unhappyAmazon is just about to turn 20, and Salon has a hit piece with five reasons to wish Amazon an “unhappy birthday.” Of course, the fact that Salon dislikes Amazon is not exactly a surprise. In this article, Scott Timberg blames Amazon for all but destroying bookstores, mistreating its employees, harming authors, pressuring publishers, and monopolizing the e-book market. To be fair, at least there is some substance to these complaints, unlike in some of Salon’s prior hit pieces.

Amazon was hardly alone in “destroying bookstores.” Amazon didn’t exactly spring fully-formed from Jeff Bezos’s forehead, and for much of its early life, the source of bookstores’ destruction was…other bookstores. Does nobody remember You’ve Got Mail? Nor is Amazon exactly alone in mistreating employees. (Anyone remember the halcyon days when it was retail shops like Wal-Mart that got all that flak?)

Many self-publishing authors would certainly say that far from “destroying” that profession, Amazon has made it for them. It’s funny that Amazon gets the blame for “undercut[ting] the advances authors use to buy time to write something.” It’s not Amazon who pays those advances, it’s the publishers. If the publishers can’t afford to pay advances, they either need to start trimming the fat or simply stop doing business with a store that is allegedly putting the squeeze on them. It takes two to have a business arrangement.

That also accounts for Timberg’s complaint that Amazon is pressuring publishers. Amazon isn’t a charity and neither are the publishers. They both want the best terms they can get, and neither one of them has to do business with the other. That’s business.

Timberg has a bit of a point when he says that Amazon has effectively monopolized the e-book marketplace. Yes, it certainly has, but whose fault exactly is that? If Amazon got to the top by way of dirty tricks, let’s see the evidence of that. As I’ve said before, it looks a lot more to me like Amazon got to the top simply by being more competent than all its competitors.

Amazon’s far from the only big company in the industry, and certainly not the only one who had enough money to throw a bunch of it away loss-leading—that’s not a dirty trick in e-books any more than it is when Wal-Mart does it in print books. Amazon’s genius was in making it so dead simple to buy and read e-books on Kindle that even grandparents could and would do it. Nothing was preventing Amazon’s competitors from spending their money on the same things.

Heck, even the major publishers could have done it. Their revenues dwarfed Amazon’s early on, after all. But no, they weren’t interested. So they ended up with the e-book market they richly deserved.

Really, it is amusing to consider just how much has changed in those twenty years since Amazon—since those early days when Barnes & Noble’s conquest of local bookstores was considered enough of a major danger that it was the subject of a Hollywood movie. Who could have imagined back then that the “real” danger was a little on-line start-up formed to let customers buy books by Internet mail-order instead?

Now Amazon is the big bad bogeyman, and bygone bogeyman Barnes & Noble is a sinking ship. So it goes, I guess.


  1. One thing that hit me as I stepped through that trailer was how much of Meg Ryan’s little independent bookstore was actually stocked with stuffed animals and mugs. What books there were were all face out. Ha.

  2. Please, Chris. Not “even grandparents.” As a grandparent AND technical consultant, I would like to stay gainfully employed. The stereotype that older adults do not keep up with technology is a real killer. And I adore Amazon, too.

  3. On the other hand, do you know any other company that could continue to pay publishers the rate they asked for, while selling the ebooks at 9.99 and a loss? That’s a big factor into why so many other book stores couldn’t compete (that and poor management).

    • Amazon is not the only company with that much money. Hell, Apple could have afforded to pay publishers the rate they asked for while selling e-books at $9.99. They just didn’t want to.

      (Anyway, Amazon representatives have testified under oath that only some of those $9.99 sales were at a loss, but most were at least at the break-even point—and they led to greater sales of backlist titles on which it could make a profit.)

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