Is “hating Amazon” a good option? A new round in the controvery in Germany, and a reply.
“If I hate a company, it is Amazon”, was the cry of battle that Sibylle Lewitscharoff, winner of the prestigeous Büchner Prize in 2013, offered to her cheering audience at the opening of this year’s Buch Wien fair. As her address was published in Germany, in the daily Die Welt, an avalanche of 1500 posts on Facebook, a couple of hundred reader commentaries and many many tweets followed. However, the response was mixed between approval for the anti Amazon emotions, and more critical comments.
The debate coincided with an interview that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos had given to the CBS “60 minutes” news show, and yes, this was the talk with the book drones. But more interesting to me at least was a short, yet pretty sharp comment of Bezos with regard to the book trade, as he said:
“The Internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie, you know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. And Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling.“
I thought that these two quotes, from lewitscharoff and from bezos, are the perfect starting point for reviewing the heated controversy on Amazon that is raging across Europe, and notably its well intentioned reading and book selling communities. So I wrote my take on that debate for “Die Welt
“. (You should be able to get the principle thoughts via Google Translate)
In short, I opened with Bezos’ critique, arguing that books and reading, with a market value of € 9 bn in Germany alone, more than music, games or even movies, has turned into a massive cultural industry, second only to TV. And that cultural industry, with its millions and millions of readers, has expanded far beyond the level of 18th century “Salons” and their spirit of exclusivity. Today, looking at books and reading means to think of India or China, with a globalizing middle class of most diverse communities.
Amazon must be blamed, obviously, for shabby working conditions in its fulfillment centers, and for complex tax schemes, avoiding to paying taxes where the profits are made. But again, we must add that the member countries of the European Union simply fail to agree on fixing such loopholes, as they do in their endless disputes about VAT and reduced taxing schemes for cultural goods, books, ebooks, whatever. In Germany, for long the strongest book market for translations, the number of newly translated works came down in the past decade, not the least echoing an endless (national) quarrel on a fair compensation for translators. The book chains, yesterday’s agents of evil in bookish Europe, today stand up dressing as victims from Amazon’s onslaught. Etc., etc.
From a more neutral standpoint, Amazon is a threat to the status quo of this industry, certainly. But most of all, Amazon is the answer to some really pressing and tough questions (which we people of European culture rather tend to avoid):
How can we re-invent books and reading, to the standards and requirements of the 21st century? And this means digital, and this means global, too. Amazon has come up with one answer to that, and a successful one. If we don’t like it, we should better start thinking of our own response, and how it can be even stronger than that of Amazon.
Or as Jeff Bezos hinted rightly: “Complaining is not a strategy.”