Some grudges you form as a kid have a way of sticking with you for life. Few things feel more satisfying than growing up and learning that these long-held views are, at least to some extent, rational.
Since I was young, I have held a deep grudge against the company Amazon.com. My local Borders bookstore was one of my favorite places in the world, and when it went out of business, my young ears linked the success of Amazon to the demise of my beloved Borders. I immediately decided to hate Amazon forever.
At first, my dislike came merely out of stubbornness. More and more, however, the faults of Amazon have come to light, and reason and logic are beginning to support my hostile feelings.
The biggest recent example of Amazon’s wrongdoing is the company’s ongoing feud with Hachette, a French publishing company, over the price of e-books. Amazon has used its considerable clout to make Hachette titles more expensive and slower to deliver — even ones by popular authors like J. K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell and James Patterson (though not the latest book by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan).
Some may say that since Amazon is a capitalist corporation, one should not expect good behavior from it or care about the dispute at all; after all, if Amazon wins, prices will be lower for the consumer. But low prices are not the most important thing in the world, and they should never be the sole indicator of a company’s decency.
According to an article in The New York Times this summer, Amazon accounts for 41 percent of the book sales in the United States, which is why it can do what it likes and remain sure of its continued market power. But books have traditionally been more than just ways for people to entertain themselves. They have been ways to share ideas and disseminate information in a fair and independent way. What does it mean to give one greedy company the power to control so much of the market?
A coalition of writers, including many affiliated with Hachette, came together over the summer to protest Amazon’s actions under the name Authors United. The coalition has just begun a campaign calling upon the Justice Department to investigate Amazon for illegal monopoly tactics. Speaking to The New York Times, the award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin called Amazon’s behavior a form of censorship. The company uses its power to “dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy,” she said.
The idea that Amazon as a company purposefully engages in censorship does not seem to win much support from the American public. The low prices and convenience that Amazon provides seem to outweigh any arguments against the company. This is not so in other countries.
This summer saw France pass a bill, dubbed the “anti-Amazon law,” that made it illegal for online booksellers to offer free shipping on already discounted books. This came in addition to a law already in place prohibiting new books being discounted more than five percent in any store, meaning that books are close to the same price throughout France.
The reasons for these laws are twofold. The first is to protect independent booksellers, while the second echoes the same worry held by Le Guin: the fear of placing too much power in the hands of one company in an industry based on the diversity and independence of ideas. France is not alone: Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain and South Korea, among others, all have similar laws that partially fix book prices.
One can, of course, argue that Amazon’s low prices make it easier for a variety of consumers to access more information affordably, or that so much information is freely available online that it isn’t all that detrimental for a single company to have disproportionate control over the book industry. These arguments have their worth. However, though I am of course biased when it comes to Amazon, I believe that it’s necessary to preserve the openness and independence of the book-selling industry, and Amazon directly threatens these principles.
I love living in a world with bookstores, be they small, second-hand or big-box — the more parties selling books, the better. I know my own refusal to shop on Amazon is not going to make even the slightest difference to the company, its battle with Hachette or its general treatment of publishers. But I’m going to stick to it anyway, and I feel no shame for letting my stubbornness prevail.