Articles aiming at Amazon

Articles aiming at Amazon

Amazon isn’t perfect.

Some of you may be surprised to hear me say that.

After all, this blog is called, “I Love My Kindle”.

I’ll admit to thinking that my customer experience with Amazon is probably the best I’ve ever had with any company.

However, everyone can always improve.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have always liked Yul Brynner’s response to the question of what the actor would like as an epitaph (“on your tombstone”). I’m going from memory, but this may be close:

“I would like it to say ‘I have arrived’…because when you believe you’ve arrived, you’re dead.”

Anyone who doesn’t want to hear respectful criticism is driving a car high-speed without a windshield…and headed for a crash.

I don’t think Amazon is so close-minded that they don’t think that they can improve…and that they don’t believe that listening to other people can be helpful.


I also believe that there is a tendency for people to want to attack people and organizations that are succeeding.

Part of that, I think, is to make it easier to believe that no one can succeed while being good.

If you believe they can, you have to ask why you aren’t as successful.

After all, it’s easier to believe that only the evil succeed…because it justifies the level to which you’ve risen (presumably without being what you perceive as evil).

There are two articles which recently have criticized Amazon which you might find interesting. I would recommend you read them, and evaluate them yourself. You might think that what they say is true. If you do, then you’ll have to consider for yourself what the proper response should be.

This first one has gotten a lot of buzz, and I was alerted to it by readers (thanks, readers!). It appeared on February 17th in the New Yorker:

article by George Packer

It’s a lengthy piece…over 10,000 words.

It talks about how bad Amazon is for books.

It also assigns a pretty Machiavellian motive:

“Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet. (Amazon says that its original business plan “contemplated only books.”)”

Now, I know Jeff Bezos is seen as forward-looking, but I have to admit…that seems a bit far-fetched.

Amazon only sold books because the sales were good for datamining?

That seems…rather ahead of the game for the mid-1990s.

It also suggests that only “affluent, educated” people would buy books (otherwise, based on this, you would have an increased noise to signal ratio in your data), and yet, the prices would be reduced?

I’d have to see the data, but if this is the plan, it doesn’t seem to me like it would work very well (and whatever Amazon has does, if you look at in terms of sales and not profits, it has worked very well).

It reads to me sort of like this:

“Rich people buy diamonds. We want to know where the rich people are, so we’ll sell diamonds. However, rich people don’t buy very many diamonds, which won’t give us enough information…so we’ll price our diamonds like they are rhinestones.”

You see the problem?

You could attract rich people (who would presumably be better customers for other goods) with a superior shopping experience and service…you wouldn’t decrease the price to get more data.

I genuinely believe that Amazon, as an entity, liked books from the beginning…even though they may have liked sales equally as  much.

I still believe that Amazon has been good for books.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve been good for the book industry, the way it existed before 1994.

Those are two different things, though.

More people can get more books more easily because of Amazon…tens of thousands of them for free.

Crucially, more people can publish books, creating a more diverse literature.

However, that’s only one small part of the article. There are a lot of specific allegations in it. I have to read it myself yet, thoroughly, but I think many of you will want to do that (perhaps on your Kindles…).

The question of the impact Amazon has on books is one that we can certainly debate. I think it may be decades before we really know. That’s how it is with a transformation: will what results be a butterfly or a werewolf…or a bit of both? Um…a butterwolf? 😉

You my find this other article more disturbing:

Salon article by Simon Head

It’s not about how Amazon treats books…it’s about how Amazon treats its employees.

The title and subtitle make the position clear:

“Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers
You might find your Prime membership morally indefensible after reading these stories about worker mistreatment”

This is not a hypothetical assessment: it contains reports of specific allegations.

I do recommend that you read it, although it may be hard on your emotions.

Essentially, it suggests that Amazon abuses its workers, in part because of its customer focus.

I’ve mentioned concerns about fulfillment center workers before, and I do think that might be part of why Amazon bought Kiva, a robotics company, some time back.

While the article focuses on Amazon, and on how computerized monitoring and analysis can lead to harsher conditions for human workers, it is actually an excerpt from a book that deals with the topic more widely:

Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

I do want to point out something I found…interesting.

At the bottom of the article is a link to the book. Where does it take you? To the Kindle store, with what appears to be an affiliate link (I’ve used a different link above).

In other words, it appears to me that Salon posted an article, wrote a headline for it suggesting it was “morally indefensible” to give Amazon money…then linked to a place where you could give Amazon money…and they would benefit from it if you did.


What do you think? Has Amazon been good or bad for books? Do we know yet? As books become increasingly democratized, is that a positive or a negative? Is increasing the number of “poorer” quality books available a risk to quality literature? How about Amazon’s workers? If these allegations are true, would you stop shopping with Amazon? What if Amazon was working to change its practices? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

Nominate a child to be given a free Kindle at Give a Kid a Kindle.

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

5 Responses to “Articles aiming at Amazon”

  1. Common Sense Says:

    I could write a lengthy reply, but here’s a summary:

    Amazon is in business to sell stuff. They are very good at it, because they are forward thinking and because they listen to the customer better than any other company I’ve done business with.

    As for warehouse workers, Amazon does not employ slaves. If a worker doesn’t like the work conditions or pay, said worker is free to quit and find a different job. If conditions at Amazon were really as bad as they say, they would have trouble retaining employees and would have to change those conditions (same goes for Walmart). Clearly there are thousands of people who think working for Amazon is better than elsewhere or no job at all.

    When you have few skills or little education, your employment opportunities are limited. As you rise up that ladder, things generally get better. You’re more likely to work behind a desk instead of manual labor (it’s not as great as you may think, sitting in from of a computer for 8 hours or more a day!), you may get better pay and benefits, and you may have a flexible schedule. If you want those things, gain the skills and education necessary to get them. Don’t whine about the company willing to hire you without those skills.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Common!

      Well, there are quite a few laws and regulations that are counter to what you are suggesting.

      Let’s say that a company asks a carpenter to remove the safety guard from a saw to be able to use it more quickly. My Significant Other is in insurance claims and believe me, that happens. Sure, the employee could quit (quitting means no unemployment compensation, of course), but the law would be on the side of the employee.

      Would employees take those jobs, despite the danger? Sure…happens all the time, and they sometimes lose body parts as a result.

      There are allegations here that certainly seem to me like they would (if true) be violations of safe working conditions…that’s part of what makes me question the accuracy of the reports.

      I’d say that you can generally find workers to do any job, no matter how bad it is…provided that it is a job with few enough prerequisites. Perhaps I’m more likely to think that’s true because I’m in California, where there is a considerable “shadow” labor force which wants to work, but finds barriers to getting work in many places. They take jobs that many people would reject.

  2. capnlouie Says:

    ‘ve been a subscriber to the New Yorker since the 1960’s and am quite familiar with Mr. Packer’s writing….or should I say criticism? I read the article yesterday and had my usual response: most of his stuff is one sided, liberal, hype, he rarely quotes anyone not in favor of his direction, he’s not the least bit objective. However, you can say the same for the magazine and its degradation of the corporate world. I will not mention their politics.
    There are several writers, other than Mr. Packer who follow this direction.
    However on the whole, the magazine is usually a very interesting read; short fiction today, however not same as yore. Thanks for today’s blog. It was interesting.
    louis deegan

  3. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I generally agree with everything you said here — I particularly agree with @CommonSense’s comment.

    I would go a little bit further than you and say that success doesn’t matter so much (by some financial metrics Amazon isn’t particularly successful) it’s bigness. If you are big, then you are evil, and you must have done something morally wrong (forget legally) to get there.

    On books: I would get very specific in Amazon’s world they are good for customers of books, AND the authors that write them. Customers get lower prices, and authors get higher royalty percentages — it’s a win win. Of course there are some big losers who are “damaged” by Amazon’s “evil” behavior: publishers, agents, editors, printers, bookstores to name just a few.

    Amazon is a disrupter — they are using technology to innovate, and as has happened often in the past those disruptions have consequences, and the old guard screams “foul” — tough — adapt or die. 😀

    Other disrupters much in the news lately are Uber (taxis), and AirBnB (short term accommodations). In both these latter cases some state attorneys general are investigating/harassing the disrupter at the instigation of the more traditional industries: taxis, Hotels, etc.

    One of the misconceptions that many have is that if you are a monopoly, you can’t be aggressive/unfair to your competitors. That may be true in Europe, but in the US the behavior has to be shown to harm consumers — you can be as nasty as you want as long as customers are not harmed. Customer harm would be an almost impossible barrier vis a vis Amazon in the US. All of the legal actions v Amazon are taking place in Europe.

    In retail businesses there are many stakeholders: workers, customers, investors. Some give prominence to the investor; some to the customer; few in the US put worker concerns at the head of their priority lists. Two companies that favor the customer are Amazon and Target. I did some consulting for Target. I can tell you it is a very hard place to work. Everything you do is measured and graded on how well you do in making the customer’s shopping experience enjoyable.

    In retail execution is everything, and the customer comes first.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Excellent insights! You may also have inspired me to write something…I’ll mention you if I do it.

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