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  • Seymour Gris: I’m dumping Amazon


Seymour Gris: I’m dumping Amazon

The retail monster is actively trying to destroy publishing in Germany and everywhere else. It's time to pull the plug, says Gris.

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Photo by Ryan O’Shea

I’m dumping Amazon. It’s been 18 years, but now it’s time to go. I’ve done a lot of shopping in that supermarket of supermarkets over the past two decades. But it’s just become demonic and deserves to have the plug pulled on it.

In the small American town where I spent most of my youth, my mother ran a charming little bookshop. It couldn’t get any more independent than this: an outstanding collection of fiction and poetry books hand-selected by a dedicated, knowledgeable bookseller. In the back was a charming cafe with a delightful garden that would host readings and writing groups. Literary types – both real published novelists and second-rate poet posers – would hang out there all day. It was great.

The shop never made much money, so it closed in the early 1990s. A good thing too, because soon a Borders opened up in town, presenting a major threat to any independent store. Jump to 1995. This was the year I got my first Hotmail account and, shortly thereafter, my Amazon account after reading in the newspaper about Jeff Bezos launching the company in his garage in Seattle. This internet shopping thing was amazing! I thought: every book in the world just a few clicks away. How cool was that? I bought more and more books on Amazon. I would never miss the birthdays of far-flung family members again – I could just get Amazon to send something last-minute. So what if the cards printed in Comic Sans font that you could send with the books were slightly pathetic – at least your present got there on time. The perfect Christmas shopping tool for lazy, procrastinating expats.

In the late 1990s, I moved to Spain, then to Britain and finally to Germany. Magically, my account followed me – allowing me to log in to German Amazon seamlessly and pay with my American credit card. How nice of them!

Skip to today: Amazon is a data-gobbling behemoth  (or “data octopus” as the Germans like to say) that is slowly monopolising the book market with price-gouging, its oh-so-convenient Kindle lock-in system and its hyper-aggressive stance towards publishers.

In Germany, where publishers are at least protected by the Buchpreisbindung, meaning all booksellers must sell books at the same price, Amazon is using its market dominance to savagely squeeze better conditions out of publishers. Its negotiating tactics include delaying delivery of titles from those publishers who don’t comply (order a Harry Potter book on German Amazon and the site will deliberately take a week to 10 days to ship it). Normally, the retailer will take approximately a 40 percent share. Amazon has been pressuring publishers to sell them books at far lower wholesale rates – sometimes leaving the publisher with as little as 45 percent of the cover price. So every time you buy a book from Amazon – which already has a huge advantage thanks to all the data mining aka spying it does on its customers – Amazon makes a higher profit than the bookshop around the corner would. In other words, you’re just feeding the beast and making it more powerful, helping it control and subjugate the diverse industry of book publishing. How could anyone who cares about books continue to buy them at Amazon, I asked myself, when the company is literally destroying the trade before our eyes?

But what about self-publishing? Doesn’t Amazon empower authors who just want to publish an ebook, by cutting out the inefficient middle-man the way internet giants love to do? As we all know, only the Stephen Kings of this world can really make it that way. The vast majority of self-published authors simply don’t sell a significant number of copies without the editing, marketing and press services of a publishing house.

Amazon’s goal appears to be to destroy publishing as we know it and get ALL authors to use its self-publishing platform. This would indeed be castrophic for human culture. Germany, the birthplace of modern book printing and Amazon’s second largest market, is finally fighting back. More than 1500 German-language writers have signed a letter to Jeff Bezos accusing Amazon of ruining the book industry through the above-mentioned tactics. German anti-trust authorities are investigating Amazon’s activities. Even the State Minister for Culture Monika Grütters has expressed her support for the campaign.

At the same time, the authors and publishers aren’t calling for a flat-out boycott, because they fear Amazon’s might. That’s too timid in my book: it’s simply time to pull the plug. So I sent an email to Amazon on the weekend saying I wanted to close my account. Someone answered on Sunday – who knows if it was really a human, despite the name in the signature – with a long list of all the amazing things that I would miss out on if I really deleted my account. It felt very official, bureacratic and significant – like quitting a job I’d held for 18 years. But it’s hard to get nostalgic about a relationship with a server farm, so I wrote back confirming that, yes, I did want to delete my account.

From now on I’ll be ordering my books at the shop around the corner. They’re quicker, have free shipping and you can talk to a human being.