Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Amazon: Evil? Srsly?

There's been much hoo-ha recently over Amazon donating money to non-profit literary organisations. One of the more balanced articles was on Salon.com, in which Alexander Zaitchik asked whether Amazon was "backing book culture or buying off critics". Chad Post, slightly misquoted in the piece, responded at Three Percent.

I'd like to weigh into the argument here, for two reasons. The first is that I'm one of the translators who has worked directly for Amazon's translation imprint. I have taken the devil's cheque, to paraphrase Zaitchik. But then I've also worked for Random House and for not-for-profit publishers, so I think I can safely say I've covered a range of bases on the publishing front.

Working for Amazon was mainly a pleasant professional experience. The people I dealt with there were very definitely book-lovers rather than fire-breathing devils. They cared about the books they worked on and did a good job of putting them out there. I'm still pleased that AmazonCrossing exists, because it has the guts (and the wherewithal) to translate books other publishers wouldn't even consider, especially genre fiction.

I say this because of reason two for speaking out in the first place. And that's the invective that pervades the argument. In Salon's piece, an anonymous veteran indie publisher is quoted as saying of Amazon that despite their donations, "(...) everything about them is still evil."

Evil. Evil? Have you thought about what that word means? Amazon is re-selling and delivering books and other commodities via the internet. It demands major discounts, which are disadvantageous to publishers, and questions have been raised about its tax payment practices. It is not, however, clubbing baby seals to death or indeed keeping life-saving medicines out of the price range of those who need them. To the extent that I understand Amazon's tax issues (which is pretty much zero), the corporation is acting within the law. OK, taxation is a moral issue, but it's one I'd place lower on the scale than manufacturing and selling weapons, for example.

Making money, as Chad Post points out however, is what corporations do. It's their raison d'être. They can't be judged as we'd judge individuals, because they're not individuals. So just as all the little drones at Random House no doubt love books in their own way, the CFO may or may not, and Random House itself, as an entity, doesn't give a shit. It's a corporation selling a commodity to make a profit. Its only theoretical restriction is the respective legislation in the countries where it operates.

If we leave aside the fetishisation of the book (see below) and simply treat Amazon as a corporation with a corporate donation scheme, we come up with a good few similar examples in the UK. How about the Galaxy National Book Awards? Should we boycott them because Mars Inc. make our kids obese while turning a profit? Or the MAN Booker Prize, which is sponsored by an asset management company of all things - another area that simplistic arguments see as a moral issue. I'm reminded of the recent scandal in Berlin, in which anti-gentrification activists allegedly threatened the safety of the temporary "BMW Guggenheim Lab" intended to focus on precisely their topic - because of the sponsor.

What I'm trying to get at here is that if you want to get on a moral high horse, it's not Amazon but the system within which it exists that's to blame. Amazon exploited a gap in the market - the fact that most books simply weren't available in most places. They changed that, and became very a powerful business in doing so. But in a deregulated market with no fixed book prices, they're perfectly entitled to undercut and buy up and deep discount as much as they like, and it's simply not a moral issue. I don't know enough about bookselling to compare, but I don't see many differences to Waterstones in the UK, for instance. And if you like, feel free to extend the term system beyond the market itself to capitalism as a whole.

So while I don't, as Chad Post suggests, literally love Amazon because I'm a translator - again, a little too much invective here - I certainly don't think they're buying off their critics with their support of literary projects. It's naive to tell non-profits they're wrong to take Amazon's money and to imply that individual recipients - as in the case of the Best Translated Book Award - will be morally tainted by accepting it.

I buy books and occasionally other things from Amazon. I don't think I know anyone who doesn't, just as I don't know many people who never go to supermarkets or never use Unilever products or boycott Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook. I also try to support independent booksellers, which is admittedly probably easier in Berlin than in many other places. If the all the energy and invective were focused on promoting a wide range of literature or indeed on promoting independent booksellers rather than bashing non-profits with a moral truncheon, that colourful literary landscape we all value so highly might do better.


Karen Margolis said...

Right on, Katy! "... simply treat Amazon as a corporation..." Books are (also) commodities. And we would get a lot further if we looked at the whole economic picture rather than tilting at easy targets.

schultzie said...

Their opening up of publishing through Kindle and Createspace (kudos also to Ingram for LightningSource) is also an opening for passionate translators to get lesser-known foreign language books that aren't in copyright out there in English.

David said...

The Best Translated Book Award need to take the money where they can get it and hopefully Amazon's support will raise the profile of the award and of translation itself in the States. Perhaps it will even contribute to a change of mindset at Amazon itself, so they start to respect translator's basic rights in the contracts they offer.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of problems with Amazon in Germany (and probably in other countries as well), especially when it comes to working conditions. I only know about the situation here in Leipzig, but that's enough for me to keep away from Amazon. I've never bought anything from them and I certainly will never do.
I recommend the following article from a Leipzig newspaper, published yesterday, concering Amazon and working conditions:


kjd said...

Thanks for the link, Anonymous.

What I read in the article confirms my position: Amazon is a major corporation and makes use of the existing options provided by the respective governments for huge comporations. In Germany, the Job Center offers companies a way to employ people for free - companies take that opportunity. In the UK, the tax laws make it possible for Amazon to pay all its tax in Luxembourg - and they take that opportunity.

As I said above, I don't love Amazon, but shrewd, or predatory if you prefer, business practice does not make them evil. It makes them normal.

What makes sense to me is to support independent booksellers the way you seem to do, so that we retain a varied literary landscape.