Today is May Day, a date with a long history in the labor movement. As COVID-19 has revealed even more than usual the deep inequality and injustice that underlies our entire capitalist experiment, it has also put the most vulnerable workers and humans at incredible risk. And companies such as Amazon, Target, Instacart, Trader Joe’s, and others are continuing to prioritize profit over people, as they always do.
A lot of people in the book industry are very aware of the issues and challenges that administrative and office workers face: low pay, long hours, lack of diversity and inclusion, concentration in expensive cities, and many more. But there are divisions between editors and booksellers, publicists and warehouse workers, that obscure how the system we’re in harms all of us.
I’ve spent a LOT of time researching Amazon for the book I’m writing, Don’t Steal This Book, about how money works in publishing and solutions for how to make change. What is clear to me, and so many others, is that the creation of Amazon was cynical, bullying, and exploitative, and those qualities have been encoded into the very DNA of the company.
From Don’t Steal This Book:
Jeff Bezos didn’t set out to create a bookstore. He didn’t have a background in books. He had never worked in publishing or bookselling before he created the behemoth that would completely reshape how books are sold, published, and even written. For better or worse, no single individual has had a larger impact on the book business for the last hundred years or more than Jeff Bezos.
In the spring of 1994, several years post-university, Bezos, then a young hedge fund manager, noticed that activity on the internet was rising at an unbelievable rate. “Web activity overall had gone up that year by a factor of roughly 2,300--a 230,000 percent increase. ‘Things just don’t grow that fast,’ Bezos later said. ‘It’s highly unusual, and that started me thinking, What kind of business plan might make sense in the context of that growth?’” (The Everything Store p.25)
In collaboration with the David Shaw, the founder of his employer, D.E. Shaw, Bezos decided that selling things on the internet was the future. The scale of his ambitions was incredible: he wanted to create an internet-enabled store where a customer could buy anything on earth. (The Everything Store p.24)
But trying to actually sell everything right from the outset was completely impractical. So Bezos made a list of twenty products, examined the sales landscape, and realized there was significant opportunity in bookselling.
Brick and mortar bookstores had limited shelf space, and many books that were still in print but weren’t new or perennial sellers just weren’t available to most readers unless they ordered them specially. There were over 3 million books in print at the time but only around 150,000 titles were available at even the largest Borders or Barnes & Noble superstores.
There were already databases of all of these books, which meant that the hard work of finding and cataloging all the books available in print had already been done. Two primary wholesalers served the book industry, Baker & Taylor and Ingram, from which a bookseller could order the majority of titles available in print, getting them as quickly as a day after ordering them. (BTFC 87)
In addition, books are easy to store, easy to ship, and never go bad. Each copy of the same title in the same format is identical to every other one, which makes it an ideal online purchase--there’s no chance that it won’t fit, or that it will be uncomfortable to sit on, or it just won’t go with the room.
Books were only the beginning for Bezos. Roger Doeren of the bookstore Rainy Day Books met Bezos at Book Expo America, the major US publishing industry trade show, in 1995. During their conversation, “Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet.” (The New Yorker)
Even at that early moment, Doeren realized “It’s going to be really bad for books.” (The New Yorker)
And it has been. I’ll save the specifics for future emails and the book, but Amazon has fundamentally reshaped the book industry in its image, and if we as readers and publishers and booksellers allow it to, Amazon will use this crisis to continue to get richer at the expense of the humans and the industries it preys on.
Amazon’s entire history has been based on the exploitation of workers. “Jeff Bezos expected employees to work 60-hour weeks, at least. The idea of work-life balance didn't exist.” (Business Insider)
“At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.’” (New York Times) And that’s for office workers, to say nothing of the conditions of warehouse staff.
“According to an investigation last year by the Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, workers at local warehouses said they endured punishing productivity targets and temperatures that soared above 38C in the summer, while Amazon parked ambulances outside to treat people with heat stress.” (Financial Times)
There are so many more stories, both in the press and hidden, of the ways that Amazon is harming people.
So I invite you, as someone who cares about books and literature, and hopefully about people, to join the boycott. Don’t buy anything on Amazon today, to show solidarity with the workers and support their fight for safer, more fair conditions. I also invite you to join me in not purchasing any books from Amazon ever again. Prioritize independent bookstores (you can find a local one here) or Bookshop.org, which is a Public Benefit Corporation that gives a portion of all sales made to independent bookstores.
And join the movement. Follow Book Worker Power on Twitter to learn more about how to help.
It’s impossible to make change alone, but together, we are very powerful. Let’s harness that power for good.