Divorcing Amazon

ca july-smI’d like to offer a hearty second to Stephen Colbert’s promotion of Portland’s legendary bookstore Powell’s, which has best website for an independent bookstore I’ve ever seen.




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In an arc similar to many people’s, I made my first purchase with Amazon in 1998, and each year grew more and more reliant on them when I wanted to buy stuff. For the better part of 2000 and 2011, I worked at Borders, and despite my employee discount there, Amazon’s prices were nearly always better, so Amazon was most often the route I took when I wanted to buy books, CDs, DVDs, or whatever else. But somewhere around late 2011 they started pissing me off: The honeymoon was over. More often than not, I was unhappy with the way they handled things, and I started to look for alternate venues. Still, their prices were always better than just about anywhere else, and by then there were few to no options for brick-and-mortar retailers who sold new DVDs in St. Louis, so I continued shopping with Amazon the majority of the time.

Late 2013 came the final straw for me: I bought a new DVD direct from Amazon and received a punched barcode copy, which are sent to journalists free for reviewing purposes and are not intended for resale (I know this because I’m a journalist who often receives these screener copies). When I complained to Amazon, they refused to acknowledge any fault but instead tried to shut me up by giving me money, which tactic I imagine works on most people. At that point, I decided I needed to divorce Amazon, and quickly found out that it’s a lot harder than one would think, especially if you’re in the movie business in just about any capacity.

CA-HachetteOf course, Amazon has been in the news a lot in the past month for their very public fight with publisher Hachette. Amazon is essentially trying to bully Hachette (the second-largest book publisher in America) into giving them an even larger discount than what they already receive, mainly so that Amazon can lower the price of their e-books and increase their profit margins. I’m glad that the majority of the population seems to be siding with Hachette on this one, but this type of thing has been a problem for a long time. It’s been over two years since you could buy Taro Gomi’s classic kids book Everyone Poops new from Amazon, for example, and even more recently than the Hachette dispute, the behemoth got into it with Warner Bros. in a similar fashion.

But let’s say that it’s not enough for you to simply stop buying things from Amazon, but you want to stop promoting them in any way that you can: not frequenting sites they own, not giving them clicks, and generally full-stop severing all ties with the increasingly evil and monopolistic company. Take, for example, IMDb, which Amazon bought in 1998. You use IMDb a lot, don’t you? Every time you look up a movie, every time you assign a star rating, every time you visit the home page and expose yourself to ads, you’re making Amazon money, you’re doing free market research for them, and you’re supporting the company even without buying anything.

The same goes for Box Office Mojo, which historically is one of the easiest-to-use sources for looking up box office grosses of various movies and studios, both domestically and internationally. I closed my many-years-old Goodreads account late last year after the news that Amazon had bought that site, too. Goodreads was and remains the only social media site I’ve ever enjoyed, and now I’m stuck in the aforementioned IMDb trap such that anytime I use it, I’m doing free market research for Amazon (not to mention that around the time Amazon bought them, they started censoring some reviews and shelf titles). When watching movies to prepare for my coverage of the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival, I was in the weird position where a movie I wanted to cover, Out of Print, a documentary that is in some ways about the very topic presently being discussed, was being screened for press via Withoutabox, a website under the parent company of Amazon.

CA STL-bookstore-allianceNormally an essay such as this would conclude with sites and resources you can use as an alternative to the above-mentioned Amazon-owned properties, but sadly, that’s not the most simple thing to do. I’ve mentioned in past columns that, for new DVDs and blu-rays that can’t be found at local brick-and-mortar retailers, Seattle’s Scarecrow Video is a good alternative, as is simply buying them directly from the studio itself. In St. Louis, we’re lucky to still have a good number of independent book and music retailers, which I try to give all of my new book and album business these days, but if you’re outside of St. Louis, I’d like to offer a hearty second to Stephen Colbert’s promotion of Portland’s legendary bookstore Powell’s, which I’ve used and loved for quite some time now. They have what has to be the best website for an independent bookstore I’ve ever seen (though Strand in New York comes close).

When you’re talking about reference materials rather than the ability to buy stuff, though, things start to get sticky. At the time of this writing, I haven’t found reasonable alternates to IMDb and Box Office Mojo apart from reverting to the old analog route, wherein you look stuff up in Videohound or find box office numbers in Variety. In the Out of Print conundrum mentioned above, I opted to view the film in its proper festival screening, rather than going the press route of seeing it on Withoutabox. But still, each of these solutions loses something in the translation: user-friendliness, thoroughness, up-to-the-moment information, etc.

At least I and many other people are growing increasingly aware of this situation; that’s the first step in the right direction (although many customers flocked to Walmart to buy their Hachette titles upon learning of the Amazon dispute, which isn’t solving any problems; that’s like quitting cigarettes only to take up chewing tobacco). I just regret that it took me about 15 years and the loss of a job to start to figure out that Amazon is turning into a huge problem. | Pete Timmermann

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