May 22, 2013

UK indie booksellers protest Amazon’s tax avoidance


Forget the band, these are The Smiths you’ve got to know about.

Last week I reported on the astonishing and inexplicable news that Amazon’s UK operation received more money in government grants than it paid in tax. Since those reports came in, the tax dodging of Amazon and other online giants such as Google has made it to the front page of every British broadsheet, and ‘doing an Amazon’ is now being employed by news reporters as a code word for ‘companies that weasel out of paying the millions they owe the state in taxes.’ Lots of words (which is positive and encouraging), but still no action.

Now, Keith and Frances Smith, who run two independent bookshops—Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books—in Warwickshire are urging the government to promise ‘that instead of words we have ACTION.’ We reported in March on how the Smiths were petitioning David Cameron to ‘pressurize Amazon into paying UK taxes on their UK earnings’; they delivered that petition to Downing Street at the end of April with nearly 170,000 signatures. But due to these new revelations, they have spoken again for the need of action to be taken against Amazon.

Their reasons are those shared by many. They argue that Amazon should pay tax because the UK high street is disintegrating, consumer choice is disappearing, and small businesses are not receiving the positive support they need from government. Quoted in the Guardian, the Smiths described how:

“All around us the high street is, essentially, collapsing. It’s too simplistic to say that this is just because of online retail – online is a reality and we compete as best we can. It’s simply not fair that Amazon starts at a an advantage on every sale because it’s not paying its fair share of tax. We love competition, we love making our shops inviting for customers. We are not happy to sit by and watch our high streets fall to pieces because of the sharp practice of a few companies and the inaction of our government.”

Surely the Smiths speak for all indie booksellers when they argue, quite rightly, that they are doing all they can and it’s not competition they’re scared of—it’s a deeply unfair playing field and an online behemoth for whom different rules apply.

In a blog post on their website, they issue a reminder that local bookshops are part of a fragile high street which deserves to be protected, as well as a culture of reading, sharing and quite simply human contact that deserves to be fought for:

“people, our customers, are very angry that all this is going on. They desperately want the High Street to survive. They do not want a life lived entirely through their pc’s [sic] and mobiles. They want real shops with real goods and real people. Let Amazon have their way and shops will disappear.”

What’s most galling, of course, is that small businesses such as those owned by the Smiths, which devote themselves to serving a community and providing it with a irreplaceable resource of education, stimulation, and entertainment, and which pay what is asked from them, are being left to suffer. Aren’t these small businesses perfect examples of brilliant entrepreneurship meeting mighty effort, which the government should be celebrating? As the Smiths argue:

“when Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books sell a book, we pay corporation tax on our profits and add a few thousand pounds per year to government coffers as a result–thus paying our bit towards the infrastructure we all enjoy in a civilised society. It doesn’t seem too much to expect from our leaders that they stand up equally for small retailers like us as they seem to do for bigger companies.”

No, it doesn’t seem like too much to expect from the UK government. So when are they going to do something about it?




Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.