Battling against the Amazon publishing jungle

RANDALL NORTHAM tries to run a sports book publishing business, but finds it is being crushed by online giant Amazon. Is there anything he can do? He thinks so

Type the words “amazon protest” into Google and you get 48 million answers (incidentally, type “google protest”, and you get 348 million, but that’s another story).

Amazon logoMy story is Amazon and I was proud to be involved in one of those protests – that of Frances and Brian Smith, bookshop owners from Kenilworth, who attracted 115,000 signatures on a petition insisting Amazon paid its fair share of tax, because although it sold £3.3 billion worth of goods in the UK in 2011–2012, it paid no corporation tax because its UK headquarters are in… Luxembourg.

I signed the petition, as did, I discovered this morning, Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the parliamentary public accounts committee.

My pleas for Amazon to behave like a responsible company go much further than the petition demands.

As a small publisher I suffer from Amazon’s policies. They demand 55 per cent discount when all they do is store the books in a giant warehouse and send them out when customers order them. This discount is higher than the one my company gives Waterstones, yet Waterstones has bricks and mortar to pay for, and rent to pay on high street shops. They even manage to pay some tax.

Mind you, because I employ an independent distributor the discount isn’t has high as Amazon demands from self-publishers. One writer I know who self-publishes told me Amazon demands a 70 per cent discount from him.

And Amazon does not enter into the convention that runs bookselling. If I sell a book to a bookshop or a wholesaler, they pay for it and an adjustment is made if they then return the book. Yes that’s right. A book can be sent back, often tatty and dog-eared book from spending time on the shelves.

Amazon take the books, doesn’t pay for them until they sell them, and if they don’t, they hang on to them.

I could stomach this, perhaps, if all Amazon did was sell books. Now, though, they are trying to be publishers as well, seducing authors by telling them that they get 70 per cent of what the book sells for. They don’t tell the author that they can offer the book for 50p, and there is nothing the author can do to stop them.

Amazon was once called “a ruthless money-making devil” by Waterstones managing director James Daunt – although that didn’t stop his chain of stores from selling those plasticky Kindles that Amazon make and flog.

And it is when we come to the subject of ebooks and Kindles that Amazon truly surpasses itself. When you, the consumer, buys an ebook from Amazon you don’t own it, you licence it and Amazon can take it away from your Kindle whenever it likes without you knowing.

As a consumer I wouldn’t like that. If I buy something, I want to keep it.

This year's edition of the International Athletics Annual, published by Randall Northam's company
This year’s edition of the International Athletics Annual, published by Randall Northam

But it is publishers who suffer most from Amazon and its ebook practices. There is VAT on ebooks and in the UK it is 20 per cent. So we have to pay that to Amazon. But a few years ago Amazon moved it’s UK company headquarters to Luxembourg and the VAT rate there is 3 per cent. So Amazon pockets the difference on the side. Is it illegal? Apparently not. Should it be? Absolutely.

Then a few weeks back the company announced that it might sell used ebooks. The publishers and potentially the authors will receive nothing from these sales.

It is not only publishers, authors and the British tax-payer whom Amazon treats with contempt. They treat their employees badly. See this from the Daily Telegraph in February:

“The film… alleged temporary staff were paid less than promised, faced constant searches of living quarters and kitchens and were intimidated by security staff wearing clothes linked to Germany’s neo-Nazi scene. It investigated conditions at Amazon facilities in Augsburg, Bad Hersfeld and Konstanz.”

I have my own small story about how Amazon behaves that shows a ridiculous side to the monolithic would-be world dominators. A group of around seven members of the Independent Publishing Guild was being shown around an Amazon warehouse somewhere in England. I can’t remember which one. Before entering the facility they had had their mobile phones taken away, in case of what my informant wasn’t too sure.

Suddenly security staff arrived and took away their guide to undergo one of the random searches to which staff can be subjected. “It left us alone in the warehouse, just wandering around,” my informant laughed. “It was the very opposite of the control Amazon had shown up till then.”

Having read all this you are probably wondering why as a publisher I don’t do something about it and refuse to let Amazon sell our books. But the problem is that they have created such havoc in the publishing industry that other places to sell books are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The Office of Fair Trading allowed Amazon to buy another UK internet seller, the Book Depository, in 2011, arguing that you could buy ebooks off any number of websites. So you can, but most of them can’t afford to lose money like Amazon in the hope of achieving market domination. And, of course, it goes without saying that Amazon won’t allow anyone else to sell books that can be read on Kindles.

But I have made one small protest, other than signing Frances and Brian Smith’s petition.

We have one book – the International Track and Field Annual – and last year I told Amazon and the rest of the booktrade that the discount would be 25 per cent and that it would be firm sale, in other words the book could not be sent back if it didn’t sell. Did the world end? No. Amazon carried on selling it, as they are doing this year. It’s a very small protest, but mine own.

It’s a pity that other, Establishment organisations do not try to make a stand of their own. For instance, the British Library (which demands publishers send them five free copies of each book published) has on its website a button which directs browsers to Amazon.That’s got to be a massive boost to Amazon’s business – the British Library, no less. It must be worth a fortune, and would at least see Amazon make some sort of contribution to a state-run British institution.

But Amazon does not pay for the button. The British Library does not even get a fee should a sale result from the click from its website.

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