October 01, 2011

Amazon is Nobody's Friend, part 2

by Alan Beatts

Last month I discussed some of the more objective problems with Amazon's general business practices.  This month I'm going to talk about how they just don't play nicely -- not with customers, authors, publishers, or the public at large.

But first I need to correct something that I suggested in last month's article.  When I was talking about the number of companies owned by Amazon, one of businesses I mentioned was LibraryThing <http://www.librarything.com/>.  I suggested that the way that they list sellers for books was influenced by Amazon's 40% ownership of the company.  A very kind reader who is familiar with that company pointed out my implication was not true and that I was doing a disservice to an independent company run by a very independent man, Tim Spalding.  After doing some research (which I should have done before I published), I discovered that the gentleman who contacted me was absolutely right and I was wrong.  Then I got in touch with Tim to apologize.  He was very pleasant and took the whole thing with more grace that I probably would have, were our situations reversed.

The short version is that, though the facts that I presented were accurate (i.e. that Amazon's purchase link (along with AbeBooks, which is owned by Amazon) appears more prominently than links to other sites (like Barnes and Noble)), the reasons for it had nothing to do with Amazon's ownership interest in LibraryThing.  Instead, the reason is Amazon has a policy that, if a site uses their data, which LibraryThing does, along with the data from more than 900 (!) other services, that site _must_ list Amazon's purchase links at the main purchase page and may not list any other business.  Tim doesn't like this rule and as a result made sure that the secondary purchase page was well designed and very accessible.

Tim also clarified something about the ownership of LibraryThing.  Amazon's stake through ABE is now actually less than 40% due to the 2009 purchase of a non-majority interest in LibraryThing by CIG, the parent company of Bowker, the company behind Books in Print.  Tim still retains majority ownership and in still in charge.

LibraryThing is a very cool site, a great service, and run by a fine, independent, and reasonable man.  I recommended it highly.

On the other hand, Amazon has --

(A) Edited customer reviews with a bias towards creating sales rather than maintaining objectivity.

(B) Removed book listings to coerce authors and publishers.

(C) "Hidden" books based on arbitrary standards.

(D) Maintained unhealthy and unsafe working conditions for their employees.

(E) Fallen far short of usual expectations for charitable giving.

In the first part of this article I talked about issues that seemed to be more systemic within Amazon's business operations that what I'll be adressing this month.  That Amazon has: 1) been a deceptive and pervasive influence on ecommerce, 2) consistently tried to eliminate other businesses to increase their hold on the book market, 3) engaged in pricing designed to cripple competition and manipulate its suppliers and customers, 4) made avoiding sales tax a cardinal part of their business model, and 5) chosen an ebook business model and format that's bad for the consumer -- are all things demonstrated by their business practices over the years.  You could say that it's all part of their corporate "DNA".

On the other hand, except for the first and last items on the list, the following things are single incidents.  The first and last items, editing customer reviews and Amazon's record when it comes to charity, may be parts of the company's usual practices but don't really effect the core questions about how they treat authors, publishers, and consumers.  However, I think that the following give a picture of the general "character" of the company (if a company can be said to have such a thing) that is more telling that anything I mentioned last month.

(A) "Edited customer reviews with a bias towards creating sales rather than maintaining objectivity."

I support completely the right for anyone running a site that features product or customer reviews to remove content that fails to meet their standards.  But I think that posting reviews of that sort gives the site a responsibility to be fair and objective as possible when removing them.  My favorite example of this is Yelp.com which, in general, doesn't remove reviews -- instead they "filter" them and stop them from showing when a page is viewed normally.  But anyone can see the filtered reviews with a mouse-click.

In my personal, certain knowledge, there have been two cases in which Amazon has removed even-handed, critical, one star reviews of books.  By personal, certain knowledge I mean that I saw the review and, when I came back later, it was gone.  One of the books in question was Christopher Paolini's second novel.  A cursory search will find a number of complaints about this problem (1), even on Amazon's discussion boards (2).  I suppose that the two cases that I saw both could have been the result of the author of the review removing it, but that seems unlikely, especially in the face of all the other complaints about this practice.

Further, a friend of mine was part of a group of professional writers who conducted an experiment.  They each left two negative reviews on Amazon -- one was for a recent ebook from a major publisher, and complained that the price was too high.  The second was for an independently published ebook at a very low price, and complained that the quality of the book was poor.  Consistently the negative review for the higher priced book was left and the review of the lower priced book was removed.  I wish I could quote or cite the specific writer or group of writers who conducted that experiment but they asked to remain anonymous (because they were concerned about punitive actions on the part of Amazon).

The reasonable assumption on the part of customers is that the reviews they see are an accurate representation of people's opinions but actually there are an edited tool to sell products.  One can perhaps argue that such removals are within Amazon's policy for reviews, but if so, that doesn't make it any less deceptive.  Regardless of what Amazon's published "rules" say, the way that the reviews are presented and the general understanding about how customers' reviews work gives any reader the impression that they are objective and not selected to help sell product.  During this article I'll be coming back to this idea that customer expectations and our unwritten but understood social rules are important, valid, and something that Amazon pays attention to or ignores at their convenience.

(B) "Removed book listings to coerce authors and publishers."

This topic splits into two parts.  The first is the way that Amazon responded to Macmillan Publishing's promotion of the agent-model for ebook sales.  I've covered that in my last article but it's important to point out here that Amazon's response to a failure to come to an agreement with Macmillan was to delist almost _all_ of their titles from Amazon, not just the ebooks.  You can make an argument that removing the ebooks was reasonable since the terms under which they were for sale were up in the air -- but the print books too?

The second part is complete hearsay.  It is nothing I can cite nor can I find anyone willing to discuss it for the record so, please, take it with a grain (or a whole bag) of salt.  Over the years I have run into a truly surprising number of authors and editors who are very uncomfortable saying anything negative about Amazon publicly.  They are even reticent to speak privately against Amazon.  Several of them have openly commented that they are concerned that the consequences of doing so would be "bad".  This includes my source about the experiment with customer reviews that I mention previously.  I've also talked to another author who said that they "wouldn't want all their positive reviews to vanish".  Finally I talked to a independent publisher who candidly said that they were concerned that, if they kept complaining about Amazon, the shipping times might increase for no clear reason.

As I said, all hearsay and I almost decided not to mention it but I've heard these concerns so many times and, if true, it seems such a misuse of Amazon's position that I finally decided to print it.

(C) " 'Hidden' books based on arbitrary standards."

Many of you probably remember the huge blowup, generally called "amazon fail", from early 2009.  In brief, Amazon removed the sales ranking for an extensive list of books relating to queer / homosexual topics.  Sales ranking is the way that books appear on many of Amazon's lists, which are a very important way that people find them.  The net result is that a number of books became much harder to find on Amazon.

It was later explained as the result of a "glitch" that caused books with homosexuality as a topic to be classed as "adult" material, which it is Amazon's policy to remove from sales rankings.  The exact text of their response to inquiries was,

"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature." (3)

However, there are a number of things that make this explanation a bit questionable, not the least of which is that Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds was still showing a sales rank as were a number of, um, "marital aids".  That division suggests to me that the definition of "adult" includes much of that which is "queer" but not much (at all) of that which is can be considered "straight".  The whole thing blew over when Amazon explained that it was a "computer error" and the sales ranks were reinstated.  But I am unaware of any proof that it was a glitch nor has Amazon given a full explanation that I can find of what, exactly, the "glitch" was.  And, even if it was, it does seem to show a pretty comprehensive set of blinders when it comes to the relative merits of "straight" values versus "queer" ones.  Lilith Saintcrow discussed this at much greater (and more entertaining) length on her blog at http://www.lilithsaintcrow.com/journal/2009/04/this-is-not-a-glitch-amazonfail/ .

Within the reading, publishing, and book-buying community there is a long standing (and accurate) assumption that booksellers are second only to liberians when it comes to supporting freedom of speech and condemning censorship.  This assumption is another unwritten rule in our society.  Though there are bookstores that have a published, public stance against censorship, most bookstores do not and don't need one.  Amazon, in its capacity of "Earth's Biggest Bookstore" and by constantly pushing the idea that it has the same values as other booksellers, has benefitted from this reputation.  But, rather than seeing this reputation as something that is precious and that must be considered during their day to day operations (as I know many bookstores, my own included, do), it is something of such little importance that a underlying assumption about what is "adult" and what is not can cause a "glitch" that amounts to discrimination and censorship.

(D) "Maintained unhealthy and unsafe working conditions for their employees."

As someone who has worked as a picker in the warehouse, the recent revelations about the working conditions in some of Amazon's fulfillment centers struck me on a very visceral level.  At one of their facilities in Pennsylvania this summer employees were working while the temperature index (which is temperature factoring in humidity) within the building exceeded 110 degrees.  The Federal Occupational Health agency became involved after being contacted by a local emergency room doctor in June who was concerned by the number of admissions to his hospital for heat-related problems.

Though employees were allowed to take the day off when temperatures reached the 110 degree level, employees who were unable or unwilling to work had two choices if they went home.  If they got a doctor's note saying they couldn't work in the heat, they were fine but, if they didn't get a note, they received "points" on their records.  Accumulate too many points and you would be fired.  These were the same sort of points that were given for work-place safety violations or for arriving late to work.

Put that in context for a second -- you're desperate for work because the economy sucks.  You get the job but it's the equivalent of 112 degrees while your working, you're getting dizzy and your vision is blurring.   Finally you can't take it anymore and ask to go home.  So that you don't run the risk of losing your job, you'd better go see a doctor and get a note.  Not a big deal, if you've got insurance.  But what are the chances of that?  Once OSHA got in the picture, the situation improved but it was still pretty bad.  More fans were added, cooling headbands and vests were issued, plus employees were supposed to be given breaks every hour when the heat index exceeded 100 degrees.  Whether these breaks were actually given is unclear.  But throughout, performance goals were unchanged, despite theoretically longer breaks and the resulting shorter working hours.

And those performance goals were high.  And by high, I'm talking about being expected to retrieve 1200 items in the course of a 10 hour shift.  That's one item every 30 seconds . . . for ten hours.  The particular employee who's rate was that high was in his 50s.  And damn, what a bad-ass!  Of the group of 100 people he was hired with, he was one of five left at the company seven months later . . . when he was fired for not meeting his quota.

Another employee tells of being expected to unpack, scan, and bin 500 items per hour.  That's one item every 7 seconds.  Another picker like the 50 year old mentioned above says that his quota went to a high of 125 an hour.  And failure to meet quota meant you got fired.

The icing on the cake is that most of the people working were hired from a temp agency and were told that, if they worked well, they would be hired permanently by Amazon.  However, based on statements from a number of former staff, the actual practice was to work the temp employees into the ground and then replace them when they quit or were fired for not meeting quota.  And added plus to this rapid turnover was that it made it effectively impossible for the employees to unionize.

One reporter interviewed 20 current and former employees (13 from temp agencies and 7 who were employed by Amazon) and found only _one_ who thought that it was "a good place to work".  (4)

(E) "Fallen far short of usual expectations for charitable giving."

Of all the things that I've run across about Amazon over the years, this is the one that surprised me the most.  I'm not sure that "far short" is even the right term to use.  Can you say that someone has fallen short of something when they didn't even try?  Amazon's annual charitable donations are zero.  Not only does the company make no donations at a national or international level, they don't even make any donations within the city of Seattle.  (5)

And neither, apparently, does Jeff Bezos, despite being the 30th richest man in the world this year, according to Forbes.

I'm not saying that I think that companies or individuals have an obligation to make donations.  I don't think that I'm entitled to make that sort of judgement.  But, it's a reasonable expectation that even small businesses will be charitable.  It is normal business conduct that, while not required, is how businesses both promote themselves and also give back to their community.

Giving donations doesn't make a company ethical, nice, or anyone's friend.  But what does it say about the overarching character of a company when it is willing to disregard a relatively basic piece of the voluntary conduct that is part of the unwritten but understood relationship between it and the larger world?  Again, Amazon chooses which social expectations are convenient and which are not.

And what other parts of those understandings that are the basis of our commercial culture does Amazon ignore now?  And which ones will they ignore in the future?

When people think of Amazon, they tend to see it alongside other companies who have shaped our interactions with the internet over the past decade.  But I don't believe that Amazon can reasonably be grouped with companies like Apple, Google, or Yahoo.  I'm not saying that any of those companies are perfect, ethical, or run by saints.  But, based on their actions over the years, I think they feel a deep and abiding sense of obligation to their employees, communities, and customers.

Amazon does not.  To Amazon, you are a source of income -- nothing more.  If they think it will be profitable for them, they'll sell you or anyone else down the river in a heartbeat.

They're not your friend or anyone else's.

To be completely clear -- I am not calling for a boycott of Amazon.  I am not even urging people to shop less at Amazon (though, if you come to that conclusion based on what I've written, that's fine with me).  Further, I'm not saying that Amazon is all bad or even mostly bad.  But I hope that this article will prompt people to consider how Amazon conducts their business and the possible consequences of Amazon's growing dominance of ecommerce,  bookselling, and, specifically, ebooks.

The closest comparable business to Amazon is not Google or Apple or even Barnes and Noble -- it is Walmart.

Like Walmart, their business ethics are questionable, they treat their employees poorly, and they have built their business on offering products as cheaply as possible while either buying up the competition or putting it out of business.  For Amazon and Jeff Bezos, it is all about the money, nothing else.

1  http://tuckermaxdoucebag.blogspot.com/2006/04/amazoncom-is-deleting-only-bad-reviews.html and http://www.bucksright.com/amazon-deleting-negative-pelosi-book-reviews-en-masse-304

2  http://www.amazon.com/is-Amazon-removing-negative-reviews/forum/FxUR1GPOALTEHL/Tx1CUHJGFNLAR61/1?asin=0071459588

3 http://jezebel.com/5209088/why-is-amazon-removing-the-sales-rankings-from-gay-lesbian-books

4 http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-17/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat

5 http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2009/03/the_new_scrooge.html

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