January 14, 2013

Why I don’t shut up about Amazon


Wait, you mean not everyone loves big brother Bezos?

We write a lot about Amazon on this blog. We, collectively, work hard to keep news of that grinning retail behemoth, that gyre of shit and discount tennis socks, before your eyes. I, personally, write small posts about Amazon or Jeff Bezos about once a week. It sometimes feels like we are carping on about the same thing, whinging to ourselves over and over again, that all interested parties already know about the problems with Amazon, that they know and either care or don’t and will not be swayed. People write in to tell us it is enough, to tell us they are bored with our Amazon fixation.

The thing is, I am bored with it, too. It is boring when, given two choices, one of them selfish, or shitty, or cruel, or just damaging to the literary ecosystem, and one choice maybe not as much of any of those things, I can always predict which choice Amazon and Bezos will make. It is boring and it makes me want to post, instead, more, I don’t know, GIFs of cats with Twain-esque mustaches or something. (I don’t mean to be disparaging. Keep sending me photos of little Samuel Claw-mens, please. Love him.)

With all of that in mind, a post on The Hairpin this weekend was instructive and infuriating and gratifying in turn. Edith Zimmerman, the site’s editor, and Nicole Cliffe, the lead book blogger, posted a short dialogue about their use of the Amazon affiliate program. They wrote partly in response to a post by Emily Gould, which was itself a response to a post by our own Dennis Johnson last Monday.

The Hairpin is remarkable. There’s no “but” following that sentiment. I like the site.

A large part of what I appreciate about The Hairpin is a blog-wide stance at direct odds with much of the internet: honest inquiry. The default mode of The Hairpin, even in posts featuring personal reporting, is something like “I don’t know, let’s find out, maybe somebody in the comments has the answer.” Imagine how congenial, not to mention realistic, the rest of the internet would be if bloggers started from a position of uncertainty? The danger of that stance is obvious: it can sometimes work in reverse to shield a facade of know-nothingness and an ethos of contrarianism. The post about Amazon had a bit of both, but their willingness to even have the conversation is an example of why I and others read them.

In their post, Zimmerman and Cliffe looked at Gould’s call for sites to examine their Amazon affiliate policies. Interestingly, The Hairpin makes a fair amount from their own enrollment in the program, ranging from a few hundred to thousands a month. Much of that money was made not off of book purchases, but on other things their readers bought after having navigated to Amazon through their site. They asked the reasonable question: why should we stop linking to Amazon when it is this lucrative for us?

I would like very much to answer that question at extreme and shouty length. But the joy of The Hairpin is that it was answered, in the comments, by some fairly knowledgeable folks. Their answers weren’t always as strident as mine would have been, but they were enough. One even linked to our site calling us, accurately, “avowed Amazon haters.” They pointed Zimmerman and Cliffe to the Powell’s and Indiebound affiliate program, for instance, which in many ways are a better deal for vendors than Amazon’s, and a world better for independent publishers and booksellers. Yes, the comments about Amazon labor practices were interleaved with the usual arguments about convenience. But that is the nature of an online discussion. And that is why we keep doing this.

Zimmerman and Cliffe are smart, funny writers. That they didn’t have ready or entirely accurate answers as to why one might disavow Amazon is surprising. That they would write about it as they did is wonderful, gratifying, and yes infuriating. It is also why we do what we do, the constant harping about exactly how Amazon is working to screw you on any given day. If The Hairpin doesn’t know, then there is work yet to do, however tired we may be of our own Bezos jokes.





Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.