As our culture slowly begins to become addicted to electronic technology something dark and evil is happening. Like Monsanto’s attempts to patent, own and control the world’s food supply and like Nestlé’s blatant attempt to take over the world’s water resources with the philosophy that “human beings don’t have a basic right to water” (unless you buy Nestlé’s bottled regurgitated water), the huge sales and distribution giant Amazon has been quietly and sometimes not so quietly taking over the e-book industry, and I’m not just talking about the sale of e-books, though I have read that they control 90% of the e-book market. They have been manipulating prices for quite some time, but now they have upped the ante and are beginning to use tactics reminiscent of a fascist monopoly in discriminating against certain companies that don’t kowtow to their wishes, raising the prices of the publisher’s books, delaying shipment of these books and making it harder for customers to order them. It was bad enough that the Nazis burned books they decided didn’t meet their approval, now we have a worldwide corporation wanting to determine what you can read, when you can read it, how much you will pay for it, and if that isn’t bad enough, they also want to control who will get published and what those authors will receive in royalties. Eventually the scenario will become something like, if you don’t agree to their terms, your work will never see the light of day. The phrase “banned in Boston” will be rephrased to “banned on Amazon.” And the disturbing question is “What will happen to books when Amazon controls the entire industry?”
For years Amazon has marketed itself as the book buyer’s bosom buddy, selling books at fantastically low prices, delivering them with lightening speed, and being at the forefront in the development of new technologies to enhance the way we read. Sounds like a marriage made in heaven for the avid reader. But wait a minute. To quote a famous author, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” It’s bad enough that Amazon has been the driving force behind putting thousands of small bookshops out of business, shops that simply cannot compete with the volume of books that Amazon moves, which in turn allows them to sell books much more cheaply than the Mom and Pop shops ever could. The closing of both the Village Voice and The Red Wheelbarrow bookstores in Paris in 2012 are good examples of large monopolies like Amazon tilting the scales against the “walk in put your hands on a musty old tome or a bright brand new book” brick-and-mortar type of bookstore. On the blog “Parisian Fields” that she publishes with photographer Norman Ball, Philippa Campsie perhaps put it best (and more eloquently than I could have, though I see the issue in the same light) when she wrote in September 2013:
“Books are objects, like typewriters, that once performed a function. And for many people, the function can be performed in other ways, through other media. But bookshops have a function too. They were never just about selling books. They hosted readings and launches, and they were places to go for conversation and news. At the Red Wheelbarrow, the people behind the desk recommended not just books, but the best boulangerie in the area. The staff weighed in on the merits of local cafés, and introduced us to other browsers crowding into the tiny space. You can’t get that on an e-book. In Paris, where sometimes it can be hard to find one’s feet and where much is unfamiliar, a space like the Red Wheelbarrow allowed us to feel on solid ground. Lost bookshops are lost friends. When a place like that disappears, it is not just the end of a business, it is the end of a friendship.”
The French are fighting back though. When the country’s 3,000 independent bookshops complained they weren’t able to compete with cut-price offers online, a new bill was proposed in the French Assembly in October 2013, supported by both the right and the left, that would prohibit companies like Amazon from offering the combined 5% reductions and free deliveries on books. The bill was approved by the Senate in January 2014 and became law. In another interesting take on the bill, the BBC’s Paris correspondent Christian Fraser, in an October 2013 report, said the bill “might be seen as payback” for Amazon’s practices of reporting European sales through a holding company located in Luxembourg, to take advantage of comparatively low corporate tax rates. In the past French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti has criticized Amazon’s practices, particularly the free deliveries and its rather blatant policy of “tax optimization.” In June 2013, in response to Amazon’s charge that the new bill would be discriminatory towards the online retailer, Ms Filippetti said, “Today, everyone has had enough of Amazon. (The company) slashes prices to get a foothold in markets only to raise them once they have established a virtual monopoly.”
Ah yes, there’s that word again, monopoly. Unfortunately in the United States, which these days would be better called the Republican Corporation Of America, the government isn’t about to take Amazon to task for its price-fixing. After all, Amazon aggressively pursued Apple over its e-book policies and price-fixing, persuaded the Department of Justice to sue them and then took Apple all the way to the bank. So Uncle Sam isn’t going to smack Amazon upside the head about their monopolistic practices anytime soon. Not like the French, who have always had a better attitude towards small businesses and who are proud of their local stores, considering them essential in bringing culture to both Paris and the small villages. And you can help the cause by boycotting Amazon e-books and by buying your paperbacks and hardbound books at a brick-and-mortar bookstore whenever you can. Let’s not allow technology to become the book burner of our future.
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