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.


The Peculiarly British Bedsit Disco Queen

isbn9781844088669-detailAfter last night’s event, I now have a vision of someone in their early thirties moving next door to Tracey Thorn. After six months their friends ask them about the neighbours.
‘Tracey and Ben, they’re really nice.’
‘What do they do?’
‘Dunno, really. I’ve never asked.’ And so the next time they meet, the neighbour asks what her what she does for a living.
‘I’m a musician’ she says
‘Anything I’ve heard of?’ asks the neighbour not really interested in music, expecting that she might play third violin in an orchestra occasionally.
‘Probably not, I was in a band called Everything But The Girl.’
‘Oh right, ok then’ the neighbour replies and moves the conversation on, only to Google it a few few hours later. ‘Oh f***!’ says the neighbour as the Google search comes back on screen.

Of course, everyone of the sixty odd people crammed into The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green knows who Tracey Thorn is and they’re all here tonight to hear her talk about her autobiography ‘Bedsit Disco Queen – How I grew up and tried to be a pop star’ which is a funny, candid and compelling account from childhood in Hertfordshire to becoming a Marine Girl, meeting her husband Ben Watt and how, as Everything But The Girl, they went on to make nine albums and sell nine million records (during the course of which Ben developed a life threatening illness), through to her semi retirement to raise a family and her first post EBTG solo album.
Tracey opens by reading a piece of the book about meeting and playing with Paul Weller. It’s funny and self deprecating but it’s an interesting passage about how we feel awkward when we meet our heroes (see later) but also how, even so early in their career, fellow musicians held EBTG in such high regard. The main act is an interview with rock critic Pete Paphides. It’s a fascinating interview covering her career, the history of British music and the pressures of the record industry.
A few times she uses the phrase ‘peculiarly British’ as she talks about situations such as touring where every meal is prepared for you, yet you crave for something different but are afraid to make a fuss for fear of offending anyone or being called a diva and how they reacted finding out that the laundry bill in the Fours Seasons in LA was more than the entire recording budget for their first album. If we were in America, there’d be whoops and cheers at the mention of Paul Weller, George Michael or Massive Attack. But it’s a book shop in North London and there’s just people listening quietly and respectfully as we British tend to do.
At the end of the evening, there’s a book signing and I take my place at the end of the queue. I ought to tell that I’ve loved her work ever since I first heard ‘Eden’ in 1984. I ought to say that ‘And I miss you (like the deserts miss the rain)’ from ‘Missing’ is perhaps the most perfect line from the most perfect song ever written about losing someone you really love or the fact that ‘Oh, The Divorces’ makes me well up ever time I hear it. But I don’t say any of  that because I’m peculiarly British too and saying that that would just make me look a complete idiot. So instead I say something inane. She smiles politely, signs my book and probably thinks I’m an idiot anyway. I have my excuse. I’m a fan and, despite all her down to earthness, she is and always will be the Bedsit Disco Queen.

Thanks to The Big Green Bookshop for putting on this event. Amazon run huge distribution warehouses and sell books alongside printer cartridges and garden furniture. Tim and Simon love books, run a bookstore, put on events for booklovers and and sell books. There’s a world of difference.

Who the f*** is Neil Armstrong?

Sat on a train last night, my timeline on Twitter alternated between the X Factor and the death of Neil Armstrong, perhaps two opposite ends of the scale of human endeavour. Switching to a search on Neil Armstrong, I was amazed to see a significant number of tweets from teenagers along the following lines –

‘Who the f*** is Neil Armstrong?’

‘Don’t even know who Neil Armstrong is?’

‘Apparently Neil Armstrong isn’t a cyclist, so who is he? Everyone seems quite bummed out about it #confused’

I RT’d a collection of these tweets somewhat taken aback and saddened that they had not come across one of the most recognised people in world history and a couple of minutes saw the following tweet from a teacher in my timeline –

‘Dear 40-something dicks mocking teenagers who don’t know who Neil Armstrong is, what would you have tweeted when Douglas Bader died?’ followed shortly after by ‘cue waves of abuse from child geniuses who knew who everybody was who died when they were teenagers.’

Sadly I must have been a child genius back then because I knew who Douglas Bader was so I suppose I would have tweeted something like ‘RIP Douglas Bader – legend’ but, had I not known him, I would hope that I might have used Google to find out who he was before revealing my lack of knowledge to the world. But putting all that aside, surely the teacher has a point? Do we really expect teenagers to know something about a man and an event that most of their parents do not remember directly? It’s a fair point but we’re not talking about someone vaguely worthy of note or a minor historical figure. It’s not Douglas Bader. It’s not Gore Vidal, Whitney Houston or someone ‘really famous’ like Cheryl Cole or Joey off The Only Way Is Essex. It’s Neil f***ing Armstrong!

We’re talking about one of the ambitious projects mankind has ever undertaken and a space programme that coincides with the start of the technology age in which we have lived ever since. The computing power used to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth would probably now fit into a mobile phone with room to spare. Apollo inspired a generation of scientists and the spin offs from the space programme help shape our lives today e.g. LEDs, artificial limbs, tyre technology, water purification, solar energy. Even the technology required just to broadcast the moon landings live was groundbreaking. Apollo 11 was one of the first global TV broadcasts and of course the moon landing also gave us one of the most famous quotations in the English language “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.””(The ‘a’ was inaudible at the time). Now the man who gave us that quote, who symbolised the work and ambition of thousands of engineers and scientists over a decade and took that small step is no longer with us.

No one should expect teenagers to know everyone who has died. It’s not their fault that we have taken the moon landings for granted, failed to educate them about one of mankind’s greatest achievements and possibly missed an opportunity to inspire some child to a future career in science. However it might be great if we use this sad occasion to make some amends and sometime in the next school year, when the moon is visible, every child is taken out of the classroom even if for just five minutes and told that in 1969 before most of their parents were born and laptops, flat screen TVs, Xboxes and mobile phones had even been invented, a spacecraft spent four days travelling a quarter of a million miles to reach the moon and the first man to step foot on its surface was Neil Armstrong.’

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