Op-ed: Amazon can't discount the power of community
Many readers shop with Amazon even those who know the importance of community and who loyally shop with their local bookstore as well. They do so because Amazon's prices are low, and low prices are seductive. It's easy not to look behind the reasons the prices are low, to learn that (a) Amazon doesn't have to collect sales tax which gives it a nearly 10 percent advantage, that (b) Amazon's investors don't seem to care that they never make a profit, a state of affairs that allows Amazon to discount books so deeply that they seem almost without value, and that (c) Amazon is using books as loss-leaders to sell digital equipment, high-fashion clothes, refrigerators, very nearly destroying the book industry in the process.
Amazon has been doing all of this so successfully that it seemed unstoppable, a sort of retail juggernaut set to take over sales of everything everywhere. Now, however, it has committed an error common to those who aspire to rule the universe. Quite simply it discounted the power of the community. First it attacked its competitors in the book world. Then it attacked publishers, demanding discounts so steep as to make the enterprise of publishing untenable. But one publisher stood up to Amazon Hachette, headed by Michael Pietsch, a thoughtful man who began his career as an editor and still considers editing and books to be at the center of what he does.
Faced with the unusual prospect of a foe who refused to back down, Amazon, which had already used bookstores' showrooms (a topic for another day) and publishers' vulnerability as weapons in its fight for control of the book industry, began using authors as cannon fodder against the recalcitrant publisher, a fact that any of you who have watched Stephen Colbert on the subject already know. Amazon did this in the most brutish display of strength imaginable, refusing to discount prices on books by Hachette authors or to take pre-orders, deliberately slowing shipments on Hachette books so that delivery took two to three weeks instead of one to two days, even suggesting substitute titles from other publishers. It got uglier by the day.
Now authors are fighting back. Witness the double-page ad in The New York Times Sunday, Aug. 10. Outraged at Amazon's willingness to block sales of targeted authors' books in a ploy to punish a publisher, nearly 1,000 of the most significant authors in the country, ignoring the risk of retribution from Amazon, are flatly refusing to be used as cannon fodder and are asking readers to write Bezos (Jeff@amazon.com) to weigh in (please do!).
The entire book world is watching this three-way standoff breathlessly. Because we are a community, those of us who work in the book industry, a community united by a love of books. Something Amazon doesn't seem to understand.
Amazon evidently doesn't understand the love of local community either. It drains billions of dollars out of local economies and gives nothing back no sales tax, no property tax, no payroll taxes since they pay no wages (except the part-time salary of UPS drivers, soon to be replaced at least in Bezos' grandiose dreams by squadrons of drones). In the process Amazon drives or is attempting to drive local retailers out of business, further eroding local economies nationwide.
But it's not going to happen. Just as authors are uniting to stop the bullying, so are local communities. Local First Utah and other like organizations are educating people about the importance of local business to their local economy. And booksellers and authors everywhere are crying out that books are important. That they're not cannon fodder in a corporate war. And that communities are important whether in the world of books or here at home.
Betsy Burton owns The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.