Living without Amazon – How’s that working for me?

I joined Goodreads last weekend. Yesterday it was taken over by Amazon. I can’t say I was chuffed.

I used to be a real fan of Amazon but over time I’ve come to realise I don’t like Amazon’s current business practices. It boils down to this. You get a cheap product very easily and with fast service but everyone else helps pay for the discount whether that’s a reduction in the author’s royalties on a published book, corporation tax forgone which would have helped someone vulnerable in society or a small business paying tax being squeezed by Amazon on their margins.

[Update 17/5/13:Amazon paid just £2.4m tax on £4bn sales in UK last year. They also received £2.5m in Government grants!]

That’s just my view. Amazon will say, well you know what they’ll say. There’s lot of information available in the public domain if you want to read up about it.

You may agree with all that or you may not. I decided to make a change and move my custom away from them. I started in a small way last year. However my New Year’s resolution was not to buy anything from Amazon unless it was a ‘necessity’ or it was only available via them. How’s it going? The answer is surprisingly well but with a few lapses and a couple of grey areas!

The Lapses

I strayed. I was ill for most of January and February and only left the house when necessary.  So, before I got fully into my stride and started exploring alternatives, I bought some ebooks to read, a Stofen omnibounce and a stylus for my iPad partly out of my own lack of understanding of the product and an inability to find a sensibly priced equivalent elsewhere. Amazon was just easy and convenient especially when feeling like death! Having confessed my sins, I’ll move on.

Non Book Stuff

Generally, within 5-10mins, you can find anything that is sold on Amazon at a similar price elsewhere but anything which falls under the category ‘cheap s*** from China’ takes much longer to source.

Both Jacobs and Jessops went bust last year and the pro dealers don’t discount so, for camera equipment, Amazon was the next logical choice in terms of convenience and service. I used a Canon forum to ask for a reliable alternative. They found me one that was cheaper than Amazon!

For office supplies, I’ve gone through old Amazon receipts and noted who supplied what e.g. inkjet cartridges. Using online tools and my business experience, I can make an educated guess about whether I’m happy to trade with them directly . Most companies seem happy to supply direct (although they might have a minimum order) and have a shopping cart or take orders over the phone. The prices are similar to what you’d pay on Amazon but of course the company makes more direct profit which is then subject to taxation. I’ve had no problems with anything so far.

Published Books

Published book purchases are easy. I won’t buy from supermarkets who are just creaming off on the bestsellers but there are loads of ‘real’ book shops more than happy to take your money. The chains e.g. Foyles, Waterstones offer a comparable service to Amazon but you can also order through a smaller shop. It probably won’t be in stock but if you’ve a To Be Read pile, a few days wait isn’t going to be too much of an issue.

Now I’ve built up my TBR pile, I’ve started to use the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green (they’re about to open a new Children’s bookshop in Brookman’s Park). They offer free delivery on orders over £5 and a free out of print booksearch. Tim and Simon are nice guys, love books and put on interesting events in their shop (I’ve written about the Tracey Thorn event previously). I can give them my money or reward the Finance department of Amazon for their ability to minimise tax. It’s an easy choice. Other enthusiastic bookstores are available.

To be clear, there’s plenty of choice still available to book buyers. There’s absolutely no reason to buy a physical book from Amazon if you don’t want to. It’s just laziness or impatience on the part of purchasers (myself included) helped by many authors and publishers on social media who just include a link to Amazon without suggesting any other alternatives.

Published Ebooks

This is a more difficult area but other platforms and devices are available. The problem is availability and promotion. Publishers seem reluctant to make the effort to offer and publicise ebooks on different platforms. Amazon are really good at physical distribution. That’s hard to replicate due to capital costs but they’re also trying to dominate the market for ebooks to deter competition in the future. They’re succeeding but I would have thought a group of programmers with some backing could develop a publishing platform to compete with Amazon fairly easily. It’s an area I’ll confess I need to learn more about.

To be honest, I liked ebooks (especially when I was ill) but moving back to physical books has been enjoyable nor is it much more expensive except for the crazy 99p (or 20p!) promotions which Amazon use to try and stimulate the market for e-readers purchases.

I don’t believe it’s right that Amazon can set prices for Kindle independent of the publisher. However to be fair to Amazon, authors and publishers also have a choice of how much to promote the offer on Amazon when their book is being reduced to a lowball price so it’s a a grey area for me. Money is tight for everyone and if an author/publisher  is inviting you to buy it and they’re the ones who’ll suffer on the royalties, then it’s a bit rich of me to say don’t!

Personally I think it’s more about the big picture so I’m clenching my teeth, trying to ignore the lure of a cheap book and think about the people on benefits being targeted which could have been paid for through corporation tax. As a ‘leftard’ (I was called that this week), it makes me feel better.

In summary, I’m not sure why Amazon should control the ebook market in years to come. Personally I’m happy to read real books in preference to ebooks (for as long as they’re printed) but it’s more of a worry for the industry to let a company that just wants to flog ‘stuff’, whatever stuff it is, have such a dominant position.

Self Published Books and Ebooks

I have more sympathy with self published authors who don’t have the resources of a publisher or might not have the knowhow to publish on multiple channels. They do however have a choice of whether to go with Amazon or not and how they set their own prices. My general principle is to ask the author if an alternative exists and if not, I’ll make a decision and order via Amazon if I’m really moved. I tend not to buy fiction unless it’s by someone I know but mainly work related ebooks which often are free (as they promote the author’s professional career). I think I’ve downloaded five or six and paid £1 for a couple of them. It’s another grey area, I’ll admit.

Is it possible to live life without Amazon?

The short answer is yes provided you put in a modicum of effort and learn a little patience. I’m comfortable overall with my personal choice and would encourage others to give it a go

I’ve diverted about £450 so far from Amazon directly to UK retailers. This includes books, camera equipment and office stationery. I’m not sure how much Amazon would take out of that and I’m sure the FD of Amazon hasn’t noticed me yet, but if more people do that, it’ll make a difference.

I can’t fill my boots with cheap books anymore. However this has forced me to think more carefully about the books I want to buy and to seek out quality via fellow writers e.g. Tania Hershman has given me some recommendations on flash and short stories. The process of selecting, buying and reading books has become less mechanical and more enjoyable so overall I think I’m on top.

The one thing that has surprised me most in this journey is not the laziness of the consumer which is understandable (as I demonstrated) but the willingness of the traditional publishing industry to go along with Amazon having seen the (now smaller) music industry follow an equivalent digital path. The motives of publishers will be financially driven and I don’t know enough about publishing business models to understand whether there are genuine reasons to go along with Amazon to the extent they do or whether they’re just sleepwalking? Perhaps others could comment?

This item was amended 17/5/13 to include Amazon’s latest sales and tax payments.


About Peter Domican
Marketer and change professional. Writer and photographer.

15 Responses to Living without Amazon – How’s that working for me?

  1. It sounds as if you’re doing really well, Pete. I’m impressed, as it takes a lot of thought and determination to not just succumb to the cheapest and easiest route – and you’re right, if we all did this, it would have a massive impact. I was really put out by the documentary, here in Germany, about Amazon’s practices in their packaging warehouses and I hate to think what the impact on book buying (and maybe not only books) will be if they tighten their grip on the monopoly.

    • Ah, the German migrant workers thing wasn’t very good publicity. Sure people can find that on Google and have a read if they’re interested.
      I’ve found that whilst Amazon is generally ‘cheap’, it is not always the cheapest. It is however the easiest until you’ve done your homework and found a reliable alternative. For physical books in the UK though, it doesn’t take much to find an alternative.

  2. jumeirajames says:

    I’ve not read a free book, so far, that’s been worth reading. Now that may be partly because my mind discounts anything that’s free. The big problem with free books is that people expect them to be free and everything else to be free as well. People who think that giving away books or selling them for 49c will ‘build a platform’ are deluding themselves. Do they think they can go to a publisher and say ‘hey. I sold 50,000 books. When in fact they gave them away?’ Very few people will make money from books, and history tells us that anyway.

    I’ve set my ebook price at $7 and its staying there. Forever.

    • Pricing for self publishing is a whole area on its own and discussed frequently elsewhere. My view is that in any creative business there needs to be an appropriate reward balance between ‘the talent’ and the various parties that get that talent out into the world. Whilst people are free to price their books at whatever they like, I’m, like you, yet to be convinced how micro pricing forms the basis of any kind of healthy publishing business or career.

      • jumeirajames says:

        Correct. If traditional publishing disappears because of epublishing – and epublishers give their books away, then who wins out of that? The world will be full of books subsidised by other activities, it will become a hobby not a job. Now having said that, if someone just wants to ‘be published’ then good for them. Just don’t pretend that somehow you’re an author.

  3. I’m torn with this. I see Amazon as a business, they weren’t born a massive multi-national company, they have grown into what they are. The purpose of a business is to make a profit. I do however see why it’s not great to have one business having such a monopoly and I do think it’s great that you have worked to make a difference in a way that you can. So, with both sides of that argument, I am probably going to buy my physical books from real shops now, on the back of this blog post, but I’m not going to blame Amazon for the end of the world as we know it. It is ease of purchasing that makes everyone go back to them, so maybe some of the other companies out there need to consider their marketing strategies more and not make it quite as difficult to find them as you mentioned. I think it’s a complicated subject and I don’t have the business studies degree to get my head around the complexities of it, but I do like your decision and approach.

    • I’m a Chartered Marketer and have an MBA and I haven’t fully worked the e-publishing side out! I think you made some really good points. I don’t blame Amazon either. They got in first with a reliable online business and built on it. Others failed to catch on and Amazon took advantage of it. I’d expect nothing less. I don’t even blame them for taking advantage of all the various tax laws and using their size to squeeze their suppliers/ publishers. As far as I know everything they do (certainly in the UK) is perfectly legal and I certainly see the attraction of cheap prices and convenience. I just think the world has changed and the downside of ‘cheap’ is too high a price to pay.
      I’d also agree that other companies aren’t marketing themselves effectively either in competing with Amazon or by cutting Amazon out as a reseller and marketing via other channels. If they want any help, I’m available for hire!

      • What I think is funny is how when something in the public eye grows, the public expect to have a say. Again, something if I listened, I could probably get my head around both sides of the argument. For instance, along with public outrage at Amazon, there is a lot of public demands and anger towards Facebook. Facebook started as a bit of software used to communicate by kids (ok, I’m old). Because it gained in popularity massively, I think those kids have had some pretty massive decisions to make and they’ve had to grow up pretty fast. But why should they be held responsible for so much? If people don’t like it, don’t use it. It’s not a public service provided by our government that we’re entitled to. Go use something else with different rules and settings. But, again, there is another side, if kids are unsafe, then they need to step in and protect as anyone should.

        But people just ranting as if Facebook and Amazon owe them or their entitled to something different from them. I don’t get it. This is what was created. If you don’t like it. Go elsewhere.

        See, your post and comment have caught my interest and popped my up on my hobby horse 🙂 It doesn’t come out very often, so can we keep this quiet 🙂

      • Oh yes, as well as physical books, I will try and source other products elsewhere. But I’m afraid Amazon has me caught for ebooks and self pubbers…

  4. I honour your stand Pete, but the pessimist in me feels not enough people will do similar to create anything like the critical mass needed to shift Amazon’s attitude and approach.

    • I think you could well be right. I failed to stop the Iraq War and the Banking Crisis too.

      • True, but a) taking a stand is the little person’s way of feeling good and strong and b) if everyone took the attitude of “my little vote doesn’t count” we’d never do or achieve a whole load of things.

        Pete – a great post, well done. I fought a similar battle a few years ago when I started trying to get people to honour a “fair reading” policy, but I just didn’t have time or energy to keep banging on about it. I also don’t buy books from Amazon and I try to keep to a policy like yours, but I’ve not done so well, out of laziness.

  5. Mike says:

    I just checked my Amazon orders page and found my first purchase was on 6th March 1999 — the Harvard Business Review of the Business Value of IT. So I’ve been a customer from the good old days when they operated from a crappy old warehouse in Slough and sent me presents for being a loyal customer. Ironically, most of the first books I bought were for my MBA dissertation on the (at the time) emerging internet and e-commerce and I used Amazon to get hold of the newly published books I couldn’t borrow from the university library (and had no chance of getting in normal bookstores).

    They’ve gone to the opposite end of the spectrum in size now — the first ominous sign was when they removed any physical reference to their location (or phone number) from the site. That was a precursor of the attitude that has led them to be local tax avoiders.

    In the past I tried to use competitors — but had pretty awful experiences with some high street rivals’ online operations.

    In some ways Amazon are like a big, unflattering mirror that exaggerates and exploits the mistakes and weaknesses of others. They exploit the pricing psychology of getting a supposed bargain (like Tesco’s ridiculous plonk promotions) and the abolition of the Net Book Agreement helped them with this — although I suspect that publishers now also routinely inflate the prices of books, knowing that they’ll be discounted on Amazon, and this caused problems for bricks and mortar bookstores who are faced with a pricing dilemma.

    Having worked in some industries with very tight margins and products that are easily distributed electronically, I’m fearful that the publishing industry is going to be taken to the cleaners in an even more brutal way than the recorded music industry. They remind me a bit of the captain of the B-Ark in the bath in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The concern in the comment above about writing being now something only produced as a hobby or as spin-off merchandising has pretty much materialised as far as I can see,

    As for the tax, why on earth can’t the government levy the tax on where the transactions are made? I suspect it’s to do with some precedent about all the money-crunching in the City of London where our wonderful banks process virtual transactions.

    I have bought quite a bit from Amazon but I suspect it’s not that much at the expense of spending in bookshops. Stuff I’ve bought from Amazon is more likely to be stuff I wouldn’t have bought from a supermarket instead. But then I might be a bit unusual in unable to go into a Waterstones without coming out with a carrier bag with a few books in it (4 last time I visited).

  6. For some WordPress reason I don’t understand, I can reply to some people but not to others. Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far and many good points made. I agree with much of it to some extent.
    I’m trying to exercise my consumer choice whilst I still have a choice and reminding others they have one too. I respect anyone’s right to buy from anyone but when your local bookstore closes, Waterstones or Foyles goes into administration or Amazon say your royalty percentage on your self published masterpiece is going down and you’ve no other platform for sales, remember that you had a choice at one point and didn’t exercise it.

  7. Pingback: What Can You Do To Help Slow The Closure Of Bookshops? | Rebecca Bradley

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