Yes, Amazon Is Evil, But Probably Not That Evil
A friend pointed me to this op-ed by Richard Russo in the New York Times about Amazon’s latest tactic to establish itself as the sole source for buying… well, everything, to be honest. Basically, the gist is this:
…Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).
Russo notes that books were excluded from this deal but not music or DVDs. And, of course, even if you can’t use the credit to buy a book, you have still already discovered that Amazon sells the book cheaper, and so you are probably going to buy it from Amazon anyway. The damage, either way, is done.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with out-competing your rivals, even if your methods are a little tasteless. As Dennis Lehane says in the op-ed, this is “scorched-earth capitalism”. Amazon is under no obligation to make sure that their competitors survive a price war. Of course, there is the side problem that Amazon has largely used its tax-free status to become a corporate mega-behemoth, at which point it pivoted to use its mega-behemoth leverage to set up sales tax schemes to its own benefit. That is well within the traditional purview of the particular rent-seeking form of capitalism most firms adhere to, but you can pretty easily raise principled objections without any kind of rejection of capitalism in general.
In any case, what really interests me is the question of whether Amazon is destroying (or helping destroy) a literary culture of some kind. There is no doubt that book stores have historically been a kind of gathering place. They are the first line for book talks, readings, or signings. They, especially in their smaller or more independent forms, create a space where like-minded people can share thoughts and favorites. Take away book stores and this stuff goes away, right?
Not clear. We are in no way running out of space for like-minded people to gather. The League itself is testament to that, even if the only thing our minds tend to have in common is snark. E.D. Kain runs book clubs (sort of) from the front page here; Alyssa Rosenberg hosts discussions at her place over at ThinkProgress; Brian Cook recently did a Q&A with an author at MGoBlog. (These are all recent experiences I’ve had that I pulled off the top of my head; they may or may not apply to you in any way.) There are listservs for basically every author with any kind of following at all. I am not suffering a shortage of people who want to talk – and talk intelligently! – about any book I can think of talking about.
Where I’m going with this, I think, is that Amazon seems to be more a symptom of a larger cultural change that really doesn’t have much to do with Amazon’s business practices. The internet has radically redefined how we connect with people (and corporations, which are also people). It is so easy to find someone who shares my interests that I don’t need to wander around a bookstore or ask the owner for suggestions. Book culture just isn’t something that takes place in folding chairs in a Barnes & Noble any more (says a guy who was very recently at a book talk and signing at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda).
Amazon has some shady business practices; I won’t deny it. But they also make it very, very easy to get ahold of almost any book you can imagine, at the best possible price, no matter where you live. Then you can fire up Google (one of the world’s other most evil corporations) and find literally thousands of people to talk about it with. You may not get to talk to anyone you’ve ever met in person, I guess, but I think the cost-benefit analysis clearly works in your favor on this one.
UPDATE: Farhad Manjoo largely beat me to the punch on this.