Philip Jones’ editorial “Give and Take” explains Amazon’s recent success and Jeff Bezos stepping down. It’s undoubtedly clear that publishers have benefitted in parallel with Amazon from the pandemic. But his conclusion that “overall for the customer the book business is better now than it was” uses too narrow a perspective.
I think too many people have drunk the Amazon Kool-Aid and won’t acknowledge the bigger picture. Amazon set out to become an energetic and innovative company, an Argos catalogue on steroids. The business model is something that Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie would recognise. This “disruptor” business model doesn’t seem fit for the 21st century. The treatment of staff and the environment can’t be overlooked by cheesy adverts and a few electric vans. The rise of the gig economy and the increase in the “working poor” and food banks are not a coincidence. Customers may love the speed of delivery, but that may have to change if we really care about the air quality in our cities and our planet in general.
It’s only in the short-term, and when the full cost of this business model isn’t considered, that the customer benefits. If the loss of retail jobs on the high street, the impact on the environment and the cost to society of non-unionised workplaces were considered, the conclusion would be very different. Book customers will pay the price for this in so many ways, so must be made aware of them loudly and clearly.
On top of that, the pandemic has highlighted who helps in a crisis. That has been small businesses, community and local religious groups. I am sure these people would agree that economies of scale don’t always give good overall results.
It’s essential that high streets and small communities are not seen as something quaint from the 1950s and for the middle-classes only. It’s actually these people who can pull together and solve so many of the problems that “disruptors” have created.
We are so fortunate to work in an industry that publishes books by James Rebanks, Greta Thunberg and most importantly Rutger Bregman. We must heed their words.
I hope, now that Bezos is retiring, Amazon will be recognised as an old-fashioned industry best depicted by another chapter in a novel by Upton Sinclair along the lines of “Oil” and “The Jungle”.
But there’s only one retirement present I would recommend for Mr Bezos, a tiny book written when [the author] was nine years old, but more relevant today than ever; Ernest Friedrich Schmacher’s Small is Beautiful.
Bookseller, Jaffé & Neale Bookshop & Café, Chipping Norton