The Ethics of Amazon

Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

There was a time Barnes & Noble was the biggest bogeyman in the book business–gobbling up the brick and mortar bookselling opportunities from local independent shops across the country. Being a rural bookworm, I never saw it that way; the nearest independent bookstore was fully forty miles further away than the nearest Big Box Bookstore, so Barnes & Noble and the Waldenbooks in the malls were my saviors.

The twenty-first century brought a new player in the bookselling market that threatened to disrupt Barnes & Noble’s iron fist– Amazon. The idea one could order any book they wanted and have it delivered straight to their door was novel, it was exciting. For all its convenience, online book sales were assumed to pose no threat to physical bookstores because they lack the opportunity for lazy perusal inherent to the book browsing experience.

Boy, were we ever wrong.

Any writer hoping to publish anything longer than an article these days has to consider the juggernaut that is Amazon. There are no avenues to publishing that avoid contact with Amazon entirely. The Big Four publishers offer Amazon deep discounts on wholesale costs of their books–often over fifty percent–because they know how important Amazon is to the sale of books.. Want to publish your book in any other format like ebook or audiobook? If you don’t use Amazon’s ecosystem, you set yourself up to fail.

But Amazon is also a huge corporation, and one with a decidedly Not Great track record for workers rights, environmental impact, and data collection. For myself as a writer, the idea of working within Amazon and giving them more access to my money feels, well, dirty. Not that all publishing isn’t dirty, but Amazon feels particularly so.

AMAZON

So how did Amazon manage to come from nowhere and gobble up the entire publishing industry like Capitalist Kirby?

Let me take you back to 2007. Back then, the vast majority of us were exclusively reading physical books. We may have been purchasing from the Internet increasingly, but they were physical books. I’m struggling to not use a fire metaphor here, but everything changed after Amazon released its first Kindle eReader. It was a simple device with an eInk screen and not much in the way of features other than the ability to, well, read. By 2019, over a quarter of all readers primarily read ebooks.

A year later, Amazon acquired up-and-coming audiobook platform Audible. A year after that, they created their own publishing company. This outfit operates much like the Big Four in handling the printing, distribution, and marketing of books selected by their proprietary algorithm instead of the whims of editors. Within a couple of years, it was cranking out enough titles to keep up with them, too.

As soon as the Kindle platform opened, it was available for writers to begin to self-publish. The platform slowly gained steam, first with traditionally published books. One of the bestselling ebooks of all time is Fifty Shades of Gray–which makes sense, since I wouldn’t want to be caught reading it either. As writers became more familiar and comfortable with the platform, self-publishing directly to Kindle exploded. In 2013, Amazon acquired reading social media platform Goodreads and quickly integrated the social aspects of Goodreads with the e-reading platform, allowing readers to share passages and thoughts with their networks in real time.

It was only a matter of time that Amazon found new ways to monetize this growing market. In 2015, Amazon rolled out its Prime Reading program. For a fee, subscribers have unlimited access to an extensive library of titles–mostly those self-published through Kindle and bestsellers. In 2016, the program was expanded and rebranded Kindle Unlimited, which both costs more and has a wider selection of titles. This program is revolutionary both for essentially being the Netflix of books and because it changed the way it pays authors who publish on the platform. Since customers aren’t purchasing a book outright, authors are paid on a per-page-read basis.

As I mentioned before, it’s all but impossible to publish without interacting with Amazon, but is it really the best option?

The Good

Listen, I’ll be the first to admit that I am an Amazon cynic. I cringe every time I hear an Amazon publishing ad in a writing podcast. I’ve all but canceled my Prime membership even though the decision has required me to make my life substantially more difficult as I must schedule time to swing by independent bookstores or other kinds of shops–or order online and wait far longer than Next Day for delivery. I unplugged my Echo and haven’t used it in six or seven months.

I use the company if I have to. I was the first person to purchase my friend’s ebook self-published on the platform. I take part in the Kindle First program and try to bring attention and awareness to books from up-and-coming authors. I can’t quit Goodreads because I love sharing my reading lists with my friends and there isn’t a good replacement.

As I get closer and closer to wanting to pursue publishing again, I feel the specter of Amazon breathing down my neck. The biggest change between pursuing publishing now from fifteen years ago is the kind of advice available. As a fourteen year old attempting to navigate the publishing space, I read article after article about how to write an effective query letter, how frequently to follow up with prospective agents, how many agents to query at a time, when it’s worth approaching a publisher without one, etc. Self-publishing in the first year of Kindle was a novelty without much available guidance.

Look into publishing advice in 2022, and you’ll be met with article after article dissuading writers from even attempting the agent-publisher process, decrying the fact that only about 1% of proposals are accepted by traditional publishers. Many articles have heavy subtext of condescension for those who would even consider anything beyond self-publishing in the Amazon ecosystem.

We’ll get to the dark side of this later on, but the rise of Amazon as a publishing giant has incontrovertibly increased the number of published authors. In 2018, over 1.6 million new books were self-published on Kindle Direct, dwarfing the roughly 40,000 titles published by the Big Four. Self-publishing eliminates the gatekeepers and allows for more writers to get their work in front of eyeballs.

With more choice comes more categorization, as well. While a traditional bookstore has sections for YA, fiction, self-help, nonfiction, and so on, these are relatively large categories. Take a look at any book on Amazon, and you’ll see how it’s doing in a variety of increasingly specific microgenres — LGBTQ+ Science Fiction Adventure, for example. This kind of nitty-gritty categorization allows for readers to find exactly what it is they are looking for. For a writer, it makes finding that oft-elusive target audience easier than it has ever been.

The Bad

The biggest downside to self-publishing on Amazon is money..

First, it costs a lot of money to do the self-publishing thing right (or even more time, but since time is money, the point stands). Beta readers, copyeditors, and graphic designers aren’t cheap, and cutting corners on any one of those jobs can mean the difference between a professional-looking ebook that gives your work credibility and typos that look hurried and haphazard. Marketing a self-published book is also expensive. SInce Kindle is a platform and not a publisher, they don’t do the work of selling your book for you. The one thing they will do is recommend it if someone is reading a lot in your micro-genre, but beyond that you’re on your own. Promoting books on social media, creating a website and email list, that’s a lot of investment.

This is the engine of writing hustle culture. It’s not enough to write beautiful prose and craft compelling stories in the self-publication world. If you’re not on every social media platform hocking your book, making professional social media accounts and attempting to get verified, writing on LinkedIn, Quora, Medium, and elsewhere, you’re just not going to get enough eyes to make it worth it. Reading about how some self-published writers make it work gives me anxiety, to put it mildly.

And why do they have to work so hard? Because self-publishing is far less lucrative than traditional pathways. The Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading platforms (millions of readers) do not pay writers per book downloaded the same way royalties would work in a brick and mortar store. They are paid per page read. As any bookworm knows, we hoard books. We buy books and keep them on the shelf until we have the time to read them, but those authors have gotten their pennies from us. In this new landscape, they don’t see anything until we actually give it a go. A DNF (did not finish) seems to be much more harmful for writers now than it ever was.

So in order to be profitable, to make all the hard work and the hustle worth it, writers are forced to publish prolifically, with a rapidity that would make Stephen King blush. I’ve known writers to put out five plus new novels every year to make sure they can generate enough income to sustain them.

This novel churning gives me pause. Yes, the gatekeepers are gone and books that would otherwise never have seen the light of day can get before the readers who will appreciate them, but the gatekeepers were also the last line of defense in terms of quality control. Publishing becomes a rat race instead of a meritocracy (not that it ever really was). The writer who spends years crafting their Great American Novel will be less successful than the writer who can pump out stories and release them within a few months.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing. As a kid–when I was reading between 200 and 300 books every year–I made a point of finishing every one I started. Now, one too many plothole or typo or misused word and it is history.

I don’t necessarily think a flooded literary market means quality will get snuffed out or shouted over by the millions more books out there, but it is something to think about. Amazon does not care if the books it is selling are good, it only cares if they are selling.

The Ugly

None of the particularities of Amazon in the publishing space even begins to touch on the larger problems with the ethics of Amazon. The company has been in the news a lot lately in a negative light. The way Amazon treats employees is abysmal, despite raking in profit hand over fist.

First came the horror stories about timed bathroom breaks, enforced by pay penalties for exceeding the allotted relief time. Then came the stories of employees using bottles as urinals both on the floor of the warehouses and in delivery trucks — when delivery drivers were “employees” at all. Most of the time, they’re classified as subcontractors so Amazon can avoid paying out the same benefits package despite the fact they put their lives on the line for the company every day.

Then, there is the additional concern of Amazon’s laissez-faire approach to workplace safety. In December 2021, a tornado ripped through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois. Six people were killed. For hours before the tragedy, employees pleaded to be allowed to go home early to seek shelter from the storm. They were denied. Drivers were even ordered to continue their routes even as tornado sirens blared.

The pandemic era and its aftermath have been something of a renaissance for worker’s rights as people refused to return to exploitative, low wage jobs or jobs that did not bring them fulfillment — brushes with mortality will do that to you — and others sought increased protections through unionization.

The first Amazon warehouse to attempt unionization is located in Bessemer, Alabama. The vote failed, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found Amazon had illegally tampered with the election and ordered a second. The second was held not long ago. It too failed, but the organizers allege Amazon tampered with this one as well by publicly threatening to close down the warehouse entirely if the union vote succeeded. The NLRB is considering the appeal. Only one warehouse has gotten a union and it’s been less than a month.

So what do we do?

The short answer, I don’t know.

Amazon is a huge corporation. It dominates the market because there is no ethical consumption under capitalism and we are a species that loves convenience. If your stuff isn’t available on Amazon (doesn’t matter if it’s self-published or traditionally published) it’s not going to sell as well. It just won’t.

It sucks. But it’s the truth.

Amazon has changed the way the literary world works, for better or for worse. I don’t know if the future is being paid for the amount of your book someone reads is a good thing. I think there are benefits to fewer gatekeepers and more specific stories and more diverse stories. I wish we could all be on an even playing ground with books published traditionally. I lament the decline of physical books, but Amazon recently added a hardback option to their print on demand service offered to those who self publish through the platform.

So I’m left with ambivalence.

I have always dreamed of being published by one of the Big Four–not to mention the fact that I am not a natural salesman. I don’t know the first thing about marketing a book, and I honestly don’t want to. There’s a reason I write and I teach English and have aspirations for a couple more graduate degrees in the humanities and not an MBA.

Business bores me and stresses me out at the same time. PR? Forget about it. I barely use my personal social media profiles, I do not know how to build a brand. My Instagram currently has zero photos on it. The idea of running the whole show by myself: writer, agent, publisher, marketer–terrifying.

I know I could learn and lean on the support of the people around me, but my heart isn’t ready to let go of the dream, no matter how many articles the algorithm throws my way.

References

https://www.techtarget.com/searchaws/feature/Amazons-impact-on-publishing-transforms-the-book-industry

https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/08/us-publishers-authors-booksellers-call-out-amazons-concentrated-power-in-the-book-market/

https://www.frontlist.in/techgadgets/amazons-impact-on-publishing-transforms-the-book-industry

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/11/01/is-amazon-changing-the-novel-everything-and-less

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/technology/amazon-labor-practices.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/04/amazon-union-win-could-usher-new-wave-scrutiny-its-labor-practices/

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/barnes-noble-bookstores.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2014/02/10/amazon-vs-book-publishers-by-the-numbers/?sh=421efa854ef9

https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/07/amazon-illegally-interfered-in-alabama-warehouse-vote-union-alleges.html

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Topher Bigelow

Topher Bigelow

(he/they) Queer, educator, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q