Rumination: Between the World and Us

Illustration of a man hiding under a giant book like a tent

Ever wonder what editors do in a publishing house? What books are they reading, what are their pet peeves, and who would they invite to dinner?

Earlier this week, we asked you to share your burning questions. In this week's letter, our editorial manager Suning answers one which provoked much thought.

Why aren't your books sold on Amazon, for overseas readers and the diasporas at large? — @noelleqdj

This question came in from one of our authors, and it’s a very legitimate question which others, including our readers and collaborators have raised before. We thought it might be a good opportunity to address them here:

At first glance, it might be a head-scratcher for a book publisher to forego distribution at the world’s largest online commerce player (in 2020, Amazon’s net profits went up 84% during a global pandemic), with tentacles in cloud-computing, wholesale foods, and retail, and in many parts of the world. Indeed, it would be very convenient.

Yet, that stat I used should already raise some eyebrows.

Within a purely capitalist framework, Jeff Bezos is doing his best job growing and expanding a business which needs to profit at all costs. And “like all monopolies, Amazon relies on homogeneity: driving customers to a select number of discounted titles to take advantage of economies of scale.” As it is, we can’t win them at their game of convenience and exploit. But what we should be asking is: at what and whose expense are these gains achieved?

Here’s a summary of some really damning leads and headlines of the company:

Simply put, for indie publishers to work with Amazon would be to undercut all that we’ve worked so hard to build—a community that values independent thought, creative labour, plurality and people. And we're still working on it. As Ursula K. LeGuin puts it: “The Amazon model: easy saleability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace…Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”

If you’re a publisher, you could do the convenient thing and work with the giant, instead of building up local capacities, talent and labour, and the local literary ecosystem of which you are a part of. You can choose to import (Western) culture, instead of investing in local and regional literatures, many of which remain minority, invisible and dying.

If you’re a bookseller, Amazon will supply you books, but wait a minute—why are you buying from a competitor who’d undermine your own sustainability?

If you’re a writer, Amazon will give you a platform according to the price you pay, and will ship them pretty much anywhere in the world. Yet at the same time, they carry over 33 million titles, and pay absolutely zero attention to what your book is even about. While barriers to publishing have reduced with Amazon’s model of self-publishing, ultimately, being self-published means you’re also a publisher now, and somewhere down the road, will have to contend with aforementioned points. Further illustration here.

And if you’re a reader, Amazon (or Book Depository—surprise surprise) will deliver, fast. But fast and cheap books aren’t always a bargain. It just means publishers and authors receive less. And workers in the supply chain, even less so (while Bezos is the world’s richest). This doesn’t support the future of book publishing and quality writing, and this further diminishes the possibility of seeing diversity in the books being published and given a voice.

Indeed, working with Amazon would be very convenient. But we choose otherwise.

In Solidarity,
Suning and the Ethos team

(From June 19, 2021)

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