Free delivery is costing us our conscience
I have had a stable, relatively pleasant relationship with Amazon for nearly two decades. Why break up with them now?
There are many reasons to raise an eyebrow at Amazon’s business culture and practices. And yet, we tend to turn a blind eye instead. Personally, after self-publishing my first book on Amazon last fall, I’ve started to see behind the scenes and find many problematic things about the way they operate. Things I can no longer ignore.
Amazon and our collective consumption addiction
Yes, it’s cool that we can get nearly anything we want, from almost anywhere in the world, delivered to us within two days, for “free.” But it’s not really free — we’re just not seeing the hidden cost.
What started out as an online bookstore has slowly and steadily creeped into every corner of our lives and invaded our homes. (Hey Alexa, is it going to rain today?) Amazon sells us iPhones, underwear, and power tools. It delivers our medications, diapers, and cleaning supplies. It plays us music and shows us movies. And as it has grown, it has pushed aside the corner convenience store, the local stationery shop, and the village pharmacy.
The convenience is alluring. We click a button and the object of our desires auto-magically shows up on our doorstep in a crisp brown cardboard box. It’s like Christmas every day. Pandemic lockdown restrictions have only deepened the grooves of our online shopping obsession.
Amazon is happy to feed our collective consumption addiction — an addiction spread by the virus of separation.
Amazon is happy to feed our collective consumption addiction — an addiction spread by the virus of separation. It’s the “easy button” for all our material desires. The logistics behind this retail wizardry are largely invisible. When we trust in the magic hands of Amazon, we don’t have a clear picture of what goes into the things we click, click, buy. We have no idea who made our stuff, where the raw materials came from, or what conditions the workers may have endured in manufacturing it.
When we are so far removed from the sources of production for the things we consume, we feel more disconnected from Mother Earth; more distant from other human beings; and more dissatisfied with ourselves. When we feel separate from the source of what we receive, the more we are driven towards excessive consuming. And the more we mindlessly consume, the more separate we feel. It’s a vicious cycle.
How Amazon screws over independent authors
I love the ease of one-stop-shopping as much as anyone else. But as an author with a self-published book on their platform, I got a deeper view into the dynamics within their digital walls. And I found a lot of issues with how they handle pricing, royalties, reporting, and payments for authors.
Amazon controls the pricing of your book on their platform. There’s a lower limit and an upper limit to what you can charge based on your book’s file size, format, and genre. Even if you set a retail list price that falls within those pricing limitations, Amazon can arbitrarily decide to discount your book to a price that they choose, at any time.
I wanted to launch my book Regenerative Purpose for free so that I could distribute to all my Kickstarter donors and encourage friends to get it right away. After going back and forth with Amazon support before my book launch, I found out that the lowest price I could set was $0.99. If I wanted to gift the Kindle edition of my book to a crowdfunding supporter, friend, influencer, or contributor, I would have to buy my own book back from Amazon and pay them a commission on it in order to share it for free.
Amazon offers independent authors two equally unappetizing options for self-publishing on their platform.
- You give them a whopping 65% commission on every book sale. As the author and creator of your work, you take home only a 35% royalty.
- You join the Kindle Select program and give them a 30% commission on every book sale. You receive a 70% royalty. To qualify for this royalty rate, you have to grant exclusive distribution for a renewable period of 90 days. This means Amazon owns the rights to your book in all global marketplaces, and you cannot sell your book on any other online platform. I realized later, it also means they can give your book away as an enrollment incentive for Kindle Unlimited membership.
Basically, to have your book available on Amazon, your options are to give them your first-born child, or give them your second-born child.
It feels like a naively self-limiting act of rebellion to reject the platform that controls such a vast majority of the market. Yet here I am.
The way that downloads and page views are tracked and reported on Amazon is frustratingly opaque. Several times in the days and weeks after launching my book, a friend would text and tell me that they had just downloaded my e-book. Later that day, I would look at my author dashboard and see nothing — no new download activity.
Something about that didn’t smell right. The downloads I was seeing on my dashboard didn’t seem to match the personal messages that I was receiving. Once, I called customer support to ask what was up. They read to me from a pre-approved script, reassuring me that this “glitch” is normal. They told me there are often 1–2 day delays in when sales appear in the dashboard.
Since mid-April, I have been watching my book climb up in the Amazon rankings. Over the course of one week, it went from ranking in the high 1000s in several categories (Vocational Guidance, Transpersonal Psychology and New Age Self Help) to ranking in the low 100s. Despite this massive upward movement in rankings, my dashboard metrics have remained completely flat. It seems like a lot more people are reading the book these days, but my download and page view statistics from Amazon don’t reflect that.
I have a hard time believing that one of the biggest tech companies in the world is unable to display accurate download and page view metrics in near real-time. When downloads do eventually appear on my dashboard, they have no data associated— not a country, not an IP address, not even a timestamp. There’s no way to confirm or disprove that the sales reports reflect reality.
There are three ways authors get paid on Amazon: 1) purchases of the physical book, 2) downloads of the Kindle e-book, and 3) page views of the e-book by Kindle Unlimited (KU) members, which earns you a share of the Kindle Select Global Fund. Right now, Amazon has a promotion, offering two months of KU free to new subscribers. They’re not yet receiving revenue from new subscribers, so it’s possible that these new subscribers’ reading activity doesn’t count towards KU page views. Totally unclear.
In keeping with inscrutability as a theme, there’s no way to match sales activity reported to royalty payments received. Sales are reported in aggregate across all marketplaces daily, and royalty payments are reported according to individual marketplaces in aggregate monthly. The system is set up in a way that makes it impossible to audit for accuracy.
For page views, they’ve made it even more difficult for the average person to understand by using their own made-up metric, something that they call the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC). How this obscure metric that they invented relates to actual real-life pages is not obvious.
And then there’s the mysterious Start Reading Location (SRL), which is used to calculate KENPC. Authors in some discussion forums report seeing an unresolved error message on SRL for more than a year (along with a note saying KENPC might change once it’s resolved.) There’s no way to see whether the SRL is set up correctly in your book, or if it’s even set up at all. This setting impacts payments, but you can’t check it or manage it. You just have to take Amazon’s word for it that they’re doing it right.
The system reeks from a lack of transparency, accountability, fairness, and integrity.
As an independent author on Amazon, what I kept seeing is that the system reeks from a lack of transparency, accountability, fairness, and integrity. Yet another example is the way they hand out “bestselling book” badges, which brazenly panders to those who have the cash to pay for such a privilege.
As I launched my first book, I thought to myself, “What can you do? You have to be on Amazon, they are the platform for e-books.” And there’s truth in that. Right now, about 80% of all online book sales are happening on Amazon. The next biggest player — Apple’s iBooks —has only 10% market share. It feels like a naively self-limiting act of rebellion to reject the platform that controls such a vast majority of the market. Yet here I am.
Voting with our money and attention
Amazon has grown to the point where they have a frightening amount of market power. And every purchase we make through their platform is casting a vote for them to continue their questionable business practices, unchecked. The only way that we can hold them accountable for operating with more fairness and transparency is by divesting ourselves from their empire, and by doing so immediately, en masse.
It’s not going to be easy. But it’s possible. In my next piece, I share a few practical steps that we can all take to divest from the Amazon empire.
Every purchase we make through their platform is casting a vote for them to continue their questionable business practices, unchecked.
It has taken me some time to get here, but now I’m finally seeing the hypocrisy of distributing my book Regenerative Purpose on a platform that works the way that Amazon does. It makes no sense for me to do that.
In my book, I am advocating for humanity to step into new ways of living and working that nourish and support all of life. I am making a case to elevate planetary movement making over personal empire building. I am encouraging us to be conscious of how we spend our life, through the various forms of currency we carry (time, money, attention, etc.) If I want to live what I preach, I have no choice but to take my energy back from Amazon, because their practices are not aligned with my values.
I have no choice but to take my energy back from Amazon, because their practices are not aligned with my values.
Making the choice to move away from Amazon requires some sacrifices. As an independent author, it means investing in upgrades to my own website, paying more for paperback book printing and distribution, and doing a lot more grassroots outreach to let people know about my book.
As consumers, leaving Amazon probably means paying more for our stuff and waiting longer to get it. That’s a bummer for the instant gratification monkey in all of us. The positive side is it probably also means buying less shit we don’t need and investing more in local communities. We need to nourish economic ecosystems by watering our own backyards. We will all be happier and healthier as a whole if we can find new ways to exchange that are supportive for many, and not just enriching to an elite few.
The big picture: world domination
The big picture: Amazon is out for world domination. They account for nearly half of the US e-commerce market. Being a big company is not inherently “bad,” but when one company controls so much market share, it effectively kills off other providers of the same goods and services. When this happens, the dominant player can set whatever prices and terms and conditions they want — even as the quality of what they offer declines.
It doesn’t matter whether we buy electronics from them, operate a forklift in one of their warehouses, use their fulfillment services to support a small online business, or put a book on their self-publishing platform. As Amazon’s monopoly power grows, we consent to more and more distorted exchange dynamics because we have fewer and fewer viable alternatives.
In Amazon-land, it looks like people are fairly disposable and profit is king. Their workers planned MayDay strikes to protest the lack of protective equipment and hazard pay during the COVID19 crisis. Just one day before planned worker strikes, the company finally succumbed to taking a hit on Q2 profits in order to look out for employee health and safety.
Amazon is a paragon of wealth inequality. Not only did this trillion dollar company pay nothing in 2018 federal income taxes, they actually received a $129 million tax rebate. CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world with a net worth north of $100 billion. It’s estimated that he earns the median Amazon employee’s yearly salary ($28,000) about every nine seconds.
Last week, Bezos was asked to testify before Congress because Amazon may have inappropriately accessed 3rd party data (from the small businesses that depend on them), used this data for their own competitive benefit, and then lied about it. If that’s true, it would be a terrible abuse of power.
Edit: Less than 24 hours after publishing this, I learned that Amazon VP Tim Bray decided to quit over the company’s firing of whistleblowers. To quote his goodbye letter: “Amazon has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”
Amazon’s free delivery is not truly free. In fact, it’s very expensive. It’s time to stop compromising our values for the sake of convenience.
Amazon’s free delivery is not truly free. In fact, it’s very expensive. It’s time to stop compromising our values for the sake of convenience. I know it’s not going to be an easy addiction to break free from. But the alternative — not changing — is sickening to community, and humanity.
Me, I am done feeding this system with my life energy.