I am the granddaughter of a dedicated union organizer. I am the daughter of a hardworking retail store owner with a strong social conscience who was driven out of business by the Big Shopping Malls.
As life is filled with complexity and often requires us to make choices, I am also a frequent Amazon customer, and I watch movies on Amazon Prime.
Would I prefer to patronize small local businesses? Absolutely. As my shopping habits have shifted to predominantly online since Covid began its spiky assault, I’d also prefer to frequent small sellers online.
Unfortunately, for convenience and pricing, Amazon makes my life too damned comfortable.
Example: I carry a glass water bottle with a silicone protective outer shell nearly everywhere. By filling it several times a day, I can gauge that I’m drinking the amount of water my body needs.
When I dropped the filled bottle on a city sidewalk last week, the plastic mouthpiece cracked. Though the glass in its life-jacket remained unscathed, the bottle had become useless.
Amazon to the rescue: the next day I saw exactly what I wanted and bought one—and another for good measure. As I didn’t care about the color, I was able to get a Cyber-Monday special in what must have been a less “hot” blue shade—$4.00 cheaper than the gray one I’d had (or the oh-so-popular pink version that was out of stock).
Delivery, of course, was free.
But due to my inclinations to support the little guy—and especially the unionized little guy—I’m damned uncomfortable relying on founder Jeff Bezos’ behemoth.
Though we belong to Amazon Smile, which means Amazon donates a small portion of its profits from our purchases to charity (we chose Doctors Without Borders), Amazon’s fierce anti-unionism should in itself prompt me to abstain. Its shockingly bad union-prevention efforts have been well-documented.
Instead, I dither.
That’s why I read with interest about Amazon’s struggles with its bookstore. According to a New York Times article, “What Happened to Amazon’s Bookstore?,” “Dissatisfaction piles up in a marketplace where third-party sellers run wild.”
And I learned with pleasure, via the delightful blog casdinteret.com, about Lireka, an upstart brick-and-virtual French bookstore founded by two former Amazon employees that seems to be challenging their erstwhile employer.
Carol Seidl, the talented francophile blogger, wrote that she’d been troubled by the difficulties she encountered ordering French titles online. Lireka, she found, has a fine selection of 80,000-plus titles available—from classics to best-sellers—and it provides better service, faster delivery, and lower prices than Amazon.
Quelle bonne surprise!
Amazon began as a bookstore, pushing lots of little, medium, and big independent and chain businesses aside. The Wall Street Journal reported that in 2019, it controlled nearly three-fourths of online sales of new books for adults and nearly half of all new book sales.
And as a publisher, it has sixteen imprints, including Audible audiobooks and Amazon Crossing, which publishes translations. It also owns Goodreads, a social media site with more than 100 million registered users.
The above information appears in a New Yorker article by literary critic Parul Sehgal titled “Is Amazon Changing the Novel?” I won’t attempt to tackle that worthy discussion in this blog post.
But it’s noteworthy that Amazon’s consistently upward trajectory seems to be stagnating, and according to several sources The Times reporter interviewed, customers just aren’t happy with the way their shopping experience is evolving.
There are complaints that the book-buying experience has simply become too unpleasant due to the ads, algorithms, “unvetted” reviews, the enormity of the offerings, and third-party sellers.
Third-party sellers are apparently a big source of the problem, but they can also be victims. The Times reported that one author who’d called the company “best retailer on the planet” has now taken it to court.
John C. Boland has/had? been selling his books on Amazon since 2009; the company did all the printing, handling, billing, and shipping for his imprint, “Perfect Crime.”
But while the list price for one of his sci-fi thrillers is $15, he discovered that Amazon was letting vendors who were using its platform charge whatever they liked: $907…$930…$987. They also said it was published in 1602. The correct pub date is 2011.
Why would anyone do that? According to The Times, such backdating provides a “commercial edge” because it moves a book away from the same listings with the real date. “…in essence, those Boland books were in another virtual aisle of the bookstore. That could power sales.”
To Boland, that phony date was a personal insult, suggesting he’d plagiarized his book. To customers, the deceptive practice adds unnecessary confusion to their searches–and dollars to their purchases.
One search of “paperbacks” published before 1800 turned up former President Obama’s 2008 campaign booklet. The price was $45, while other sellers were offering it for less than a dollar.
Amazon is said to receive $34 from every $100 in sales that third-party vendors reap from their presence.
“[a]n overwhelming majority of these are legitimate vendors,” The Times states. “Some are not. Mr. Boland’s lawsuit implies that Amazon does not make much effort to distinguish between the two. That, it seems, is the customer’s job.”
It’s also the customer’s job to be very careful when purchasing a book. When musician Dave Grohl published his autobiography, The Storyteller, a vendor calling itself University Press—which was neither “University” nor “Press”—paid Amazon to promote a brief piece it rushed out. Dave Grohl: The Biography carried no author’s name. People were confused, and one unwitting but still discerning reader wrote: “Grohl should stick to songwriting.”
Others were irate that they’d paid money for a pamphlet. But The Biography tagged along with Grohl’s book to become an Amazon “best seller.”
Amazon has said it recognizes these problems and is dedicating millions of dollars and 10,000 employees to set things right.
So, fellow Amazon customers, caveat emptor: let us, the buyers, beware.
And let us, the buyers, have more options. I am hoping for Lireka’s great success. May it become a model for new niche marketers who possess the bibliophile’s passion and ethics that the best booksellers have long embodied.
While I’m hovering in the hope department, I hasten to add my hopes that the intrepid unionists who are determined to break through the mighty Amazon’s formidable wall succeed—and soon.
If Amazon becomes a union shop and otherwise cleans up its act, I’ll be far more comfortable with our relationship.
What do you say, Jeff Bezos?
And what do you say, my thoughtful readers? Any personal experiences you care to share?