Imagine reading a book that advocates stepping back from capitalism; that advocates leading a richer life by seeking out creative, independent alternatives to the corporate behemoths that dominate our daily cultural and economic habits.
Then imagine that you bought that book from Amazon. The contradiction would be hard to ignore.
Now imagine having written the book and being the one selling it through Amazon. The contradiction becomes impossible to ignore!
* * * * *
I'm writing this ten days into 2015.
Ten pretty busy days, because I've spent my spare time, and £50 in stamps, steadily emptying a box of books:
Many copies of A Tour of the Indies distributed far and wide. A few delivered to the friends and family who helped along the way, the rest sent to the cinemas that feature.
None of the cinemas actually knew about the project, so waiting to see their reaction - if any - was nerve-wracking. Reassuringly, initial responses were positive and a few shared the news on social media.
Broadway in Nottingham even got this reaction from one of their followers:
In sending the books out, the priority was to show my gratitude to the cinemas for providing inspirational film-going experiences. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope for a little help with promotion at the same time. After all, who writes a book and doesn't want it to be read?
Who, though, writes a book and isn't sure how to go about selling it? I'd entertained the idea of a few cinemas perhaps being willing to sell copies, at least, but I wasn't ready to actually ask the question of them. So, in the interests of not losing a customer within seconds of potentially gaining one, I responded with this:
It's a frustratingly difficult conflict to resolve - and potentially awkward too, if someone is willing to pick up a copy in person at the same time as buying their cinema ticket. What if they don't want to buy online? Or, specifically, buy from Amazon?
* * * * *
Plenty of people - many being the sort of consumer that A Tour of the Indies might appeal to - take issue with Amazon’s conduct and business practices. A pre-Christmas boycott of Amazon, designed to show the potential for consumer power, diverted a couple of million pounds in sales to alternative retailers at the busiest time of year.
Ethical Consumer's summary of the boycott made clear that Marketplace sellers (small businesses using Amazon as a storefront) were not included in the action, but the issues of association were clear. The wording of the exemption made no allowance for people who use Amazon's services to independently publish and choose to sell through them as well.
Some businesses exist purely because of the reach that Amazon offers; some books exist to be read purely because Amazon offers the publishing services to create them. Amazon's are not the only services, of course; other self-publishing websites exist that provide equally high-quality end products. But when it comes to putting a product in front of people, they simply don't have the same customer base.
If a book is listed for sale but there are no customers around to buy it, does it really exist? I feel shallow framing the argument that way, more so for knowing that I possess no other justification for making the argument in the first place. I know, too, that I am naively ignoring the profit Amazon makes on any books I sell.
“Aha!” I hear you cry, in support of a man wrestling with his principles. “You don't have to pretend. You can admit that you're taking down the system from within, using the establishment to propagate your anti-establishment argument!”
I am proud of the book that I've spent four years working on, and am only too happy to exploit widespread, unthinking reliance on Amazon for online shopping in an effort to maximise whatever sales I can generate. I do all of this in my spare time, after all, and my efforts to promote the book will likely go on for months. Finding other outlets for it will form part of the marketing effort, but in the first instance I depend on the most convenient and recognisable outlet of all.
The great ideal - the Holy Grail; the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything - is not to rely on any third party infrastructure. Terms and conditions only ever change for the benefit of the company whose website you're using: one amendment and suddenly your marketplace has disappeared as quickly as your customers. Better instead to direct traffic to your own website, sell your stuff there, keep more of the money, and convert ’customers’ into ’fans’.
But then the European Union got involved, specifically with regard to applying VAT to digital products. Thanks to the examination of how businesses like Amazon pay tax - such as basing themselves in Luxembourg, where the VAT rate is very low - the law was changed so that, from January 1st 2015, the applicable VAT rate is based on the customer's location. A worthy attempt to address the issue, you might think.
There are, however, 28 member states in the EU, each with their own VAT rates and regulations. In the UK, there is no threshold on earnings before the new rules apply. The owners of micro-businesses who quietly spread a little creativity in the world, some making just a few quid on ebooks and knitting patterns and the like, suddenly face registering for VAT and a government ’one stop shop’ that deals with the varying tax rates.
It's a level of administration and accountancy that many people can't afford, or won't engage with. So they will, if they haven't already, stop selling. Communication about the issue has been poor, so some might be continuing as they were without knowing the potential ramifications. For a while, it wasn't even clear that selling through Amazon et al would avoid the need to become VAT registered.
It's a crushing blow to independent entrepreneurial spirit, and a woeful (if unintended) consequence of trying to make big business ’play fair’. While the rules apply only to digital products, and while A Tour of the Indies has sold better in paperback than it has as an ebook, it is no incentive to try and establish book sales through my own website. Especially when posting out paperback copies would eat into already limited time for writing!
For now, then, I keep as I am. I recognise that I am fortunate to do this in my spare time, as a hobby; that my livelihood does not depend on it. Amazon can deal with postage and the payment of VAT so that I can continue expressing my creativity and connecting with cinemas and cinema-goers.
I offer my book for sale, and hope that humorous, self-deprecating statements about how I've sold my soul to the corporate world are enough for potential readers to form a bond with the man behind the book - rather than seeing the online store through which he is selling it.