Books, Bountiful Ethics, Brave Buyers

Beating Amazon One Disenfranchised Customer at a Time

When I applied for work in Amazon’s Breinigsville, Pa. fulfillment center back in August, 2010, I did not know that they sold anything other than books. I relied almost exclusively (for a few years as a student) on Amazon to stock my bulging book shelf as I knew nothing of their monopolistic ambitions, brutal labor practices, tax dodging, or ALEC affiliation. Yes, I was naive.

I check in with Dissident Voice daily, and I previously posted articles on the DV site that detail the labor abuses I personally experienced as an “Amazonian order picker.” I felt somewhat foolish after I clicked on the titles DV recommends because I was sent directly to Amazon.com. Basically, I protested Amazon on the DV site in my interview and essay, but lo and behold, just to the left of my articles, DV readers are being encouraged to patronize the subject of my discontent.

This is not uncommon – to have the auto-default button swing over to Amazon.com. Progressives do it … so do revolutionaries. Yet, I believe it should stop. Alternatives exist.

I immediately researched alternatives to purchasing the recommended books through Amazon and this is what I found:

Betterworldbooks.com offers free standard shipping worldwide with no minimum purchase required. They claim to be “The Online Bookstore with a Soul” and, well, I was pleased to read this because my previous bookseller, and former employer, doesn’t have a soul. According to Better World’s site:

Better World Books uses the power of business to change the world. We collect and sell books online to donate books and fund literacy initiatives worldwide. With more than 8 million new and used titles in stock, we’re a self-sustaining, triple bottom-line company that creates social, economic and environmental value for all our stakeholders.

Powells.com offers free shipping on orders $50 or more via Economy Mail and $3.99 Flat-Rate Economy Mail shipping. Powell’s is a union store around for 35-plus years and its workers are represented by ILWU Local 5. Amazon summarily squashed all unionization attempts and it regularly holds anti-union “all-hands” meetings to intimidate employees.

Call it Amazon with a soul. Based in Portland, Oregon, Powell’s offers as sizable a selection as its online and mega-store competitors, and its blogs keep you better informed about literary options than any ‘personalized’ recommendations list.” Details.com

Alibris.com offers free Super Value Shipping on eligible items with a $49 minimum order. Alibris is everything I imagined Amazon to be back when I purchased books from Amazon in good faith.

Your independent marketplace since 1998. More than a decade of helping people find hard-to-find books, music and movies Since launching in November 1998, we’ve grown to become the Internet’s largest independently owned and operated marketplace. That’s more than ten years of doing the following:
• Supporting thousands of independent sellers
• Providing you with our sellers’ great prices and unbeatable selection
• Giving you the peace of mind of our proven track record of satisfying customers just like you

Amazon.com is the only publicly-traded corporation among the above-listed booksellers and it would be wise for anyone who supports the Occupy movement to keep this in mind when they choose to do business with the beast. Last year, $38 billion in gross sales. Jeff Bezos literally wants to own retail. He has said books and book selling are broken dinosaurs of the past.

Check out the options that can get the reader and book-buying customer away from the monopoly that wants the 60-hour work week for its employees and whose boss, Bezos, immediately buckled under the insipid weight of Joe Lieberman who ordered Amazon to stop hosting Wiki-leaks.

Chomsky, Occupy
Amazon: $9.95 new; 18 new from $5.60; 6 used from $5.67
Better World Books: Other sellers available from $10.54
Powell’s: $9.95 new
Alibris: Starting at $5.91 new

Engdahl, A Century of War
Amazon: $18.00 new; 17 new from $16.49; 8 used from $16.73
Better World Books: Other sellers available from $21.54
Powell’s: $25.00 new
Alibris: From $17.41 used and new

Heinberg, The End of Growth
Amazon: $11.32 new; 47 new from $10.11; 25 used from $7.00
Better World Books: $18.00 new; other sellers available from $12.78
Powell’s: $12.50 used
Alibris: Used from $7.32; new from $12.44

Frank, Pity the Billionaire
Amazon: $13.89 new; 53 new from $10.57; 18 used from $10.90
Better World Books: $23.39 new; other sellers available from $10.53
Powell’s: $17.50 used hardcover
Alibris: Used from $14.50; new from $15.76

Khan, Imran, Pakistan: A Personal History
Amazon: 4 new from $76.74; 7 used from $57.21
Better World Books: $28.44 new
Powell’s: $25.47 new
Alibris: $24.10 new

Atzmon, The Wandering Who
Amazon: $9.75 new; 39 new from $8.71; 18 used from $5.82
Better World Books: $13.70 new; $11.20 used
Powell’s: $14.95 new
Alibris: New from $9.67

Reilly, John, Bad Medicine
Amazon: $17.21 new; 29 new from $9.87; 19 used from $9.87
Better World Books: $20.42 new; $13.92 used
Powell’s: $22.95 new
Alibris: New and used from $9.87

Wilcox, Scorched Earth
Amazon: $16.29 new; 36 new from $13.89; 19 used from $12.99
Better World Books: $22.58 new; $22.58 used
Powell’s: $16.50 used hardcover
Alibris: Used from $12.99; new from $14.97

Cronin, Europe’s Alliance with Israel
Amazon: $25.91 new; 34 new from $18.05
Better World Books: $30.43 new
Powell’s: $40.25 new
Alibris: From $18.06 new

Rosenberg, Born with a Junk Food Deficiency
Amazon: $16.15 new; 37 new from $11.99; 12 used from $11.70
Better World Books: $15.95 new; $12.90 used
Powell’s: $24.00 new
Alibris: Used from $8.95; new from $12.00

Alibris is clearly Amazon’s #1 price competitor. Better World Books’ free shipping policy is superb and its site currently boasts that 6,220,770 books have been donated, $12,132,358.39 in funds have been raised for libraries and literacy initiatives worldwide, and 84,479,478 books have been reused or recycled.

Powell’s website offers an unparalleled literary experience and it has a wonderful Salon feel. They’re all good company and each offers a unique experience. Bezos is The King of Cheap although I’ve come to expect so much more from booksellers after researching the alternatives. Imran Khan’s Pakistan: A Personal History is an anomaly and, at the time of research, Amazon’s lowest-offered price was more than twice its competitors. Forget about UK-based bookdepository.com; Amazon reached an agreement in July 2011 to acquire it.

The Amazombies (Amazon’s fulfillment center associates who have completely submitted to and enforce corporate ethos) liked to tell the lowly temps and Amazon laborers that we’d be “promoted to customer” if we didn’t like their policies. They chuckled every time they repeated the phrase and I didn’t think it was cute. They arrogantly believed that we’d forever be chained to the place in some capacity.

As one of the few employers in the area that was hiring en masse, they were overly-confident that their flagrant abuses would go unnoticed, and Amazon clearly regards its laborers as nothing more than a worthless herd of dumb, inarticulate animals. I voluntarily terminated employment with Amazon.com and I’m currently enjoying a lifestyle promotion:

Food tastes better, beauty abounds, and I’m connecting with the world in a way that I could not while I worked there.

Am I an Amazon customer anymore? No!!! I’ve found plenty of alternatives and I will do my best to ensure that Amazon will never become the only available choice.

If my humble presentation hasn’t convinced you that Amazon is to books what Monsanto is to food, please see Bus Boys and Poets Bookstore’s “What’s Wrong With Amazon.”

As a an example of getting books in a quasi-direct fashion, sort of a more direct alternative to this middle-man/middle-woman approach, check out Stan Cox’s works.

So, Cox has this new climate change-American culture book, Losing Our Cool, and he has these real reviews of the book, not some bizarre collection of Amazon.com ratings and rants and pre-literate mumble-jumbo:

“One of the “10 must-read environmental books of 2010 to read in 2011″
Mother Nature Network

“This is an important book”
– David Owen of the New Yorker

“In this enlightening study … Cox documents how greenhouse emissions increased and ozone depletion skyrocketed once air conditioners became prevalent, and presents staggering statistics … Cox reveals some surprising information as he explores air conditioning as a potential spreader of contagions … He offers a reality check to proposed solutions that have fatal flaws (and may be worse than the problems they attempt to solve) including “dematerialization,” improved AC energy efficiency, and clean energy options. In addition, he provides a list of changes that will help … Well-written, thoroughly researched, with a truly global focus, the book offers much for consumers, environmentalists, and policy makers to consider before powering up to cool down.” — Publishers’ Weekly

When you hit the “order” button, Stan’s site directs you to, guess where? Powells Books, AKA, www.powells.com.

History from Portland’s Powell’s web site:

From humble storefront beginnings in 1971 on a derelict corner of northwest Portland, Oregon, Powell’s Books has grown into one of the world’s great bookstores, with five locations in the Portland metropolitan area, and one of the book world’s most successful dot-coms (www.powells.com), serving customers worldwide.

Powell’s roots began in Chicago, where Michael Powell, as a University of Chicago graduate student, opened his first bookstore in 1970. Encouraged by friends and professors, including novelist Saul Bellow, Michael borrowed $3,000 to assume a lease on a bookstore. The venture proved so successful that he managed to repay the loan within two months.

But, alas, as evidenced in this Poets & Writer’s interview of Michael Powell, Amazon.com taints everything, and the truth is booksellers like Powell, no matter how grassroots and tied to the urban planning present and future of Portland, want to sell, sell, sell:

You don’t have to worry about messing up someone’s living room.
No. And the used books look more comfortable in that environment, because they look a little shabbier when they’re too exposed. So, that’s where we are. In 1994 we went on the Internet with the only inventory we had in the database at that point, which was the technical bookstore. I’d only been up for about a month when I got a letter from England from someone saying, “I was looking for this technical book, and I was told in England it would take six weeks to deliver and would cost me the equivalent of a hundred dollars. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just check out the Internet and see.’ You had the book for forty-five dollars and you could get it to me in three days.”

When I read this, I thought, “Holy hell! Here’s an opportunity.” So we got all our books into a database. We had what we called “the river” and “the lake”—there were all the new books coming every day that had to get entered, but we also had to back enter everything that was currently on the shelves. So it took a year.

Is that lake dried up now?
The lake is now part of the river. And we built up the Internet business to where it was about a fourth of our sales. So we were an early adopter for selling books online. Amazon came along, of course, and blew right past us. But we sell a lot of books via Amazon, and we sell books via eBay and Alibris and AbeBooks in addition to on our own site. We also carry inventories from England and Germany—our books are drop shipped to the customer. We do what we can.

I imagine that most people think of you as being in direct competition with Amazon. But, in fact, you’re actually doing a lot of partnership with Amazon?

Well, I don’t know. We are in competition at one level, certainly. I’m sure some of our business has turned over to Amazon. But I’m not foolish about it. If there’s an opportunity to sell books, I’m going to sell them. Amazon is my opportunity. And we sell some newbooks there, but mostly used.

So you ship to Amazon and then they repackage and ship them?
No, we package and ship. We can ship in our boxes with our materials inside. So we can brand that shipment. They’re good with that. And if somebody just orders a new book from us, we’ll usually have a wholesaler fill that order. Ingram or Baker & Taylor drop ship for us in our boxes, so it cuts out shipping to us. That works well. We do the same thing with Gardner Books in England and Lieber in Germany, both wholesalers. And it works. Some of it is hard. It’s not easy—a lot of infrastructure crossed with the Internet.

What are some of its particular challenges?
I think everybody, me included, thought the Internet was going to be this miracle way of making money, because for not very much money you could make all these books available around the whole world. Well, people didn’t count on all the software writers you need to keep your Web site hot and current, or the editorial work that has to go into maintaining a Web site both in terms of the tracking game and also making it sticky for people to visit and to find value there so that they’ll shop with us. Because we don’t discount the books, you know. It’s a small number—twenty, thirty books—otherwise it’s retail. You would think we’d have no business, that people are nuts for ordering books from us.

So, yes, there are better alternatives than Amazon.com.

I started ordering books through Amazon as a master degree student, around 2007, and I experimented with Prime for a year, while I was working there Peak 2010. I justified the few purchases I made through Amazon because I deserved some sort of reward for being exploited. I stopped shopping Amazon completely after I signed the American Rights at Work pledge to boycott Amazon. And I don’t plan to purchase anything from them ever again.

Finally, remember that your local public and college and high school libraries should be getting as many requests for new acquisitions – the old rule, “use it or lose it” is hitting the public sector quickly and perniciously. Libraries lose money and lose support from corrupt politicians and school board preeners if those books and magazines do not get checked out.

Circulate books. Never circulate your hard-earned low wages with Amazon.com.

Addendum

Nichole’s submission preempted part of an interview that I had initiated with Paul Haeder. On 28 May, I submitted these two of five questions to Paul that I’ve instead asked Nichole to respond to:

Kim Petersen: You have written a few articles about sweatshop conditions at billionaire owner Jeff Bezo’s Amazon recently. Could you comment on the contradiction of a book seller supporting the censorship of information, as Amazon implicitly does in its actions against Wikileaks.

Nichole Gracely: Amazon pulled the plug on Wikileaks in December 2010 and I remember it well. I started working at Amazon in August 2010, and by December we were working 55-hour weeks, management was out of control, and everything about the place was aggravating beyond belief. I don’t know how I managed to find time to read that Amazon pulled Wikileaks, somehow I did, and I was digusted, to put it mildly. It was my first introduction to corporate Amazon’s politics. I remember that Senator Joe Lieberman phoned the request, Amazon instantly complied and abruptly canceled Wikileaks’ service. I was at work the next day and operations went down for a short period of time. I had a radical friend who worked there and we would talk politics and share whatever exciting titles we handled. Management sent us to lunch early while they tried to restore operations and my friend and I were incredibly excited because we thought that Anonymous may have targeted Amazon’s server and shut the place down. The fulfillment center was up and running by the time we returned from lunch and it was just a minor glitch or something. Amazon is clearly willing to suppress free speech and the dissemination of inconvenient truths. The way they handled Wikileaks should alarm all writers and consumers of vital, often-marginalized work, especially because Amazon is clearly trying to become our only choice for just about everything, and I imagine that radicals and intellectuals will not be tolerated and served after Amazon manages to destroy all competition.

KP: Many social justice oriented websites, including DV, advertise the books of contributing writers. (And you have already answered this more or less) Is there a way around this? Would consumers support a social justice online bookseller — even if the book prices were higher to fairly compensate authors?

NG: We have more power than we know, as writers and consumers. Amazon is still only one of many (dwindling) choices and, together, we could at least temper Amazon’s imperial ambitions and seek out viable alternatives. Alibris’ prices are competitive, and if cost is an issue I would direct readers there. Better World Books is preferable in other ways. I can’t always rely upon serendipitous discoveries at local bookstores so I must shop for books online. I’m worried about the publishing industry as a whole. I’m willing to pay a little more and wait a little longer if it means that I’m supporting a sustainable operation and the long-term health of the publishing and bookselling industries.

Amazon has changed its customers’ psychology and that worries me most. Consumers have been spoiled and very few are willing to pay a fair price for anything anymore. Authors are really no different than Amazon’s wage slaves because as producers and creators they are just another link in the global supply chain and Amazon, following Wal Mart’s lead, relies heavily upon cheap labor as they drive everything down. We’ve got to organize, that’s my proposal.

Nichole Gracely is a former wage slave at Amazon. She can be reached at: monkeywrenchgirl@gmail.com. Read other articles by Nichole.