In his article “Cheap Words” in the Feb 17th issue of The New Yorker, George Packer asks pointedly, “And so the big question is not just whether Amazon is bad for the book store industry; it’s whether Amazon is bad for books.” While it may not be news that Amazon poses a real threat to the future of physical books, bookstores, publishers, and libraries, Packer describes this threat in piercing detail and discusses the very real repercussions of the type of technological empire Amazon is building.
According to Packer, publishers were initially eager to collaborate with Amazon in its early years, even relying on the company as an information resource over the standard Books-in-Print. Publishers were willing to sell titles to Amazon at unusually low rates, working on the assumption that Amazon would eventually raise its prices in order to become more profitable. At the time, the publishing industry was floundering and Amazon provided jobs to publishing workers it hired to review titles and edit online content. However, Packer reports, it soon became apparent to publishers that Amazon considered books to be pure product only–and that Amazon hired publishing workers for the public relations purpose of creating the appearance that the company truly cared about books and their content. Moreover, he argues, Amazon’s book sales had been simply a tool for gathering customer data in order to expand its business.
Today, even though publishers understand Amazon’s true position as an electronic big-box retailer akin to Walmart, their reliance upon Amazon is growing. In addition to continuing to sell to Amazon at unsustainable discounts, in order to have their titles available on its site, publishers must agree to Amazon’s non-negotiable sales terms. Once its books are listed on Amazon, publishers often pay promotional fees to ensure that their books are placed more prominently on the site. While small publishers are struggling to survive, large publishers are being forced to become larger. As the Penguin Random House merger suggests, the publishing industry has more and more become the big fighting the bigger. According to Packer, this has served to push “American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations.” The result is that publishers are less able and/or willing to take risks in deciding which books they will publish. While Amazon purports to provide a more democratic system by removing the gatekeepers of editors and critics from its bookselling market, its position in the wider market effectively manipulates the publishing industry towards its interests.
While monopoly over cultural content creation and Amazon’s impact upon book publishing is of concern, perhaps even more distressing is that Amazon is rapidly killing jobs. Not only are the jobs it does provide low-paying, but Packer cites a study based upon U.S. Census data showing that brick-and-mortar stores (of all types) employ 47 people for every 10 million dollars in revenue earned. Amazon employs only 14. Former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich makes a similar argument in his Guernica article, “Inequality Productivity and WhatsApp” regarding the recent acquisition of WhatsApp by FaceBook. According to Reich, a tremendous amount of money is being earned by a very few, while jobs are rapidly disappearing at the hands of the tech industry, and “…the combination of digital technologies with huge network effects is pushing the ratio of employees to customers to new lows (WhatsApp’s 55 employees are all its 450 million customers need).” Likewise, in his article “Is Google Making the Digital Divide Worse?” in the Feb 20th issue of Newsweek, Michael Brick argues that Google’s efforts to broaden internet access through its Google Fiber project, will actually have the effect of expanding the digital divide. Like Amazon, Google claims it will be providing egalitarian access to the internet but, also like Amazon, it will require customers to pay for access, thereby leaving those with limited resources unconnected. These articles correctly raise the concern that the seemingly beneficial work of tech giants, in reality, expands inequality, and they call into question the real costs associated with the benefits and conveniences that big tech services may provide to some.
The hazards of relying upon large corporations for access to information and culture are great. For many, ease of access to information has never been greater. Yet there is compelling evidence that that the number of people unable to access information electronically is increasing due to ever-growing economic inequality and as a direct result of the digital divide. How do we proceed as information workers when the very advances in technology with great potential to expand access to information instead serve to expand the inequality gap rather than reduce it? Information workers must utilize and stay current with technological developments in order to meet the needs of their patrons, but they must be ever vigilant in negotiating the economic and technological divide. It is critical that libraries, which do not stand to profit in the way tech companies do, make a concerted effort to work towards diminishing this gap.