In one way, Amazon is great. Being a book lover it’s wonderful to be able to track down virtually any book in print, and it’s useful to be able to look up what others have said about a book I’m interested in buying. In many ways it’s a treasure chest for bibliophiles. But a darker side has been emerging for some time.
As a book buyer, I’m becoming increasingly sceptical about the authenticity of some glowing reviews. There have been several well publicised cases of fake reviews created in order to boost sales or make competitors look bad. I recently found a book I liked the look of, and on seeing several five star reviews on Amazon that seemed to confirm my impression I went ahead and got it. It was rubbish. I decided to delve a little deeper into the reviews, and discovered that most of the enthusiastic ones were by people who had never reviewed another book, which was interesting to say the least.
But what troubles me in a much more profound way is the effect Amazon is having on the publishing industry, from writers to bookshops and everything in between. To be fair, the rot for writers started before Amazon came on the scene, and before I was a published author. In Britain there used to be something called the Net Book Agreement, whereby publishers and booksellers decided on a minimum price for each book. So rather than the ‘race to the bottom’ inspired by giant companies like Amazon which can get rich on very small profit margins because of their enormous volume of sales (and tax avoidance), the setting of the price meant that although the public had to pay a little more, there was enough for everyone – author, publisher and bookshop – to make a decent living.
This was abandoned during Margaret Thatcher’s wonderful era of letting market forces decide everything. (Which is why public bodies previously acting only in the public’s interest such those in health and education are now rich pickings for private companies making huge profits out of the taxpayer and profit comes before providing a good service – but that’s another story…)
Then along came Amazon.
Lowering the price of books is one thing. I’ve benefited from it as a reader, and to be realistic, few ordinary members of the public are going to worry about authors losing out. But when a company becomes so big and dominant that they can dictate terms to everyone in the field, it’s time to start worrying. Many traditional publishers have been critical about the pricing arrangements Amazon insist on imposing, and have accused them of bullying.
According to yesterday’s Sunday Times, the French still have a law which keeps the price of books at a reasonable level, and it’s helped to keep their bookshops open at a time when ours have been closing at an alarming rate, especially smaller independent ones. They have now passed a new law designed, apparently, specifically to keep Amazon on check “by banning it and other online retailers from selling books at a discount and then posting them for nothing”.
The article goes on to say:
France’s concerns about internet sellers are not just a matter of economics: this is a nation of bibliophiles whose government classifies books as “essentially good”, just like electricity and water. Independent publishing houses continue to flourish…”
Vive La France!