I Paid That Bribe: Helping Amazon To Make My Life Worse

Midway through George Packer’s 12,000 word New Yorker article “Is Amazon Bad For Books?” Packer tells us about Dennis Johnson, a co-owner of Melville House—and his attempt to take a stand against Amazon’s “Gazelle Project”:

Many publishers had come to regard Amazon as a heavy in khakis and oxford shirts. In its drive for profitability, Amazon did not raise retail prices; it simply squeezed its suppliers harder, much as Walmart had done with manufacturers. Amazon demanded ever-larger co-op fees and better shipping terms; publishers knew that they would stop being favored by the site’s recommendation algorithms if they didn’t comply. Eventually, they all did. (Few customers realize that the results generated by Amazon’s search engine are partly determined by promotional fees.) Sales meetings in Seattle were now all about payments, not new books, and the size of orders was predicated on algorithms, rather than on the enthusiasm of the publishers’ sales staff and Amazon’s own buyers, who were rebranded as “inventory managers.” Brad Stone describes one campaign to pressure the most vulnerable publishers for better terms: internally, it was known as the Gazelle Project, after Bezos suggested “that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” (Company lawyers later changed the name to the Small Publisher Negotiation Program.)

“The Gazelle Project—that was me,” Dennis Johnson, a co-owner of Melville House, a small publisher with offices on the Brooklyn waterfront, said. Melville House puts out quality fiction and nonfiction, including “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” by the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber; “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” by Paul Berman; and translations of the German novelist Hans Fallada. In 2004, when Melville House was just getting started, Johnson’s distributor called him and described his negotiations with Amazon as being “like dinner with the Godfather.” Amazon wanted a payment without having to reveal how many Melville House books were sold on the site. (Amazon rarely makes its sales figures public, using bar graphs without numbers in presentations.) “ ‘Fuck you’ was my attitude,” Johnson said. “ ‘They’re bluffing—I’m going to call their bluff.’ I’m a working-class kid. I come at this from ‘This is my company, you don’t come in here.’ ” Johnson, who remains one of the few people in publishing willing to criticize Amazon on the record, contacted reporters, and Publishers Weekly ran a story. By the next day, the buy buttons had disappeared from Melville House’s titles on Amazon.com. Not long afterward, the Book Expo was held at the Javits Center, in Manhattan. Two young men in suits approached Melville House’s booth and pointed fingers at Johnson. “When are you going to get with the program?” they asked. The men were wearing Amazon nametags.

Packer concludes the anecdote with:

Before the impasse, Amazon had represented eight per cent of Melville House’s sales, more than Johnson could afford to lose. So he capitulated. “I paid that bribe”—he wouldn’t disclose the amount—“and the books reappeared.”

When I finished reading “Is Amazon Bad For Books?” I planned on linking to it and maybe adding three or four sentences of my own thoughts. But the piece stuck with me for the rest of the day, and the next day, and the next.

I realized I had more to say.

I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber. I pay $80/year for expedited shipping and have the option to pay $4 (per item) for Next Day shipping. (I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while. In the time since I wrote the first draft, Amazon announced that Prime membership will now cost $100/year.) That is, assuming you order a lot of Stuff online, an incredible discount. (Even after the rate increase, I still view Prime favorably.) And this rundown doesn’t mention (well, I guess it does now) other Prime perks, such as free access to a Netflix-esque movie and TV streaming library (a woefully underused service on my part; my Apple bias has trained me to look first on my Apple TV for titles) and free access to over half a million Kindle titles.

The thing is, I am also an author whose book is sold through Amazon, a company that has ushered in an era, as Packer writes, when:

…digital titles have leveled off at about thirty per cent of book sales. Whatever the temporary fluctuations in publishers’ profits, the long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to—they are too busy doing other things with their devices—but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces. The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value,” Johnson said. “It’s a widget.”

Essentially, I’m burning my candle at both ends. I’m actively supporting the biggest threat to the industry I am trying to succeed in. I am also a technology enthusiast who teaches students to edit by hand; forget the trees, forget the fact that they (supposedly) are digital natives, forget the fact that the students are paying thousands and thousands of dollars for a potentially worthless education—and still have a printing budget (the state of higher education is an entirely different plate of enchiladas).

There’s no way around it—I am a hypocrite. This section in Packer’s piece summates my situation perfectly:

Publishers are less like abused minors and more like financially insecure adults who rely on the support of a bullying uncle. Their dependence breeds bad faith. “Privately, we berate Amazon,” the marketing executive said. “Yet we’re always trying to figure out how to work with them.”

So how do you reconcile all of this? After reading Packer’s piece, after reading Carole Cadwalladr’s piece, “My Week As An Amazon Insider,” in The Guardian, after listening to Mac McClelland on this episode of Radiolab, each time, I’ve inched closer and closer to the obvious choice—stop using Amazon. And I will admit, after Packer, I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

But then I thought: what kind of impact would this have on my life?

AeroPress filters. When I stopped to consider what my next Amazon purchase would likely be, I knew I would soon need to purchase a package of AeroPress filters, something I’ve purchased on Amazon at least half a dozen times in the past (350 per pack; I might have a coffee problem).

And I have to admit: if Amazon didn’t exist, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for them.

The AeroPress consideration reminded me that I would also soon need Hario V2 filters (I told you I have a coffee problem).

If Amazon didn’t exist, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for them.

And that’s when it hit me—there are times when I am no longer capable of even considering where else to buy some of the things that I buy on Amazon. And when I do know where else to look, I still tend to check Amazon first, and almost always wind up buying it there.

Presumably, though, living without Amazon is possible.

The last fifteen items I purchased on Amazon are:

-AeroPress Filters (Value pack of 700)
-Made Smart Interlocking Storage Bins (8 pack)
-Dr. Bronner’s Shaving Gel (Lemongrass Lime)
-Casio Men’s MQ24-9B (Birthday Gift; Brother)
-KIND Minis (12-count; Variety Pack)
-Mommy’s Helper Outlet Plugs (36/pack; 2 Packs; Roaming child)
-Y.S. Eco Bee Farms Raw Honey (Wife: “Can you order me a thing of raw honey? I’ve been wanting to use it for a project.”)
-3M Littmann Classic II S.E. Stethoscope (Brass-Finish Chestpiece; Black Tube; 28 inch; Wife: “I’ve needed a new one for a while and I’ve got all these Amazon gift cards from Christmas.”)
-Furminator Deshedding Tool for Large Cats (3 cats; used by my wife only once as of my writing this.)
-Booda No Track Litter Mat
-Booda Dome Filter 2 Pack
-Booda Dome Cleanstep Cat Box (Brushed Nickel; Second one purchased from Amazon. One was no longer enough as above-mentioned cats gained a sibling not long ago.)
-Gingher Knife Edge Dress Maker Shears (Left Handed; 8 inch; Wife: “I’ve always wanted these! And I’m got all these Amazon gift cards from Christmas!”)
-Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap (32 oz.; Eucalyptus; Primarily used for making homemade baby wipes.)
-Pizza Ranch Pepperoni Gift Card ($20; Family friend going to Iowa after Christmas; loves pizza; looked up largest retail pizza chain in Iowa.)

Now, was Amazon the only place to purchase these items? Of course not. (And I’m well aware that what’s listed above is not what anyone would recognize as “essentials,” but, I mean, I’m not even attempting to combat that straw man in this piece. Assume for the time being that all pain is personal, all necessities are relative.)

But putting cost aside (and almost all of these items were the same price, if not cheaper, than their brick-and-mortar store counterpart), there’s the indisputable fact that I wasted less gas, time, and energy buying from Amazon. And as I approach thirty, the father of an 11 month-old, I’m faced with the also indisputable fact that the time (and energy) I have to spend hunting down speciality litter boxes and raw honey is waning. And if you consider each item as its own errand, yes, finding a location that sells each seems possible. Maybe. But is that how anyone shops anywhere, for anything, in 2014? Why should this be any different then?

So what to do? We live in a world where so much is possible—because of the reach of our digital selves (worldwide in an instant) and because of how cheap it all (relatively-speaking) is. To say that this transition is only a negative is to ignore obvious bonuses, and not even just the money saved here and there, the gas saved, the time not wasted. What about the Pizza Ranch gift card? It was a thoughtful, funny gift that just would not have been possible without Amazon.

And take other related 21st century hand-wringing—social interaction in a Facebook/Twitter world. Facebook allowed my wife to stay in contact with a bunch of other new moms when she came home from the hospital with our first child and was struggling. She didn’t need medication or physical intervention (well, she did, but not in the sense that I’m talking about); she also didn’t need a bowling team to join or an Elks Lodge to attend (well, she sort of did, but just hang on); she was relieved and carried along by the support of her friends—on Facebook—at midnight, at two in the morning, at five in the morning, maybe even at one in the afternoon (because yes, sometimes, when you have a newborn, you just don’t make it out of house). And it wasn’t much—just some lighthearted messaging back and forth—but it made a world of difference. She reported that it did and I saw in her that it did.

Now, did she need this very specific kind of interaction? Need as in liable to cause death or horrible mental disfiguration without it?

No, probably not.

And did people do just fine for hundreds of years without it?

Of course (although some—not so much).

But that’s not the point, is it?

Is there an instance (or instances) in history that—let’s call them Slower-Downers—can point to in which we chose a course of action that actively shrugged off the modern advances of our time in favor of what was deemed more righteous or wholesome—and were successful? When viewed from above, free from the tunnel vision our conscious imposes on the passage of time, modern society reveals itself to be, however slow-moving, a progressive society—one in which the future, for better or worse, always wins.

Short of some kind of tyrannical plug-pulling of Amazon as a whole, the reality is that Jeff Bezos and Co. are here to stay. There will be no shortage of folks bemoaning this fact as it becomes clearer. And I am always leery, and you should be too, of those proclaiming the death or impending doom of any cultural object, for they are usually the people who in their inflexible refusal to adapt to the times stand to lose the most.

Learning how to exist within the current system, learning how to make peace with ourselves and with the benefits we’ve been afforded, will be a process that defines our society’s place in history. The key will be deciding on how to hold Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, et al. accountable for providing us with the things we want for a price, monetarily and spiritually-speaking, that will allow us to sleep comfortably at night. 

And on that note, my debut novel is now available on your Kindle.


You can’t beat that price.