Amazon has gone too far. Now. Now that it is apparently trying to extort ebook concessions from Hachette by delaying delivery and blocking preorders of regular Hachette books—this is it.
You may feel free to criticize the moral logic that draws the line at interfering with the orderly shipment of a J.K. Rowling title—rather than at, say, the company's old policy of avoiding the cost of air conditioning by keeping ambulances near the warehouse to haul away overheated workers. But we are selfish and we live our lives in tiny individual nodes of a globe-circling network of monstrosities, invisible or ignored, and anyway Amazon did get shamed into adding air conditioning, right? I think?
Anyway, all those brutal warehouse jobs will eventually be taken over by robots, and those inhumane problems will be replaced by new problems of inhumanity, but this current episode is something else, less obviously immoral but in its own way more sinister.
Jack Shafer, who is not at all sentimental about the operations of capitalism, wrote yesterday that he is quitting Amazon till the Hachette situation is cleared up:
It would have been okay with me if it had hard-balled the publisher by refusing to discount its books or even insisted on selling them at a premium. In that case, I could do what I usually do — make individual decisions about where to buy stuff based on price and availability.
But by essentially banishing many Hachette titles from its stock, Amazon, which ordinarily puts its customers first, has put them last, telling them they can't buy certain titles from it for any price.
This is the key: What Amazon is demonstrating is that its ruthlessness now goes in all directions. As every big story about Amazon points out, the company has dedicated itself to expansion with little regard for near-term profits. The aim is to dominate the market, then to start making money.
So first it put the squeeze on competing booksellers. Then it got big enough to put the squeeze on publishers and its workforce. Now it's approaching the size where it can put the squeeze on customers.
I got a taste of this a few months ago, when I suddenly discovered that I couldn't buy the cases of baby supplies I'd been getting from Amazon. These were major-manufacturer products: Pampers in size 7; the thickest kind of Huggies wipes. The Everything Store couldn't find them in stock.
Somehow, though, Diapers.com—part of the Amazon family of retail sites—could. But Diapers.com (despite being part of the Amazon family of retail sites) doesn't give free shipping to Amazon Prime customers. But-but if you throw in something extra, some baby shampoo or diaper cream, you can get over the $50 limit for free shipping.
So you make a Diapers.com login—although when you reach checkout you can use your Amazon account to pay. How else are you going to get a case of diapers if you live in Manhattan? Especially size 7. (The over-under on Duane Reade/CVS visits to find even a pack of size 6 is two.)
Amazon creates the problem, and Amazon offers the solution to the problem. With the power to sell everything comes the power to not sell certain things, or to only sell them on certain terms.
Probably already there is no way out of the box. But if we don't try now, we never will. The question is, where else do we go? As soon as the Hachette news started bubbling up last week, I made a point of stopping at a couple of bookstores to get titles I needed that I would otherwise have one-clicked for. This is the sort of thing I would have been doing all along, if I were a better person.
But what about the ordinary inconvenient purchases, the things Amazon has made it thoughtlessly, seductively convenient to buy? So many alternatives are terrible or insecure or terrible and insecure. I only just finished changing what I hope was the last of my accounts with a canceled credit card number on file, because I was foolish enough to duck into a bricks-and-mortar Target when I was back at my mother's house for Thanksgiving. (And of course Target is morally insupportable too.)
Likewise it was early yesterday morning that I got my password-replacement warning email from eBay. I couldn't remember the last time, if ever, I'd used the eBay account. But now, perversely, it seemed worth trying. Certain Legos were cheaper than they'd been on Amazon—a little cheaper, marginally cheaper, the kind of semi-bargain that Amazon is forever offering to keep you from looking elsewhere. Things add up, in the aggregate. When I ordered one set, I got an email back from a human being who was going to put it in the mail. I will use the Legos to reward the two-year-old in his potty training.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]