Wake Up, Book World: Obama’s Amazon Visit Isn’t Just Bad for Publishers and Bookstores


Today in Chattanooga, TN, President Obama will visit a two-year-old Amazon fulfillment center to outline his “better bargain for the middle class.” He will use the company that hosted him as an example of how our country might start working again, no doubt mentioning the 5000 new jobs that Amazon will be adding to demonstrate how the economy is supposedly on the upswing in the USA. This has caused a few friends of mine who work in various corners of the publishing industry, from editors at big publishing houses to indie booksellers, to voice their unease about the president palling around with a company that the publishing world considers the real-life equivalent of Star Wars‘ Galactic Empire. Even though there’s nothing more American than the go-getter capitalist spirit that promotes competition in order to give the American public what they want at a price they can afford, Amazon routinely engages in behavior that book people see as bad business, and bad for business. Check out the most recent round of prices slashed almost literally in half, on some of the biggest bestsellers of the last year.

Even if you don’t pay attention to publishing news, it’s difficult to escape the talk of why Amazon is poison for the publishing world. Amazon inspired the much-talked-about Department of Justice lawsuit brought against Apple and the “Big Six” publishing houses (which Laura Miller did a fine job of breaking down at Salon earlier this month), a major sign that this is an ugly war that can only get worse.

As the 21st-century soapbox, Twitter has become the go-to destination for most literary folks to voice their displeasure with Amazon. In under 140 characters, scores of people who make their living off of books have expressed opinions about Amazon, and the feedback is rarely positive.

One of Amazon’s most vocal critic from the literary world might be the indie publisher Melville House. The Brooklyn-based publishing house (with books for sale on Amazon) has used its blog time and time again to call out or poke fun at what they see as the bad business practices of the Seattle-based company. And even though these criticisms are usually aimed at Amazon’s book-related practices, yesterday Melville House summed up exactly what is wrong about the president using an Amazon fulfillment center to deliver a speech on how America will get the middle class kicking again:

The book industry has long criticized Amazon for a number of obvious reasons, but more often than not, the complaints highlight how Amazon impacts the publishing world. Though I’m a little fuzzy as to why Melville House is so willing to take shots at Amazon while still selling its own books through the site, I admire the publisher’s willingness to address a much larger problem. It is certainly more productive than asking a silly question like the one that headlines this Publishers Weekly post: “Does President Obama Hate Indie Bookstores?

The answer is an obvious “no.” Even though the article never really addresses the question posed by the title, I doubt the president would stop by One More Page in Arlington, VA. to promote Better Business Day if he “hated” indie bookstores, and I doubt Michelle Obama would stop by iconic DC indie Politics & Prose if there were some conspiracy being hatched in the White House to destroy indie bookstores.

If you are looking for a literary angle with which to frame this controversy, there is the fact that these “retail-warehouse hybrid jobs” Hamilton Nolan describes so eloquently is in his recent Gawker piece resemble the cold and mindless work you’d imagine assigned to a character from George Orwell’s 1984:

The job is to scan a cubby, count the shit in the cubby, enter the number into your scanner and repeat this shit for 10 hours. If your count comes up wrong you have to empty the cubby and recount. You are supposed to count 125 cubbies an hour. My second day I did 285 and coulda broke 300 but my battery went out. Ever since than I slack the fuck off and stay around 150 or so. I still have time to look at any book or movie that looks interesting, get plenty of water breaks, stretch, etc. Its not a hard job just monotonous and boring as fuck. The crazy part is the number of people there who can’t get 125 counted in an hour. That’s like counting one box every 30 seconds.”

A job is a job, and in this economy, the $11 an hour Amazon workers make does beat the average hourly rate of $8.81 per hour made by most Walmart employees. But is Amazon really the best example we have to show the world that the American economy is evolving? President Obama’s visit to an Amazon fulfillment center has less to do with books than it does with the president telling Americans that this is what private-sector success looks like in 2013. If you want to make it in America, you have to be prepared to do it in a warehouse with a scanner in your hand and a smile on your face.