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We Need to Talk about Amazon

by Michael Garry Smout


The sharp-eyed of you may have noticed that below our published stories there has been a wee change to where we had ‘book ordering’. Amazon has been removed and replaced by - nothing. I can imagine that many are applauding this decision whilst being a bit baffled on why TBR made the change and not offered an alternative. Then others among you might even consider us directing you towards any single company as a bit suspect, if not manipulative; while the featured author, I am certain, would want us to point the reader/buyer to some form of retailer. Rocks and hard places! I am hopeful the following gives the answers needed.

Believe it or not TBR pre-dates Amazon and, back in those halcyon days of the nascent Internet, truly viable, secure online shopping had yet to be created. Beneath each story we would put the publisher and the ISBN, the idea being that those interested would wander down to this thing called ‘a book shop’, or ‘bookstore’, that most towns had back then in the dying days of the 1990s. In 1998 we linked to something called Internet Bookshop, which seems to still exist but now more for specialist books, and once or twice, to bookshops like Barnes and Noble (US) and Waterstones (UK). There was no one umbrella company to go to for international shopping and having links to numerous book sellers just looked stupid, and on hindsight, plain manipulative. Then along came Amazon that then sold... books, purely books. And were located in the US and the UK. Heaven for us. They also did redeemable gift tokens of any value so the idea of being able to offer a prize in dollars, pounds sterling or Euros for a literary quiz was born.

For TBR to willingly give its blessing to Amazon back then it is worth pointing out that selling books was not the only literary link in the Amazon story. Jeff Bezos started the company with his then wife Mackenzie (Scott), a writer who has won the American Book Award and whose teacher was Tony Morrison. For a divorce settlement she got a small chunk of Amazon (4%), which of course is worth billions. In 2020 she gave away $8.5 billion to charities and in 2021 $2.7 billion. Her ex, worth a hell of a lot more, prefers to fly around in a huge penis.

I am not here to trash, nor sing the praises of, Amazon as we were all part of, and therefore also responsible for, what happened next - the rise of online retailing and the collapse of the High Street. And practically the first victim of this revolution was the local bookshop. Yes, they still hang on in larger towns here in the UK, but most are not independent, and all have to have a café or some form of additional income. Ah! Bookshops! If it were not for the delight of wandering aimlessly around one, I would never have seen the glittering skull cover that lured me to investigate and then buy Trainspotting. That’s another story.

However, I now find myself in an English village and, as a non-driver, totally reliant on an intermittent rural bus service that finishes at about 6:00pm, or taxis. To get to a town with a bookshop, or any decent shops for that matter, involves both train and/or taxis. The best place to shop around here has no direct bus nor train link and costs around £70 ($95) round trip by cab. I obviously don’t go often! Therefore, for those in a similar situation, the online retailer, be it Amazon or John Lewis, is a godsend and not a necessary evil. The only time I would be critical of a person using Amazon, or similar, would be if they lived in the same area as a real, living, working bookshop. But then…

… along came Covid 19 and lockdowns and the opportunity for many to hide behind a good book, but how to buy said book? Already ailing bookshops were forced to close, many permanently, yet Amazon could continue selling, and were not only impervious to the situation but actually feasting off it. Amazon is now so rich, so powerful, it is embarrassing. With this in mind TBR felt that it was wrong to openly promote their services so looked at alternatives.

Hot contender was which, unlike many of the other possibilities, operates in the US and the UK (but not Australia). Why it caught our attention is simple: it gives a percentage of its earnings back to bricks-and-mortar bookshops - just over £2 million has been donated in the UK so far. It also helps authors. All this is possible by becoming affiliated, so even TBR might get a small amount should our promotion hit the right mark. I wrote asking if they had a system of gift vouchers and never heard back, though they do now offer Book Tokens but at a fixed price and only redeemable on books in the country of purchase, which is useless for the Quiz prize. I should also point out that writing asking about this somehow meant I was was put on their subscriber list and received a seemingly endless stream of marketing until I unsubscribed. Not at all promising.

It is imperative to now cover a point I made in the opening paragraph. Whatever we put as ‘book ordering’ is, or was, not there intending to lead the reader away from their own purchasing preferences. Many have possibly realised that Amazon is not always the cheapest nor best option. Undoubtedly, our readers are a discerning bunch, quite capable of making decisions regarding where and when they buy a book. And if so, does TBR need to have any link to any online retailer? For our readers I believe ‘no’.

Still, there is the quiz. Here, because there really is no other option that is worldwide and where the winner has the freedom to use the voucher on products outside of ‘books’, Amazon is the only choice. I guess we envisioned that the winnings went on books, but that was back in the day when it was the only option. Now I’m sure the winner is quite happy to celebrate their literary knowledge —and their scrolling Google, asking Alexa or questioning Siri skills— by using the voucher towards a hedge-trimmer, or a Spider-Man pyjama set, or three unreleased recordings of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fighting in the dressing room of the Fillmore East. And no, knowing where the last bit came from does not entitle you to a 30-Euro Amazon Gift voucher because it’s too easy to Google

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