14 December 2011

#OccupyAmazon round 2: Cheap books are great, but someone's paying the difference

Brick-and-mortar. Photo by ImaginaryGirl.
Bouncing off the same NY Times op-ed that I did yesterday, Slate's Farhad Manjoo says, screw indy booksellers. They're not cheap or efficient enough. Here's the core of his price argument:

A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

And here's efficiency:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Manjoo also makes the point that indie bookstores aren't really selling local products—their bread and butter is sales of the same nationally distributed books that fill up Amazon's top sellers list. And since Amazon offers those books at a better price point, they're available to more people who want them, and that's all you need to sustain a literary culture, right?

Well, maybe. If you don't mind that some portion of that discount comes at a cost to actual human beings. Cue Vanessa Veselka's account of trying to unionize an Amazon "distribution center" over at The Atlantic.

He was the one who told me Bezos was going to close the Seattle warehouse. It was too expensive to run. Huge fulfillment centers were springing up around the country. In Nevada, they were getting $5.15 an hour and people had to work 12-hour shifts, five days a week. Mandated overtime pay didn't start until after 40 hours of a workweek. So when production lulled people were sent home or told not to come in the following day to shave costs. These were the new models. This was the future.

Shaving overtime by sending people home mid-shift, or giving them "the next few days off," was the practice in Seattle too, but in Nevada there was no velvet glove, no nod to personal identity. Workers there were herded through long security lines and body searched on their way in and out before they could clock in. The ventilation was terrible and they got fired for the slightest complaint-at least these were the reports.

That was years ago. Much more recently, Amazon management made the news for working its warehouse staff to heat exhaustion rather than open some doors to let in a breeze.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn't quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an "unsafe environment" after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor's report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

Cheap books are great, but someone has to pay for the difference. Manjoo's taking the side of the robots on this one: sure, you could pay a couple extra bucks so a bookstore clerk with interesting suggestions for your next purchase can feed her family, or you could let an algorithm find you more like what you've already read, and let that clerk break her back in a warehouse for a barely-living wage. ◼

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