Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why I Broke Up With Amazon

I remember when I first heard about Amazon.

I was working in my dad's law office, and I would hear them advertised while I listened to the local news radio. They have ALL THE BOOKS, I thought. Later, when it became an option, I tried to get my parents to buy Amazon stock: "They have all the books," I said, but my parents didn't listen. (In an often-told family story, my dad also ignored my mom about a small coffee company that went on to become pretty big.)

People may not remember this, but it used to be a harder task to get all the books. In fact, it used to be a much more difficult thing to even figure out what all the books were. As a young reader, I was obsessed with The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, but it wasn't until college that I ever saw copies of her other Pimpernel books, buried deep in the stacks of Baker Library. I had never been able to check out any of them from my local municipal library, even when I tried interlibrary loans. It just wasn't possible. I hadn't even known they existed until high school. You used to have to rely on the list of books inside a novel to know what else an author wrote.

Just now, however, I was able to enter "the scarlet pimpernel" into Goodreads, and I found a list of all the titles, in order, and a link to buy them.

From Amazon, of course.

When I lived in Ellensburg, Washington, a town with only a college bookstore, I could order any book and have it delivered without driving over a mountain pass. When I was on a mountain in Vermont for four summers, I could order all the strange and wonderful books that my classmates were recommending without driving down the mountain and waiting for a local store to have it delivered so that I could drive down the mountain again to pick it up. When I moved to Chicago, I could order all the trashy romance novels with lurid covers that I wanted, and no one would judge me.

We have great independent bookstores in Chicago, and most books that I ask them to order for me arrive within a few days. Yet even when I switched most of my non-romance novel buying to my local stores, I still liked that Amazon offered customers the ability to buy all the books. Even when Barnes and Noble rejected a cover (don't even get me started on the power of that one B&N cover guy to drive book purchasing in this country), and it didn't catch the eye of my local store, I could still find it on Amazon. Readers without great local stores could still get any and every book from Amazon, and that, I thought, is good for everyone.

So why did I finally decide to break up with them?

It wasn't the change in price for a Prime membership, though I had decided to let mine expire.

It wasn't when they turned off the MacMillan buy button, or when they messed with the rankings of LGBT books. I watched, but I kept buying.

It wasn't some of their practices that seemed to aim directly at independent stores (Find an item in a store and buy it from us cheaper). It wasn't the many generous events that I've attended because of independent stores, the readings, the teen book events, the dinners. That earned stores my business, but it didn't turn me away from Amazon.

It wasn't even this article, though it certainly pushed me closer.

What finally did it was that, at this moment, you CAN'T buy all the books from Amazon. As part of their ongoing negotiations with a publisher, certain books are either delayed or unavailable.

I don't care so much about the negotiations. Publishers aren't perfect. I've spent enough time with booksellers and sales reps to know that publishers don't do themselves any favors. If Amazon can force their systems to become more efficient, that's probably a good thing.

What I do have a problem with is Amazon refusing to sell me a book. Even though I'm too embarrassed to walk into my local independent to ask them to order me The Duke's Wicked Pirate Bride (oh, that such a book existed!), I could if I wanted to. They will, in fact, order me all the books. I might have to wait for delivery (though not long in Chicago), or they might ask me to pay in advance (not usually). They might even tell me that a book is out of print, and suggest I try the publisher's website or a used bookstore. But they won't refuse to sell me the book.

Amazon is a powerful company. They're addicting. They've moved beyond all the books to all the stuff. I can save a lot of money buying toiletries and pantry items from them. I can't even figure out how to buy some items without Amazon. I love my Kindle Paperwhite.

But I'm not okay when they won't sell me a book, because next time, it could be the books about religions, or political candidates, or monopoly businesses. And now that I've actually thought about that, I'm not okay with giving them my business.

And that's why I broke up with Amazon.

(This won't be the last time I write about this. This article also shaped my thinking, and I read most of the posts and articles it links to as well. Comments and questions are welcomed.)


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