Amazonfail & The Cost of Freedom

by Patrick on April 13, 2009

By now, you’ve probably heard all you care to hear about Amazon’s incredibly stupid decision to “de-list” books with adult content (and especially books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender themes and subject matter).  You’ve read the excellent blog posts, the well-written letters to Jeff Bezos, followed along on Twitter and the retorts by independent booksellers.  You’re probably about ready to turn the page on that whole mess and continue with your life.

Don’t.

This is more important than that, and now is the perfect time to think about whether you want to trust one company to dominate the book market, or any market, for that matter.  The benefit of having  a rich, diverse ecosystem of vendors and suppliers has never been more obvious:  many sources of information equals choice, and choice equals freedom.  It’s actually your freedom that’s at stake here, and putting things back the way they were, fixing the notorious “glitch,” won’t change that.  Because your freedom was at stake long before this recent de-listing experiment. Anytime you limit yourself to fewer suppliers, especially of something as vital as information (and if you purchase a Kindle, you’re effectively doing just that, limiting yourself to a single information provider), you’re putting yourself at the mercy of that provider.

And what kind of a provider is Amazon, anyway?  They’re not the most transparent of companies.  In fact, they’re among the least transparentThey give jack to charity, they don’t pay state sales tax despite doing much business in every state, and they aim to be nothing less than the sole provider of media on the planet.

Do you want that much power in the hands of one company?  Even those among you who believe in the benevolent dictator model must be worried about this.  Think for a second about what Amazon did here.  In the world of ecommerce, the search is king.  Almost everybody who shops online visits a site to find a specific product.  By intentionally obscuring and manipulating the search results of your site, you are making a clear statement:  We don’t want you to read these books.  I can tell you from experience that if something is difficult to find through a search, it will not sell.  Not only was this a suspicious action on Amazon’s part, it had the potential to be very “successful” (ie, it would’ve greatly decreased the sales of those titles).

I know you think I’m overreacting.  You say, “So what?  They’ll list the books again, and surely they won’t be stupid enough to try something like this again.  After all, we caught them, didn’t we?”  True…this time.  My point still stands.  Concentration of power is a dangerous thing.  “But what if it was a hacker?”  I think the point still stands.  This is the proverbial putting of eggs in too few baskets.  I think independent publisher sales rep John Mesjak put it best when he tweeted this statement:I haven’t read all of #amazonfail, so I am likely repeating, but my takeaway: this S#!T happens with monoculture gatekeepers. Go IndieBound!”

It’s worth noting that Mesjak uses the word “monoculture” here, a word derived from agriculture.  It’s taken us some thirty years (since the passage of  Earl Butz’s “Get Big or Get Out” Farm Bill in the 1970s) to realize that having a few corporations control our food supply was a really bad idea.  What have we seen as a response to this?  A rise in small, local farms, increased urban farming efforts, and a locavore movement that allows people to opt out of a corporate food culture that is destroying our bodies, our country and our planet with alarming speed.  The small, local farm, something that was all but extinct ten years ago, is beginning to make a comeback, as communities realize the value of growing their own food.  As we see small, independent, locally-minded bookstores closing every day, ask yourself whether you want a future where certain books are unavailable to you because of corporate fiat or whether you want the freedom to choose.  It might cost you a dollar or two more, but isn’t it worth it?