A few days ago author and bookseller Jaime Clarke launched his unusual website, pleasedontbuymybookonamazon.com. Clarke is publishing a new novel with Roundabout, a small, independent press, and he feels that online retailer Amazon’s deep-discounting policies might bankrupt the fledgling publisher. “It’s not about the money,” he told me. “I just want to give Roundabout a chance to succeed.”
It’s a bold, even a crazy move. Amazon now accounts for 30 percent or more of most authors’ book sales, in “real” and electronic books. But Clarke is also co-owner of Newtonville Books. Independent bookstore owners loathe Amazon and its bald-pated founder, Jeff Bezos.
When Bezos bought the Washington Post last month, Brad Graham and Lissa Muscatine, owners of the fabled Washington bookstore Politics & Prose — and authors and former Post staffers — wrote that Amazon “engaged in questionable practices such as selling below cost to gain market share and evading the collection of sales taxes. It also has sought to bully smaller companies that have resisted its terms, and it has been criticized for poor workplace conditions in the United States and abroad.”
Just last Friday, best-selling author Jonathan Franzen joined the Amazon hate-fest. “In my own little corner of the world,” Franzen wrote in the Guardian newspaper, “Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.”
Wait, he’s not done: “The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.”
Everybody hates Amazon.
Everybody except me.
I figured out at least five years ago that e-books were going to collapse profits, and thus advances, for so-called mid-list books, e.g., Javier Marias’s brilliant “Written Lives.” Those are the kind of books I and thousands of other writers produce. That would happen with or without Amazon. And while Amazon might want to supplant the Random Houses and Simon & Schusters of the world, it has a long way to go. Its in-house publishing efforts are laughable, and my brief enthusiasm for its innovative, cheapo Kindle Singles program is over. Ninety-nine cents is too much to pay for bad writing.
But Amazon does much more than sell books. One of my sons is addicted to Amazon Prime, a $79 a year service that offers free, two-day delivery on almost anything. In addition, you get access to Prime Instant Video, Amazon’s Netflix-Hulu-killing app. Prime is merely the gateway drug for Amazon’s same-day shipping service, which should be coming to many cities in the near future.
I recently overcame my reluctance to shop Amazon, and the experience was, as they say in the jargony world of digital commerce, seamless. I needed an 11-by-17-inch frame for my new Brigid Williams print, so instead of driving to the nice frame lady who charges an awful lot, I perused about 60 options on Amazon. It delivered the frame I wanted, a few days later, for $20.
Now I need a Cateye bicycle light. Just skimming, it looks as if Amazon has about 50 different kinds in stock. So you see where I am going with this, or where I am not going. I am not going to get in my car and drive to the bicycle store.
There is another reason I don’t hate Amazon. I think Amazon is going to save the Washington Post, one of America’s great newspapers, in ways we can’t yet envisage. I envy the Post. It has a deep-pocketed, ruthless owner who has successfully disrupted almost every market he has entered.
Feel free to mock me if things don’t turn out this way. You know my motto: I’ve been wrong before.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.