[Marxism] Is Amazon evil?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 9 07:57:03 MST 2010

Is Amazon Evil?
Amazon's cheap books are easy on our wallets, but publishers have 
been deeply undercut by the rise of large retailers and predatory 
pricing schemes.

The man sitting next to me takes out his new Kindle. “How do you 
like that thing?” I ask. He instantly becomes animated, angling 
the Kindle toward me so that I can better see its face. “It’s 
great,” he says. “I can download tons of different books and 
magazines.” Then, eyeing my hefty, hardback of John Dos Passos’s 
USA trilogy, he adds, “Cheaper than that, too. $9.99.” There, our 
conversation ends. I am unsure of where I fall on the Luddite 
spectrum, but I’ll admit to inhaling the odor of leather-bound 
volumes. Having moved over a dozen times, though, I’ve also found 
occasion to curse their weight.

So, too, has Jeff Bezos. Bezos calls the Kindle a response to “the 
failings of a physical book.” He told attendees of a technology 
conference in New York: “I’m grumpy when I’m forced to read a 
physical book because it’s not as convenient. Turning the pages 
... the book is always flopping itself shut at the wrong moment.” 
His conclusion? “It’s had a great five-hundred-year run ... but 
it’s time to change.”

That Bezos is unencumbered by reverence for the physical entity 
should be no surprise. The book has always been an object of 
convenience to Bezos, whose principal interest is capturing market 
share. In 1994 Bezos set out to create a new kind of online 
business. The specific product was irrelevant; what was important 
was how it would be marketed, sold, stocked, and shipped. He made 
a list of the items he could carry, including CDs, videos, 
computer software and hardware, and books. Books won out because 
there were so many, and demand was steady. The International 
Standard Book Number (ISBN) also allowed him to organize and index 
the millions of books in print. No catalogue or bookstore could 
possibly have it all, Bezos reasoned, but he could.

Amazon’s ascendance no doubt is a function of its nontraditional 
ways. Though neither a publisher nor strictly-speaking a 
bookseller, it has become the world’s largest retailer of books in 
any form. And it has done so as a software company that offers 
great deals on Vienna sausages as well as hardbacks. Bezos’s 
customers come for the low prices, not to fondle, sniff, or 
otherwise interact with the product. The most one can do is 
“browse” some pages electronically. Bezos thinks pleasing the 
customer is all that matters, and his strategy—nearly endless 
inventory at rock-bottom prices—is working.

Today an estimated 75 percent of online book purchases in the 
United States are made through Amazon, and its overall market 
share in book sales is astonishingly high. Some publishers make 
more than half of their sales through Amazon. So when Bezos rang 
the death knell for the physical book, people paid attention. Even 
before the Kindle, Amazon wielded enormous influence in the 
industry. Now it is positioned to control the e-book market and 
thereby the future of the publishing industry.

What happens when an industry concerned with the production of 
culture is beholden to a company with the sole goal of 
underselling competitors? Amazon is indisputably the king of 
books, but the issue remains, as Charlie Winton, CEO of the 
independent publisher Counterpoint Press puts it, “what kind of 
king they’re going to be.” A vital publishing industry must be 
able take chances with new authors and with books that don’t have 
obvious mass-market appeal. When mega-retailers have all the power 
in the industry, consumers benefit from low prices, but the effect 
on the future of literature—on what books can be published 
successfully—is far more in doubt.


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