Dear Publishers, Dear Booksellers: A Mohawk Indian Explains Why You Shouldn’t Work with Amazon

amazon manifest destiny

I’m a member of the Akwesasne Nation.  Mohawk by birth, I’m here to tell you that working with the power who is out to destroy you will never, ever end well.  As proof, I offer ten reasons why Amazon’s takeover of online retail mirrors the slaughter of Native Americans.

10) The “Threat” Will Take Care of Itself

toabacco david goliath

Some tribes, upon seeing the European’s appetite for tobacco consumption, believed there was no “white problem.”  Left to their own devices, Europeans would smoke themselves to death before they did any permanent damage.

When Amazon began gobbling up book sales, some indie booksellers opined that Amazon was too large.  It would overreach, expand too far too fast, and succumb to the sprightly indies who could respond more quickly to changes in the marketplace.

Hey, guess what?  The spry booksellers and Just Say Nohawks were both wrong.

 

9) The Newcomer Wasn’t Taken Seriously

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos saw the internet as an unconquered territory that had just opened up.  To analyze buying patterns on this new frontier, he chose books because they were the least likely object to be damaged in shipping.  Since the desire to sell books is more calling (or curse) than cash cow, his hedge fund buddies thought Bezos was crazy for quitting the investment game to sell books.  How could any entrepreneur see profits in a business with such thin margins?

amazon's original page

Amazon circa 1995.  Keep dreaming, buddy.

Europeans had a lot of ideas that we Indians found crazy; particularly, owning land.  Might as well try owning air or water or deer.

laughing totas

“Oh, you want this land and no one else can walk here anymore but you?” *snurf*snort*giggle* “Sounds great.” *giggle*snuck*heehee* “For some shiny beads and tobacco? Now there’s a bargain for us.” *har* “It’s all ‘yours,’ enjoy!” *hoohoo*haha*ahahaha*

Oh, wait.  You were serious about that?  Shit.

8) Jeff Bezos is the Reincarnation of Andrew Jackson

andrew jackson jeff bezosAndrew Jackson, who birthed the Indian Removal Act, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his toughness and forceful personality.  During his pre-presidential days, he insisted on slaughtering indigenous women and children after winning battles to complete the extermination.  Frontiersmen called him “Indian Killer” and the Cherokee dubbed him (the ironically much-less-menacing) “Sharp Knife.”

When renegotiating contracts with small publishers, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told his employees to think of them the way a cheetah thinks of a gazelle.  One former employee called Bezos “The Dread Pirate Bezos” after a pirate made famous for leaving no survivors.  And I’d like to beat him with an old piece of hickory.

7) The Big Five and the Five Nations (or is it the Six Nations and the Big Six?)

Big Five

The Five Nations – Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Cayugas – formed under the Great Law of Peace a thousand years ago.  Once they ceased fighting, they became the most powerful cultural force in the hemisphere.  A matrilineal, politically sophisticated group of horticulturalists, farmers, fishers, and hunters, the Haudenosaunee practiced herbal medicine, tapped trees for maple syrup, and influenced the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

The “Big Five”  – Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster – have been around since 1826, 1817, 1843, 1897, and 1924, respectively.  They’ve brought us Kipling, Twain, all the Bronte sisters, Tolkien, Salinger… they’ve brought us the stories that have defined our culture.

Fun Fact: Prior to the merger of Penguin and Random House last year, publishing’s Big Five were the Big Six.  The Five Nations accepted the Tuscarora in 1722 and have been the Six Nations ever since.  So it’s the same, except it’s the opposite.

 

6)  Contracts (or Treaties) are Deals with the Devil

contract vs treaty

Amazon used books to gather information on shoppers so they could become The Everything Store, but they’ve grown so large that they are destroying the publishing business which made them.  Once upon a time, it was, “You gave us 50% on new-release hardcovers last season?  Give us 55% and we’ll order even more.”  Now it’s, “Give us 65% or we’ll cut our orders to nothing.”  The rates for featuring titles on the home page and paying for recommendations (“customers who purchased The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also purchased Bridget Jones Diary because they got confused”) have become extortive.  Purchasing patterns have morphed from data to be gathered into something than can be manipulated.

I’d hate to see your titles get lost in the shuffle.  So here, please eat this poisoned beef before you starve to death.

Treaties are great, aren’t they?  But if our land sits on anything valuable – and the largest reserves of oil, coal, uranium, natural gas, and rare earth metals in the U.S. are all on native land –  then the government can award mining contracts to non-natives, pollute our land and poison our water getting at it, or just straight up kick our asses out.  Again.

Your people depend on fishing for their livelihood?  Sorry, we’ve got dams to build.  Folks drive forty miles out of their way to save taxes on cartons of your cigarettes?  I think we need to raid your business.  Oh, and this corner of the Rez you haven’t built on?  We’re just going to leave our toxic waste there.

You’re welcome.

 

5)  The Government Offers Justice for Some More Than Others

obama warehouse res map

Since the Trail of Broken Treaties protest in 1972, little has been done to honor the treaties that defined reservation space during Europe’s westward expansion.  These are just pieces of paper, after all.  Just ask the Massachusett Tribe, who were unrecognized by the state of Masschusetts as anything other than ordinary citizens in 1869.  They spent over a century fighting for recognition.  Finally, a judge agreed that the Massachusetts Indians did exist and that they did, in fact, own a large portion of Massachusetts.   Unfortunately, with all the homes, schools, and businesses built on the land, it would have been impractical to give it back (or pay a Native Tax or something; I don’t know, I’m not a law guy).  The Massachusetts won in spirit, but they are still an unrecognized nation, both federally and in the state which bears their name.

In 2010, Amazon accounted for 80-90% of the ebook market.  Like print books, most sold at a loss.  Using the wild theory that books have value, five publishers partnered with Apple to try and break the ebook stranglehold by adopting the Agency Model, a pricing structure which would have increased the price of ebooks by an average of $4 each.   The Justice Department found the publishers and Apple guilty of restriction of free trade.  Most publishers settled for undisclosed sums but we know Macmillan was fined twenty million dollars and Penguin seventy-five million, while Apple will pay up to $840 million in anti-trust fines.  So basically, the government busted up an alleged Monopoly for… trying to relieve Amazon’s 90% ebook market share.

4)  Living in the Shadow of Fear

shadow of fear

The Federal Government cherry picks which tribes it decides to recognize as sovereign nations, and which tribes are just wandering cultural collectives.  They’ve also imposed blood quantum on a traditionally inclusive culture.  People who live on reservations wake wondering if today is the day that the US Government declares all treaties null and void, if today is the day their way of life ends.  Mothers wonder if their children will marry other natives, or if they’re looking at the last members of their family who are “officially” Native.

When publishers won’t give in to their contract demands, Amazon removes their buy buttons, delays shipping on their titles, and tanks their new releases by not accepting pre-orders.  Just ask Macmillan, who saw all the buy buttons on their ebooks disappear.  Ask Hachette, with thousands of titles currently delayed by 3-5 weeks and dozens of marquee authors whose books you can’t pre-order.

None of the publishers want to side with Hachette for fear that the Justice Department will repeat 2010, slapping them back into being Amazon’s bitch. They wake each day worried that their titles are next.

 

3) CEO Michael Pietsch is the Reincarnation of Seminole Warrior Osceola

Osceola Michael Pietsch

In 1835, six thousand Federal Troops arrived in Florida to forcibly relocate the Seminoles to lands west of the Mississippi under the Treaty of Payne’s Landing.  From four thousand Seminoles, Osceola pulled 900 warriors to fight.  Ten years, thousands more federal troops, $40,000,000 of taxpayer money, and the betrayal of Osceola later, 500 Seminoles still clung to the Everglades.

In 2014, Hachette refuses to bend to Amazon’s will.  The New York Times published an article entitled, “Hachette Chief Leads Book Publishers in Amazon Fight.”  Hachette… Chief.

Here’s a useful tip Mr. Pietsch: if Amazon invites you to Seattle for “negotiations,” don’t go.  It’s a trap.  Use email, use phones, just don’t end up buried headless like Osceola.

 

2) Turning People into Commodities

indian logos vs amazon contact

The top is taken from Amazon’s 15,000-word Participation Agreement. The bottom was way too easy to gather.

Become one of their affiliates and Amazon can do anything they want with whatever you upload.  Quit the affiliate program to open your own website and you’ll end up competing with the ghost of your old page online.  Amazon will still list you as the seller, but it won’t be you.  Since Amazon has better Search Engine Optimization, you’ll be lucky if anyone even finds your site.  In other words, Amazon can use your words, products, and images however they see fit, and you’ll be powerless to stop them.

There are plenty of Native people in America right now – three or four million, depending on how you want to count us.  How much control do we have over how we’re presented to the world, to our cultural symbols, to our own names?  When’s the last time someone asked my opinion on flooring, paper, lifts, gas, speakers, or dumb-fuck haircuts?  And that’s just my nation.

Then again, I’m Kanien’keháka (“People of the Flint”) from Akwesasne (“Where the Partridge Drums”).  Mohawk is just a nonsense word made up by the Dutch.  So I’ve got nothing to complain about, really.

1) The End Game

urban jungle

“Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

– Alanis Obomsawin, Abenaki Nation

abandoned bookstore

“I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.”

– Jeff Bezos, addressing employees of Amazon.com

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46 thoughts on “Dear Publishers, Dear Booksellers: A Mohawk Indian Explains Why You Shouldn’t Work with Amazon

  1. I see. So bookselling monopolies are bad, but book publishing monopolies (that have been found to collude in price-fixing) as exerted by the Big Five are awesome? I understand this is meant to be jokey, but the absurdity is…well, to each his own.

    Like

    • A good observation. I have no doubt that the Justice Department and Judge Denise Colt have followed the letter of the law in finding the Big Five and Apple guilty of collusion. What they’ve missed is the spirit of the law, which is to prevent monopolies. The 90% ebook market share which Amazon enjoyed when the case went to court? That’s a monopoly, with 15% to spare.

      I think that the agency model (and we’re talking about an increase from $9.99 to $12.99 – $14.99, not anything ridiculous) isn’t asking too much to keep the added value of an editor’s polish. I think that expecting Amazon not to devalue books by selling them at a loss is also reasonable.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 3 people

    • Who is the “monopoly”? The Justice Department was WRONG; Amazon (as evidenced by how they’re now treating Hachette after being emboldened by the anti-Agency-model ruling) is the monopoly.

      As a small independent bookseller, I’ve tried to stock items from small press publishers, only to find that the “wholesale” discount they’d give me is less than the “retail” price for their books on Amazon… so either Amazon is selling at a loss, or (more likely) they’re able to demand a MUCH bigger discount from that publisher than they offer to any other bookseller. They control so much of the market that even the BIG publishers (which you call “monopolies”) can’t fight against them, much less the small ones. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

      • I assume you’re wanting to hew to the strictest possible definition of monopoly, so okay, call them a cartel. As far as your assertion that the Justice Department was “WRONG” to punish them for price-fixing…well, that is indeed an assertion. As far as discounts vs. Amazon pricing goes, you need to note that Amazon sales rarely risk being returned, while bookstores often have return rates at or above 50%. I get that since you’re an independent bookseller, Amazon is by default your enemy. But Amazon didn’t cause people to shift their purchasing activities to the internet, they merely got in ahead of that trend.

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      • @SophieWeeks: The reason Amazon doesn’t have high return rates is that, in many cases, they’ve arranged for either the publishers, or wholesalers like Ingram to ship direct to the customer for them, or else don’t order from the publishers until they have a sale (all those “allow 2 weeks to 14 days” delivery-time items are things Amazon DOES NOT HAVE in stock). This is in NO WAY comparable to an independent bookseller who orders what they think will sell, and has to pay extra to ship returns back. In my experience, your “50% or above” return rate is vastly over-stated for indies. The places which have huge return rates are the chain stores and department stores or supermarkets or drugstores where books are more like a “news-stand” item. None of the “indies” I know come anywhere close to 50%.

        Also, Amazon isn’t “by *default*” my enemy… they are BY DESIGN my enemy, as explicitly stated by Bezos in the quote that closes this article, and reiterated with SO MANY actions taken and policies implemented since then.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. The history of Native Americans is fascinating (not being American, I don’t know much about it), but how about the history of publishing?

    “Using the wild theory that books have value…” actually I think that is a wild theory. Thanks to the Internet, it now costs nothing to make a digital copy of a book, so a digital copy of a book *should* have no value. The publishing industry should expect to sell physical books for far less, in the same way that the recording industry can no longer sell CDs for $30, and they shouldn’t expect to make direct per-copy profits from ebooks at all. They need to offer something more – like the added services Amazon provides.

    If it weren’t for Amazon, the publishing industry would be being squeezed by the Internet itself. Paper books will become more and more niche because they’re so much more expensive than digital.

    “I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job” is no worse than the way printing presses put scribes out of a job, making way for the modern publishing industry…

    While Amazon is likely to win to a large degree, I agree it is bad news and should be fought all the way. It is of course monopolistic – but that is the aim of companies. Amazon and its cloud brethren like Google and Facebook are squeezing the Internet itself. The Internet is changing from a collection of websites to a collection of centralized apps and portals like AOL all over again… what’s the point in having a website or a book if no-one can find it, because the monopolies control the listings? Theoretically you can switch portals, but in practice you can’t – try switching social networks and see how far that gets you. I’m afraid the true Internet, the one where anyone can contribute, is becoming an underground thing, and perhaps eventually criminal, now that the powerful are getting control of it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading so closely. What I mean is that stories have value. I’ve met presidents, movie stars, supreme court justices, world class athletes, and entrepreneurs, just because I work in a bookstore. No matter how successful they are in their chosen field, these people had a story they want to tell. Also, until virtual reality is perfected, reading is the only way to see the world from another person’s point of view.

      I respectfully disagree that publishers shouldn’t expect profits from ebook sales. Books are hammered out between an author and an editor. Yes, there are self-published works that spring fully-formed from the author’s brow into the ebook world. I believe that self-published work is worse than books which come from the publishing houses. That’s just based on what I’ve read. There’s a lot of hatred reserved for the “gatekeepers” of the publishing world, but I think it comes from people who have (to paraphrase John Dufresne) subjected agents and editors to the horrors of a first draft. Breaking Bad, 30 Rock, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, or whatever your tipple, they’re all collaborative efforts. Mostly formed in the mind of one person? Sure. But nothing without the dedicated work and input of many people.

      Anyway, profit. I think if something is entertaining, the folks who made it so should be compensated for their efforts. Including the editors working for the Big Five, who are busy helping authors hone and tune. I think if a story is great, that has value. If Stephen King started today and put the first chapter of It online, I’d use PayPal to fund future chapters… as I’ve read it, anyway. Would I pay for an It that Chuck Verrill didn’t edit? Or an Under the Dome that Nan Graham didn’t edit? I don’t know.

      I think what Jeff Bezos is doing is worse than the printing press putting scribes out of a job or the auto putting the horse out of a job, etc. because Bezos has what he needs. If he had another product that was as easy to box and ship to collect data on buyers, we wouldn’t be here now. He used books to gather data and now he’s positioned to make Amazon synonymous not just with book buying but with shopping. His plan was succesful; does he really need to destroy the culture he cannibalized to position himself?

      I like your take on the internet, although it frightens me. Honestly, Amazon as the future of book-selling frightens me. It would put me out of a job, so of course I’m biased. But I think, just like stories, that bookstores have value. I love talking books face-to-face with like minded people, and I’d hate to see that disappear.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Henry Ford may have put a lot of buggy-makers out of work, and he wasn’t a saint by any means, but he didn’t try to shut down the Kentucky Derby and send ALL the horses to the knacker’s! He also understood that, if he paid his workers fair wages, they’d be customers for his cars and EVERYONE would benefit.

        Bezos, like WalMart, wants to control the entire market AND push wages and payment to suppliers lower and lower, until we’re all (except the 1%ers) getting third-world wages and putting up with worse and worse working conditions while always in fear of losing the crappy jobs we have.

        It’s no coincidence that the rise of WalMart and Amazon matches the decline of “living wage” jobs. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      • “Henry Ford may have put a lot of buggy-makers out of work, and he wasn’t a saint by any means, but he didn’t try to shut down the Kentucky Derby and send ALL the horses to the knacker’s!”

        Haha, nice.

        Bezos originally wanted to call his website “Relentless.” I think that says everything we need to know about his business model.

        Liked by 1 person

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    • Absolutely. My hope is that most of this does, but I couldn’t resist the Osceola comparison.

      Our society – and I’m including both sides of my culture, the white and the Native, as part of the American Melting Pot – holds money in too high regard over people. I believe it’s not too late to scale back, to honor ourselves and our families over bank accounts, to stop treating corporations as people.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Thank you… Well said!

    I recently learned that, if I want to support a friend’s Kickstarter campaign, I have to use Amazon Payments. 😦 I’m now seriously considering deleting my user info from Kickstarter.

    Like

  6. I especially liked 6 and 9. And that map with so many empty state borders contains more parallels.

    In Colorado, the Utes had reservations across the entire west of the state until silver was discovered. The mines lasted for barely a generation but tribes were pushed out forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations on expressing the problem of Amazon so well. Where I tread I have been trying to point out the dangers of the Bezos cut throat approach for years. But my English accent seems to be uninterpretable in print :-). Your parallels between Native American experience in the face of British and Europeans and their descendants, and that of the whole publishing industry in the face of “relentless” Bezos, is spine chiling.

    The power of Big Money in the US [and now throughout the world] shows in the forces driving decisions. Even the Supreme Court found recently against Wiley, by re-interpetting a long understood word. [I’d have to read the majority decision again to recall which.] The idea that cheap means competition is, as you point out, ridiculous. It is a pure monopolisitic/cartel practice. Which asks questions to me about the US DoJ.

    It is too little understood that culture is the lifeblood of any society. More than ever it is the word that spreads, questions and advances culture. No nation can afford to have that lifeblood drained from it by “relentless” predators. Most specially those that add no value to the world or its culture.

    Thank you sweetwithfallandfish.

    Joseph Harris in the UK

    Liked by 1 person

    • Culture is the lifeblood of any society.

      I think that’s exactly where most book people bump up against the idea of Amazon as a bookstore; Amazon treats books as a commodity rather than a culture. And as you say, they are bleeding that culture dry.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m late to the party, but I can’t resist: Bezos’ assignment was to kill books. And the death of newspapers is blamed on the internets. Ignorant is easy to herd, stupid, even easier.

        Liked by 2 people

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