May 22, 2013 Leave a comment
It’s coming up to the end of month five of trying not to buy things from Amazon as a matter of course. I’ve been a good boy. Here’s the latest update with a bit more context and how it’s working out now the novelty has worn off.
Why Do this?
Since the last update, I’ve read up more widely and developed how I rationalise it. There are two reasons to choose from.
Here’s the ‘negative’ argument.
Amazon’s UK subsidiary paid £2.4m in corporation taxes despite making sales of £4.3bn and receiving Government subsidies in Scotland of £2.5m. Many multinational companies continue to operate perfectly legal tax avoidance schemes on a staggering scale. There has been lots of rhetoric and handwringing but there seems little sign of EU Governments doing anything practical to change tax laws.
The other question of course is how much tax should Amazon being paying? Tax is based on profit and there is little doubt that Amazon’s profit is an interesting subject.
In the meantime, Amazon continue to enjoy an unfair advantage over UK businesses, including small independent shops, which provide exactly the same goods and services. This means less tax revenue from them which in turn leads to the closure of libraries, cuts in education, welfare etc which disadvantage the poor and in particular children.
Again I would stress Amazon is not doing anything illegal. However, whilst companies can choose to arrange their tax affairs how they wish (providing it’s legal), consumers also have the right to judge companies on their arrangements and choose, if they so wish, to place their business with companies that make a fairer contribution to society.
It’s down to each of us to decide whether they are happy to fill their boots (Kindles) with cheap books and hope it’ll be alright in the end. I have come round to the view that whilst I may get a ‘cheap’ book quickly, someone else in the UK may not have access to books as a result (my local library is shut today as are so many).
Here’s a more ‘positive’ argument that I’m developing
I want to see books (and writing) continue to be part of a rich arts culture in the UK and not just be a form of retail. To do that, we need a culture that pays creatives properly for their work, provides genuine choice for readers and creates an environment that encourages writing and writers. I want to deal with people who are passionate about books and not the efficiency of their distribution systems. I want to walk into a bookshop, talk to the owner about what (s)he recommends (and not what (s)he is being paid to recommend) I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise and not based on an algorithm of previous history. I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff as well as those who write bestsellers. Therefore I need to support those enterprises that want to do that too. Because if I don’t, they’re not going to be there, irrespective of how much tax anyone pays.
I’ve come to like the second argument more. Amazon can’t provide all that. They don’t really don’t need my money to survive and I can spend it more positively. It’s a much easier argument as I don’t really need to defend it. I can spend my money how I like!
Here’s how it’s working out in practice.
With experience, it becomes ever easier not to buy from Amazon and I haven’t! Independent bookshops can order books in for collection. Some offer free postage e.g. Big Green Books and others e.g. Belgravia Books will deliver free within the local area. If you don’t have a local bookshop, just adopt one! Find one you like in a nearby city or think about that lovely shop you discovered by the seaside. It might then be there the next time you go there. Talk to the owner, ring them up, email them, tweet them. The advantage of an independent bookstore is that the owner is not bound by any corporate rules so you can negotiate anything you like if they’re willing! The Hive website offers a hybrid scheme whereby you can have a book delivered or posted while supporting a local bookshop
For those who prefer the major stores, Foyles and Waterstones provide both retail and online channels which work well. I’ve also used the Book Depository online store. Another channel not to be neglected, for older books, is the public library. Here in Herts, I can have any book in the Herts system delivered to my local branch for 60p. If you want to read Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ any time soon, it’ll be a long wait but a Flannery O’Connor book I’d been recommended arrived the next working day.
My own preference is to support bookshops that love books and put effort into supporting authors and readers. I went to an event at Big Green Books in Wood Green last night and bought three books. My hometown bookshop continues to stack shelves with books and hopes people will buy them. Independent bookshops still have to work for my custom.
In practice, I’ll probably use a mixture of all the above going forward but with a strong preference for independents. I am spending approximately the same amount of money on books as I used to but putting more money back overall into the UK economy through making more considered choices.
The really good news is that the demise of the bookshop is not inevitable. Where I live in Hertfordshire, two new shops selling children’s books have opened in recent weeks; one in Hertford (‘Leaf Café’) and one in Brookmans Park (‘Tuffets’, owned by Tim and Simon who run Big Green Bookshop).
Since the last update, I haven’t bought any from Amazon. There was only one book not available in physical form I wanted and I’m pleased to say it was available on Kobo.
The main problem with ebooks continues to be digital rights management. If you buy a Kindle, it needs Kindle format books which inevitably lures you into the Amazon eco system. I used to have a Kindle paper e-reader but replaced it (it broke after just 18 months) with a iPad (other tablets are available). This means I can buy books from anywhere. I haven’t done a complete due diligence on Kobo yet, but I’ve heard an interview with the Kobo CEO and read this interview. It seems to have a reasonable business ethos which, at the moment, is probably good enough for me given the very limited number of ebooks I buy. Waterstones and Foyles also offer an extensive ebook range. According to the Waterstones website, ebooks in Kindle format will be available in 2013.
The upshot is that as long as you don’t tie yourself into a Kindle, the ease and convenience of buying ebooks is available from other retailers.
Photography and other non book stuff mainly cheap plastic crap from China
Again nothing bought, but the temptation to buy from Amazon rather than search for an alternative is strong, just for convenience. I’m getting better at using the right search terms now though so it’s getting easier. In reality, it takes about 5-10 mins to find something at a similar price. Amazon is not always the cheapest.
Authors & Publishers
Rather than listing Amazon as an alternative, authors, publishers and reviewers continue to link lazily and exclusively to Amazon on social media rather than giving alternatives. They also reduce their own royalties and profit margins in the process. There are bound to be people who want to buy from Amazon but simply listing Amazon amongst 3 or 4 options, rather than exclusively, would make an enormous difference without limiting choice. It still staggers me that authors, publishers and bookshops fail to support each other then moan about the dominance of Amazon.
In terms of self published work, Amazon aren’t the only publishing platform so self published authors can and should provide an alternative if they’re thinking about their own long term interests. Otherwise they may find their royalties further reduced and have no alternative outlet.
To be honest, when I started this, I had the worry that this would be the literary equivalent of ‘The Good Life’ [look it up on Wikipedia, kids]. It’s taken a bit of time but now I’ve worked out what to do, there’s really not much to it so this is the last time I intend to blog on the subject unless circumstances change. I may add the odd update to the comments section.
I miss the cardboard packaging from Amazon which composted nicely but other than that, there’s not much else and I’m enjoying buying and reading books more. If you want to do the same, the process is really just figuring out which is best for you and trying them out until you find something that works for you. Hopefully this post and the previous one takes out a lot of time in finding possible alternatives but you’ll need to research your own local bookshops but let’s face, wandering around a bookshop isn’t really a chore, is it?
If, having read all this, you choose to buy from Amazon, it’s up to you. But if you see people losing their jobs or a bookshop replaced by Poundland in the future, don’t say it’s a shame and it was inevitable. The future’s not inevitable. There were good alternatives available and you just couldn’t be arsed.
The future of books rests in our hands (and buying fingers). Choose wisely.