Amazon doesn’t exist

Amazon is a puzzling beast. It is ever-present in our lives, the almost ubiquitous ‘turn-to’ when we want a book. But apparently, it does not exist in Britain. Or in most American states. It can’t do, for it doesn’t pay sales tax in those states, and barely deigns to do so in Britain (according to Richard Murphy it paid £517,000 on estimated sales in the UK of £3.2billion — which, is my math is correct (it often isn’t) is a rate of 0.016%). OK, so it’s not that it barely deigns to do so — at a rate of 0.016% I think we can safely say Amazon does not pay tax in Britain. It wants a workforce that can read and write; that can travel to its offices and warehouses by public transport; that can drink clean water when they turn on the taps; it wants those warehouses and offices protected by a police force. It just doesn’t think it should contribute to the cost of any of those things.

In the States, Educational Development Corporation, a smallish (by Amazon standards — it has a valuation of $18m) specialist publisher, has decided enough is enough. Amazon is a raptor. It squeezes its suppliers (publishers); it kicks back, as a result, far less to its producers (authors — hand up, I have a vested interest here); it is trying to destroy bookshops (last Christmas it told customers to go into shops, have a look around, then go home and order online); it gives consumers, granted, a good deal, but to what end?

Amazon turns barely any profit on its £48 billion turnover. So there must be a master-plan, and it’s pretty clear what that is. Drive bookshops out of business, and end up with a scorched earth, where it is the last beast standing. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor: I’m cross.) Then it can price its ware at anything it damn well pleases.

So after screwing the publishers, the authors and the bookstores, customers are next on the list. You may think you’re getting a good deal now. But really you’re just being softened up for the kill.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

Points for ‘helpfulness’: Boy-scout reviewing?

OK, we’re back on reviewing. Everyone has (rightly) been wary of Amazon’s ‘reviews’ — an agent highlighted one review a few weeks ago where the ‘reviewer’ gave a dismissive one-star review to a book that s/he admitted to not having read. (S/he didn’t like the idea of it, apparently.) But on the whole, many people still skim down a line of reviews, looking at the overall positive/negative feedback, even while accepting that many of the reviews are negative ‘because I couldn’t identify with any of the characters’ or similar reasons that will have no effect on any other reader.

However, it is also worth remembering that the ‘top’ Amazon reviewers are also receiving free books and merchandise, and their position as ‘top’ reviewers is contingent not merely on the number of reviews that they write, as I had previously thought, but on the positive nature of their reviews. Amazon says quite straightforwardly that ‘overall helpfulness’ should be the focus of the reviews. And, not surprisingly from a retailer who makes its substantial pile from selling books, ‘helpfulness’ does not equate to a review that says ‘Save your pennies, this book is a steaming pile of shite.’

So instead, the reviewers, who not unreasonably since they are unpaid, want their free books, beaver away as some sort of literary version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Edwin the Boy-Scout, performing last week but one’s Daily Act of Kindness. The problem is, they are being kind to Amazon, not to the users of the site. Those people are being suckered into spending money on things that the reviewer doesn’t actually like: not kind at all.

I have a suggestion, although it’s an odd one. Why don’t readers rely on reviewers who get paid, and whose reviews appear in independent forums? I know, we could call them ‘book review sections’, and they could be printed in, mmm, perhaps newspapers and magazines? Just an idea.

Nah, probably won’t work.