Monday 27 January 2014

Avoiding Amazon

Image from Gawker article - worth a read.

It has now been two months since the Panorama programme exposing Amazon's mistreatment of employees. You can still watch it online.

I decided to embark on an experiment, to see how difficult life would be without Amazon.

The fact that I'm reporting back after only nine weeks should be some indication of how I'm coping. I have definitely noticed it missing from my life.

There are two parts to all of this: Amazon from a consumer's perspective, and Amazon from a sales perspective.

Ethical Consumer
Boycott Amazon Campaign

We'll take the second bit first, because this is something I hadn't really considered when I set out to boycott Amazon. Of course it'll be easy not to use it, I thought. It's only a website.

I quickly realised the gap in my logic when several other authors tweeted on this topic. As a consumer, you get some choice over where you buy things from, yet as an author you don't get any say over where your books are sold.


Amazon stock just about everything ever published. No publisher in the modern age is going to ask for your title to be removed from the world's biggest book sales site. The number of publishers willing to sign an author who demands their work be removed from Amazon probably runs into negative figures. 

Publishers need to make money, they make money from selling your books (theoretically, at least), therefore books must be stocked and sold. Yet it is the paperback - the physical book - that contributes the most misery to workers, as they hurtle down unlit corridors against the clock, tripping over themselves to distribute your product through the post. Every time I make a sale, I hear a minimum-wage employee scream as she falls down a flight of stairs.


Meanwhile, I'm lucky to retain the e-rights on two of my novels, plus my self-published short stories. However, what would be the point in removing these? Nobody has to locate them in a warehouse or post them. There's no physical book to dispatch. They're not directly contributing to the mental and emotional destruction of workers. You could argue that the profit from ebooks oils the slave machine, but unless you're Kerry Wilkinson, that contribution is likely to be minimal.

Still, it was a bit of a wake-up call to realise just how deeply Amazon one-click culture had twisted its tendrils into my life: not just the things I choose to spend my money on, but what other people choose to spend their money on and, therefore, where I derive my income from. The web spreads far wider than I had originally considered.

I also received a number of presents this Christmas which I know must have been bought through Amazon. I wasn't about to return them.

Setting aside the conundrum of Amazon as an author for the time being, I went back to focusing on Amazon as a consumer. I've been an avid Amazon customer for years. Would I miss it?

Paxus Calta's Boycott List

Sales aside, how hard could it be to boycott Amazon that close to Christmas?

Well, the same reason I faced the sales conundrum - being an author - was the same reason I didn't find it too difficult to begin with.

I'm lucky in that I know a few talented writers, and I enjoy supporting their work. It's a bit like hitting the 'shop local' button on Etsy.

Non-Book 'Stuff'

Whilst we're on that topic, not using Amazon did force me to get a little more inventive about presents. I spent quite a bit of time browsing Etsy (which has teamed up with Kiva), Not on the High Street, and purchasing from friends who make things. 

I have to admit that I hate 'real' shopping. I'm not a crowd person, I don't enjoy spending hours browsing windows to find the one thing I actually want to buy. I'm an absolute convert to internet shopping. The internet has also brought a wider audience to many local shops, like the one in Yorkshire where I bought my dad a box of beer bread mix. I never would have heard of them or bought from them if it weren't for the internet.

As for non-craft-related things like children's trampolines, lawnmowers, DIY tools etc., there are plenty of other shops out there. They may seem more expensive, but if they're paying their taxes then at least you're getting that extra back in the form of healthcare, policing and streetlights. I know it doesn't sound as sexy as a bargain, but you have to admit it makes more sense in the long run.


All that said, it's books we're interested in, right?

Shopping for 'stuff' elsewhere wasn't hard, and neither was shopping for books - to begin with. I bought several books as Christmas presents, including Hubble Bubble, which is Jane Lovering's new one, and No Peace for the Wicked by Adrian Magson. I ordered signed copies with 'Happy Christmas' messages, which gave them a personal touch, and even got some free soap off Jane - she says it was from her book launch, but I secretly think it may have been a hint...

All of that was fairly straightforward because I am lucky enough to know these lovely people. It worked out much nicer than an impersonal copy off Amazon, and I felt all glowy and warm knowing that the sale price was going directly to the author, sans la middle man.

You don't have to know an author to get a signed copy, by the way. Many authors offer this through their website, either explicitly or if you drop them a line. The first time I did this was with Fay Sampson's Daughter of Tintagel omnibus about ten years ago. There's no harm in asking, and most authors are only too happy that someone cares enough about their stories to want a signed copy. Plus, again, the money goes directly to supporting your favourite authors and their publishers.

It wasn't so easy when I started to look for titles by authors I didn't know, and didn't need autographed. Basically, anything I would normally buy through Amazon. 

I started out by visiting the 'alternative to Amazon' mentioned in the Panorama programme: Bookmail. I really wanted to support it, as it'd been set up by a bookshop owner who lost half his chain to online competition - namely Amazon. Unfortunately, though, it is just like a high street bookshop online. You can only buy the books they have in stock, and the books they have in stock are fairly limited. Although they are very competitively priced, they didn't have any of the titles I wanted to buy.

There's an uncomfortable argument here. Just as Amazon have closed down indie bookstores, indie bookstores, with their limited range of stock, close down new authors. Amazon may appear wicked to a bookshop owner, but they're liberating for an indie author.

Moving on... Whilst searching alternatives, I did discover IndieBound. It allows you to locate your nearest independent bookstore, which is a brilliant idea... but only if you're in America. Still, it might catch on in the UK eventually.

The other thing I really missed was Amazon's second-hand prices. Although I'm a huge supporter of buying books at full price to support authors you like, I'm also a fan of the second-hand book market, too. Sometimes I'll read something by an author who's already huge, or dead, or who's moved onto other titles that are doing better, and the book reminds me of one of my friends, and I think 'they'd enjoy this', so I hunt down a cheap second-hand copy and send it to them. The prices on Amazon for second-hand books are the best anywhere. 

There are other, more ethical options, like Green Metropolis, but again, their selection and delivery options are very limited. [UPDATE: Green Metropolis appears to have gone out of business.]


This is where things started to get a lot more complicated.

I love paperbacks, but I also love ebooks. Often I'll read an ebook and enjoy it so much I'll order a paper version for the shelf. Or I'll pick up a paper version, decide I can't cope with the font, and purchase it on Kindle. I also love that there's such a variety of literature out there in e-format, so you can try out new authors and story collections without spending a fortune. 

Things started well. A friend had written a short story that I wanted to read, so I dropped him a line and asked if I could get a copy for my Kindle and pay him directly. As it was, he gave it freely, and I was able to convert it to Kindle using Calibre

Didn't work so well with author Bethany Griffin, who had written a series I was very interested in reading. I wrote to explain that I was sidestepping Amazon for ethical reasons, and asked whether there was any way in which I could purchase an e-book directly from her or via another outlet... to which I was met with silence.

Fair enough.

A friend's housemate had also written a murder mystery. It was self-published, so the paperback cost a fortune. Again, I asked my friend to ask whether it would be possible to pay directly for the Kindle version, rather than going through Amazon, but that didn't get me anywhere either.

It is unusual to find authors this averse to selling their work, but perhaps it's back to convenience culture again. If you can buy it through Amazon, why wouldn't you? Perhaps doing it any other way is too much like hard work? Afraid of pissing off the publisher? More costly in time than you stand to make in sales? Or perhaps they've just skipped town for reasons best left to the Mafia.

Who knows. 

Either way, I didn't get the book.

The Other Stuff

Then there's a whole load of other stuff I use Amazon for that I didn't realise I did. I'm regularly looking up book blurbs for reviews. I run a book review site, so I look up ISBN numbers and publication dates a lot. When I want to recommend a book to a friend, or on this blog, 90% of the time I'll post an Amazon link to the title. If I want to know who wrote a book, or which other books that author has written, the top search results are usually always Amazon. It's Wiki-shly hard to avoid.

The other thing a lot of people don't know is that ABE Books and Book Depository are also owned by Amazon. So even when you think you've found an alternative, you might not have done.


I think the biggest gripe that I've got is that I don't particularly want to avoid Amazon, I just want them to be a little less shit.

Once upon a time, when they were first starting out, they were bloody brilliant. They had an excellent business model, they'd sorted out their customer service, they were convenient and all-round great guys. Then they chowed down on some Monsanto GMO and mutated into this horrific picture of monopoly-mad, greed-filled abusemongers. 

Seriously, it's tiring for consumers, it does nothing for the company's own image. Why persist? 

One can only assume they're working on the .com bubble-bursting theory, trying to reap as much cash as they can before the whole thing goes inevitably belly-up.

If it's not inevitably doomed to failure, then what's to lose by returning to a friendly, ethical, tax-paying and sustainable business model?

Why not just be not crap?

Wouldn't it make everyone's lives easier?

Their tax-avoiding, rights-quashing, taking-the-piss antics have been documented in other countries too, such as Germany and France (dodgy Google translation).

It's led to lists of tax-paying alternatives to Amazon, as well as MPs calling for widespread Amazon avoidance (which must annoy the Welsh government, who paid millions to the company to encourage them to come and abuse worker rights in their country).

I'm certainly not the only person to be trying out this boycott. Check out Why I'm boycotting Amazon and where I'm going instead and How to kick that Amazon habit for more on the subject.

The ethics of this are up to each individual. I don't think I can cut Amazon out altogether just yet, but that doesn't mean I won't try to wean myself off slowly. 

I've decided:

  • I can't do much about where my books are sold, and I probably don't want to. But I will make sure that all ebooks are also available on Smashwords, avoiding Amazon's exclusivity offers like KDP Select and assuring a more ethically sourced copy is available for those who are boycotting them.
  • I won't buy any non-book items or new paperbacks from them if I can find them elsewhere.
  • I won't buy any second-hand books from Amazon or ABE if I can find them elsewhere, and I will make more of an effort to use ethical second-hand sellers.
  • I will continue to purchase ebooks through Amazon as a lesser of two evils, as I do have a Kindle and nobody has to physically go and get my book in order to deliver it.

I do love my Kindle, but perhaps I will check out other e-readers when this one collapses.

To reiterate a point here, what annoys me more than anything is the sheer unnecessary inconvenience of all this, brought about by a once-great firm turning into a bunch of flying monkeys. Amazon -  sort out your ethics and we can all go back to doing business again.

You built a vast global empire out of selling books. Surely it can't be beyond your capabilities to stop being dicks?

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