Amazon: Bad for Books, Bad for Self-Publishing, Bad for Birmingham

I’ve never wanted to write a blog less than this one. I’ve been avoiding the topic of Amazon — avoiding it on my podcast, and avoiding it on my blog. But with Birmingham falling all over themselves to try to bring Amazon to town (come on, guys — have some dignity) and my podcast reaching the point that it’s becoming awkward not to share why booksellers have such an issue with Amazon, I think it’s time.

There are lots of reasons to avoid Amazon — I wrote about them here and here and here, and I dedicated a chapter in my book, The Localist, to those reasons. I’m putting part of that chapter up as a free podcast this week, so if you’d rather listen to my diatribe than read it, listen here (or search “Everybody Hates Self-Publishing on iTunes or Stitcher).

I’ll keep this short (kinda), but here are my major issues with Amazon. It’s why I don’t think Amazon is good for Birmingham, and why I think they’re a bad partner for self-publishers.

Consolidation of Power Is Dangerous

Putting so much money and power in the hands of one entity, whether it’s a government or a corporation, isn’t a great idea. For examples, just check out, like, all of human history. Even if that entity seems benign or benevolent (and I think Amazon is neither), having so much centralized control is ripe for corruption, and corruption will ultimately find it.

Economically, diversity is essential in a capitalist system — our economic model runs on choice and competition, and when we lose it, we have problems. Capitalism depends on competition to keep prices down and to force companies to be creative and invent new products. When one company controls so much of the economy, our options become homogenized and innovation suffers.

Putting Control of Art, Ideas and Philosophy in the Hands of One Company Is a Problem

Amazon’s track record as a predator trying to kill off independent bookstores and strong arm publishers into doing exactly what they want is indisputable; the tiniest bit of Googling will show you that. Among other things, Amazon sells books for less than they cost wholesale in order to shut down competition; they lie to customers in order to promote titles from publishers they like over ones they don’t; they aggressively attack authors and publishers who cross them. I know it sounds like I’m being melodramatic here, but, well, I’m just not. It’s how they do business.

This matters so much because books are a manifestation of art and ideas. Throughout history,  most revolutions and huge societal changes started with a few people reading and writing books. Yeah, our world has changed, and yeah, a lot of information is shared through the internet now. But a lot of those bloggers and journalists and political influencers are still getting and sharing their original ideas through books before they’re disseminated online. Controlling books is usually the first step in dictatorship, totalitarianism and war. Now I’ll admit that I’m being melodramatic — but that doesn’t mean I’m not right.

Amazon Treats Its Warehouse Workers Badly

Our politicians like to act like any job is a good job, and any company that creates jobs is a Messiah guaranteed to turn our little town into the Promised Land. But that’s not true. Amazon keeps warehouse workers as temp labor so they can cut them at any time and so they don’t have to pay them benefits — that’s particularly problematic since warehouse jobs involve lots of physical labor. Guess who’s paying those medical bills? Yeah, it’s the taxpayers of the little towns who shamelessly begged to get the big company to come to town, enticing them with tax breaks and incentives, i.e. more taxpayer money that could be better spent creating good jobs at companies that have already invested in our communities and don’t exploit loopholes to circumvent our labor laws.

Some Good News: Amazon Is Pretty Easy to Avoid

It’s not easy to avoid hearing about Amazon — as someone whose blood pressure shoots into the danger zone every time they’re blindly praised, I certainly know that. And considering Amazon owns lots of servers and payment processing systems, it’s tough to cut them out completely. But it is pretty easy to turn your Amazon buying footprint into more of a tiptoe, because finding most of the stuff you buy on Amazon elsewhere is usually just a matter of clicking on the second search result instead of the top/Amazon one.

Is that worth it? Is it worth a couple more seconds of scrolling and a few more clicks to make a buying choice that doesn’t exploit people or damage our economy — is that a real question? Of course it’s worth it. Here are a few tips on how to do it.

Carrie Rollwagen wrote a book about local buying, The Localist. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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