Last week, a kind person at work pointed out that there are only 6 weeks to go until Christmas. Crikey on a plate!
If you're anything like me, you prefer to do your Christmas shopping the non-hellish way; i.e., completely online. This way, you can shop in your pyjamas, and without needing to sharpen your elbows before attempting to go through any doorways.
For Christmas 2011, I took myself to Amazon.com. It was cheap and sold everything I could possibly want, and I got presents for everybody (including the cat) for less than £100. What a bargain, eh?
This year, knowing what I do now about their frankly shonky business practises and general global evilness, I won't be doing it again. The creeping reach of global corporate supervillains is bad for our economy, and will eventually come to be bad for writers and the literary scene in general. Let me explain.
Like other globalised corporations, Amazon is committed to aggressive expansion and market domination. Driven by a need to generate exponentially increasing dividends for its shareholders, it does whatever it takes to generate billions.
Everybody likes a bargain, myself included, and Amazon's bargain-basement prices attract shoppers by the million. Like the supermarkets, Amazon works with an endgame in mind. Driving prices down will eventually kill its competition - and after that, book-lovers' choices will become limited. You will only be able to buy from Amazon, and nowhere else. We have no way of knowing what this will do to prices, or to what kind of books you'll be able to buy.
For many publishers, deciding whether or not to deal with Amazon is a non-choice. It's the world's biggest bookstore, and many readers don't shop anywhere else. If your books aren't on Amazon, you miss out on selling to those who only shop there. One of the ways Amazon operates is to flatten the supply chain, buying at wholesale prices from publishers, and selling at retail price to customers. This generates a healthy profit for itself, and little for the publisher. It's no stretch to see that operating on such narrow margins could drive some indies out of business. A day may come when Amazon demands exclusivity from its publishers - that they sell only through its storefront, and not through their own. Little publishers, often the houses who publish the most exciting and innovative work, may be forced to the wall; and all will be left will be the big publishers, churning out the kinds of books they know will be a hit. Laugh now, while you may; you'll be crying into your library cards when all you can buy are Katie Price biographies and shit books about vampires.
There are many nefarious strings to Amazon's bow when it comes to cheap pricing. These include (but are not limited to) union-busting, using precarious or temporary employees to avoid providing employment rights, and bullying publishers into breaking anti-trust laws. These tactics alone are good enough reason to stop giving them your money.
But for British writers, the biggest reason to boycott Amazon must be for its tax-avoidance scheme. Last year, Amazon generated sales of more than 3.3 billion in the UK. It paid no corporation tax. Let me repeat: into the UK tax system, Amazon - despite having generated enough sales to build six hospitals and a dozen schools - paid not one penny.
With an austerity drive in full effect on our public services, and the axe swinging over our libraries, we should be concerned about this. The narrative in the mainstream media is that the UK is in debt, and that there's no alternative but to cut back. Yet single-issue protest group UK Uncut suggests that corporate tax avoidance has cost our state up to £95bn a year. In crude terms, you could say that if Amazon paid its taxes, our libraries wouldn't be closing their doors.
Writers working a day job in the public sector might find themselves doing the work of two people due to cuts in their departments, and coming home at night too exhausted to work; they may be appealing a benefits decision, for themselves or somebody else, with all the attendant stress and man-hours that such a thing takes; or they might find that local NHS or social care services have closed down, leaving them bearing the brunt of caring, and thus with less time to write.
These things aren't isolated from the tactics of corporations like Amazon. They're very much intertwined. Were Amazon to pay their taxes, perhaps we might be subject to fewer cuts and less stress. And for that reason, I'll be going independent this Christmas. Why not join me?
The Country of Last Things Paul Auster
The Quiet American Graham Greene