How Do Public Libraries Support Amazon?
Public libraries support Amazon in various ways. Some buy books from Amazon when their regular distributors do not carry the books they need. Some buy their programming supplies from Amazon. Some encourage their patrons to shop at Amazon by advertising on their websites that patrons can shop on Amazon Smile and donate to the library. Some buy Amazon gift cards as prizes for raffles and reading challenges.
Supporting Amazon seems beneficial as Amazon has low prices, which means libraries can spread tax dollars farther. It also seems to make sense. Everyone already seems to have Amazon Prime, so why not ask them to donate the library when they shop? Why not give out gift cards patrons will want to use? But Amazon engages in unethical business practices, many of which harm the book industry as a whole. Libraries arguably should not be using tax payer dollars to support a business that pressures publishers into unfavorable terms and subjects to their employees to harmful working conditions. Public libraries can–and should–do better with the money with which they are entrusted.
Amazon Pressures Publishers into Unsustainable Business Deals
Many consumers, including public libraries, purchase from Amazon because of their low prices. However, it is well-known that Amazon sells books at a loss and makes up the difference by selling non-book items–meaning other book sellers, particularly indies, cannot compete with their prices
To offer such low prices, Amazon pressures publishers into unsustainable business deals. Because Amazon has a near-monopoly on the book market, publishers can hardly refuse. For example, The Seattle Times reported in 2012 that Amazon was asking McFarland & Co. to buy their books 45% off the cover price– a deal that would lose the publisher money. Around that same time, the company offered Berkshire the deal of paying 40% off the cover price–then stopped ordering books when Berkshire refused the terms. In 2015, The Washington Post wrote about the American Booksellers Association’s concern with Amazon selling books below cost. Their concerns stemmed from the inability of smaller publishers to provide such deep discounts, an inability that could lead to fewer publishers able to stay in business.
Buying books from Amazon is desirable to customers because they want to pay less. However, in the long run, supporting Amazon instead of other sellers hurts the book industry as a whole because it gives Amazon unprecedented power to negotiate unfavorable deals with publishers, hurting their bottom line and thus making them less able to produce more books and less able to take risks on books that may not sell well.
Amazon Engages in Aggressive Behavior to Pressure Publishers to Agree to Their Terms
Amazon can lock publishers into unfavorable deals because they make such a large percentage of book sales. Consequently, publishers need to sell their books on Amazon in order for consumers to discover their products. When publishers do not agree to Amazon’s terms, Amazon might pressure publishers into acquiescence. For example, in 2010, Amazon removed the “buy” buttons from Macmillan titles when the publisher wanted higher prices listed for their books. In 2012, Amazon removed IPG titles from the Kindle store because the publisher did not agree to their terms. And in 2014, Amazon refused to offer discounts on preorders for Hachette titles as the two companies argued over e-book prices.
Removing books from the Amazon website is a powerful weapon because so many consumers use Amazon to shop. In 2018, Amazon had 199 million unique monthly visitors and 100 million Prime subscribers; they were estimated to have made 7.7% of retail sales. In the book market, 42% of book sales and 89% of e-book sales were attributed to Amazon. If Amazon refuses to sell a publisher’s books, a publisher will struggle to sell as many books.
Amazon Sales May Not Benefit the Publisher or the Author at All
In 2017, Vox reported that Amazon changed their “buy” button so that consumers might be purchasing from third parties, rather than from Amazon itself. Amazon buys the books directly from the publisher, and owes a percentage of the sale to the publisher (and thus the author) as a result. However, when a third party sells on Amazon, Amazon gets a percentage and the seller gets a percentage–the publisher and the author do not get paid at all.
The new system relies on an algorithm that prioritizes sellers with low prices. Sometimes Amazon wins the algorithm, but sometimes a third party does instead. Consumers who simply press “buy” might not realize they are not supporting an author with their money, but rather a third party who is selling books from sources even the publishers cannot figure out.
Amazon Faces Accusations of Unfair Treatment of Employees
Accusations abound that Amazon employees are treated horribly, with warehouse workers asked to handle 400 items per hour, or one every seven seconds, and given only 18 minutes of “time off task” per shift, meaning that employees have resorted to urinating in bottles or trash cans to avoid being penalized for being “off task.” Some employees have alleged that they were advised to finish working before seeking necessary medical care. Drivers report being pressured to drive at dangerous speeds, to skip meals, and to avoid bathroom breaks in order to deliver on them. In all the news stories linked, Amazon denies the truth of the reports and insists the company treats their employees well. But still Amazon workers in Europe went on strike last year on Black Friday, demanding safer working conditions.
Amazon Produces Exclusive Content Libraries Are Not Allowed to Buy
In 2018, Audible (owned by Amazon) announced that they were acquiring exclusive content from big-name authors like Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis. Currently, libraries are unable to purchase and share original Audible content, meaning that readers who wish to listen to it have to pay a subscription. Refusing to sell to libraries prevent libraries from fulfilling their mission of providing equal access to content and knowledge. It seems odd that libraries would financially support a company that does not wish to support libraries in return.
Libraries are entrusted with taxpayer dollars in order to serve the community. But who is benefiting when libraries buy from Amazon? Mostly Amazon. Supporting Amazon financially and giving the company control over the bookselling market could have a negative impact long-term, causing publishers to earn less money, leading them in turn to publish fewer books and to take fewer risks on books that do not seem like bestseller material. This means authors could earn less money and readers could have less choice.
Furthermore, despite Amazon’s protests, complaints about the way they mistreat employees continue to proliferate. Employees explain that giving everyone free one- or two-day shipping comes at a human cost: injury, fatigue, and burnout. If public libraries are to support their community, they should support businesses who treat their employees well.
Finally, Amazon seems to have little regard for the mission of libraries, to provide equal access to all. Instead, they are producing exclusive content they do not allow libraries to purchase, thereby creating social inequity. Libraries should spend their money on retailers who in turn support libraries.
What Can Libraries Do?
- Purchase books and materials from other retailers. In many cases, Amazon’s prices seem comparable with Barnes and Noble’s online prices. Or libraries could look into buying from indies or directly from publishers.
- Support local businesses with their money. Many local businesses have their own gift cards that can be used as prizes or reading incentives, instead of Amazon gift cards.
- Partner with local indies. Consumers love Amazon because they love the low prices. But indies can give consumers other value–for example, by hosting author visits with libraries. Patrons get to meet authors and have their books signed. Indies get to sell their books.
What Can Library Patrons Do?
- Find out if your local library buys from Amazon. Write to the director asking that the library support a more ethical business. Explain why you are asking for this change; the director may not be aware of Amazon’s business practices.
- Attend a library board meeting and ask for the library to end or limit Amazon purchases. All members of the community are stakeholders in the library and the public is allowed to attend library board meetings and comment. Meetings should be announced on the library website.