently pay less money for the same goods in an arguably potentially more environmentally friendly format? Who are you trying to garner support for, here? Because it certainly isn't consumers.
53
What a bunch of tools. You're defending the Walmart of the internet. I hope your fair city is cursed with Walmarts, and no local businesses, so you can lay in the bed you made.
54
Why don't you ask similar questions about sports franchises, which do not even provide half the thing you mentioned that Amazon is providing the city of Seattle but takes resources, tax money etc.
55
@29: oops. Sadly that's about par for me with the French tongue, a language that is musically beautiful only when spoken by other people. :)
56
@52 - Last I checked, Amazon *is* a local business- created right here in Seattle, employs thousands downtown. Or did you mean that we're only supposed to support local businesses that aren't successful? What's the threshold for when a local business becomes too big for me to support any more? $1 million in revenue? $5? 3 retail locations? 10?
57
This article is about as unmeasured as the frequently heard "Starbucks put all the independent coffee shops out of business". No, there were only a few places to get espresso in Seattle before Starbucks and vast stretches of the country where decent coffee was hard to find. There is plenty to dislike about Starbucks and Amazon. There is also a lot to like. Bookshops have suffered from the online book trade. Publishers, maybe. But authors and buyers suffering from Amazon's existence is a hard thing to prove. Eli Sanders doesn't even try. A measured article would have been more welcome. Why should we favor a nasty business elsewhere over the one in our back yard in a business fight? While my sympathy may be with the romance of publishers in this case the largely unasked question is why we are not separating content from distribution in every area of business. Cable companies shouldn't be in content creation - they should be a utility. Perhaps Amazon shouldn't be in publishing. These are regulatory questions no one is asking.
58
Oh hey another pointless article from the Stranger bitching about Amazon. How much would it take for the Stranger to shut up with this malarkey? Let the other real news orgs do some real investigative journalism on the various Amazon angles, because your pitiless operation is clearly not up to the task. Some real news orgs get a reporter into an Amazon warehouse to report, you send a hapless hatchet man to South Lake Union Whole Foods to cold approach random Amazon employees.

Now the city residents should be up in arms about Amazon delivering them books and goods for less? Hey, guess what, most people in the city don't work for bookstores, so they get to benefit from the competitive pricing tactics of Amazon and other online competitors, and then they can spend that money they saved on local businesses, the type that advertise in the Stranger, helping to make a more economically vibrant city and helping to pay Eli's salary.

Eli and the rest of the Stranger staff can go to B&N's store downtown or any other bookstore and pay list price for books all he wants, and then he can feel good that he's funding those charitable competitors and publishing companies.

Meanwhile, Dan Savage will presumably continue to sell his books, including Kindle editions, on Amazon.
59
If it wasn't amazon IT WOULD JUST BE SOME OTHER COMPANY. The death of the book industry is a result of the digital age we live in. We should be thankful that Amazon is investing heavily in the city of Seattle in a progressive way (encouraging density, providing high paying jobs, paying for public amenities) rather than contributing to sprawl and car culture the way that almost every other tech company does.
60
@53 Amazon is nothing like Walmart. Walmart is notorious for treating their employees like garbage and selling shitty products. Amazon pays fair wages and sells quality products. Really the only similarity is that they're both large companies but by that same logic you could compare ANY large company to Walmart.
61
Amazon has merely monetized what Google was going to make an eventuality anyway. E-books expand the availability of literature to more people and with less effort; libraries would be all about it, if not for the DRM and other hidden costs, and they still somewhat are despite that. And besides, books kill trees. How can Seattle say no to trees? It's much more a crunchy eco-green city than it is a dusty crackly paper city.
62
#whitehipsterproblems
63
amazon sucks. work there a few years it will change your opinion of the company!
64
Is this a serious article because I keep laughing when I read it. Amazon brings jobs, tax revenue, prosperity and is willing to subsidize the local infrastructure to help appease its neighbors but somehow that is a bad thing because books sellers are madder then an owner of a Blockbuster store. The telegraph really screwed one the pony express riders but the will always have a legendary place in history .
65
And Seattle has made it onto some " coolest cities", or "best cities for progressives" lists? Pfft!
66
Looks like the Amazon troll army are out in full force again. Ruining Seattle faster than a plague.
67
This article gives more reasons to be pro-Amazon than anti -- they helped the local economy not only survive, but thrive during/after the recession; they created 15,000 high-paying jobs; helped urban development; and the CEO actively supports marriage equality? Should Seattle really feel guilty about those things?

Only the very last paragraph offers some specific examples of negative things Bezos has done, while the rest of the article just vaguely suggests that the company is somehow hurting Seattle's book culture. Is Seattle's bid for the UNESCO City of Literature title endangered by Amazon's presence? Have lots of independent bookstores (or any other stores, since, as someone pointed out above, Amazon doesn't just sell books) shut down since Amazon moved in?
68
@61: ebooks might save paper, but think about how we get the materials to build e-readers, not to mention all the electricity to power them, as well as the computers, smartphones, and other devices we can use to access Kindle or other book apps. How much smaller of a carbon footprint are we really making with ebooks vs. tree-books?

(I honestly don't know the answer myself; I'm just saying we can't paint ebooks as some perfect eco-friendly replacement for paper books)