“A monopoly is dangerous because it concentrates so much economic power, but in the book business the prospect of a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution is especially worrisome: it would give Amazon more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in U.S. history.” ~ The New Yorker
I knew Amazon was bad.
Instinct told me that anything that big with its hands in so many industries was dangerous.
After all, I didn’t have to be a genius to see the heinous cost of convenience. I knew small businesses couldn’t stand up to Walmart. I had watched local cafés close their doors when a Starbucks moved to town. I looked long and hard for the few independent bookstores that had kept afloat despite the Barnes & Noble takeover. I bought my dog food from a local shop and avoided PetSmart. I purchased a Dell just to keep my money out of Apple’s greedy hands.
In effect, I was well aware of the ways that these megastores and megabrands turned into monopolies, suffocated the small and family-owned, and then decided for you what you consumed and where your money went, simply because they could.
Perhaps, I’ve already lost a few readers. Perhaps, some will argue that convenience and cost-effectiveness is well worth it.
Too bad for the family down the street who couldn’t get with the program. Too bad for the neighbors who couldn’t beat the big guys. Too bad for those who source locally, who pay more for the ethically raised and responsibly manufactured, who charge more because they aren’t privy to huge government incentives.
Perhaps, many people don’t care where the things they buy come from or how they were made or the implications for the smaller businesses being steamrolled in the process. Perhaps, many people don’t miss the intimacy of a used bookstore or a multigenerational restaurant where the owner knows your order and asks about your mother. Perhaps, many people don’t yearn for the handmade, unique, or custom. Perhaps, many people don’t care about the ways these megastores and megabrands outsource to other countries where they exploit the labor market and squeeze suppliers so that their competition cannot stand a chance.
But perhaps, many people do.
Even among the giants, Amazon stands out.
Let’s face it—it sells everything, cheaper than everywhere.
It controls the book market. It moved into music and television and film and food. It is store, publisher, and studio, and its drones promise to conquer the mail service. Emails flood my inbox with all my Prime membership could do—I could sell things, self-publish, and have my groceries delivered.
One-click settings made it easy to ignore how much I was spending, and two-day shipping ensured I rarely had to leave my house.
It was so easy. Too easy.
I acknowledged that it was terrible for small businesses. I realized that it anticipated my purchases, knew the types of things I bought, and bullied me into buying things I didn’t need. Of course, it was collecting and storing my data. Should it unnerve me that Amazon knew more about me than some of my closest friends?
I shrugged at the lost experience: I didn’t wander in as many bookstores and video stores or visit local boutiques or catch up with the couple who sold handmade jewelry. I confessed that as a person who plans to eventually own my own small business, I was supporting the very thing that crushed dreams like mine. Yet, still, I clicked once, just once—ah, the convenience.
We could go into my justifications—I’d never buy from this little bookstore in Missouri if it weren’t for Amazon, see it’s actually helping—but I fear we’d see right through my own bullsh*t. The fact was I enjoyed convenience far more than I enjoyed standing up for my values.
Then, I came across an article. It was far worse than I’d imagined.
Amazon is cheap because it can afford to sell at cost, eliminating profits from other suppliers. It can afford to sell at cost because it charges monstrous “cooperative promotional fees” to publishers. My understanding of this is like the bully that takes your lunch money but promises that you won’t get beat up on the playground, or the neighborhood gang who charges business owners more than they can afford to do business in that part of town. And if you don’t pay up, you leave town, you disappear.
Publishers are paying thousands of dollars for Amazon to sell their books. They are paying even more to be featured or suggested or listed on Amazon’s recommendation lists. They are paying more than they can afford, but they cannot afford not to pay. Amazon might make up half of their sales or more—to walk away is to drive their own company into the ground. Yet, by staying, they are nearing the same end. Amazon increases their sales; they should be grateful. Yet, by selling at cost and squeezing out higher and higher cooperative promotional fees, Amazon cuts even further into their profits.
And Amazon isn’t troubled by this; after all, if publishers go out of business, Amazon’s own publishing will reap the rewards. It isn’t stopping with books either. In fact, it won’t stop its bullying until it controls all our exchanges and sources of knowledge—Amazon’s CEO purchased The Washington Post.
Amazon started as a bookstore, but only as a means of collecting data on millions of customers. It was never interested in the non-existent profit it garnered from bookselling but instead on the information it could gather from its customers, so it could sell us more and more, until we depended on it for everything.
If Amazon is both publisher and main book distributor, it decides what we read.
If Amazon is both studio and video distributor, it decides what we watch.
If Amazon owns the news, it decides what we know.
If Amazon collects our personal data and provides the platform for the CIA’s server, well that doesn’t sound good.
If you aren’t terrified by now, you should be.