I don’t usually read a Sunday paper, but yesterday a friend who was here for the week-end bought The Observer. There was a superb article by journalist Carole Cadwalladr who spent a week working undercover for Amazon at their Swansea warehouse. It made sobering reading. Long hours, poor pay, employment rights avoided by hiring through agencies, workers walking up to fifteen hours per shift. BBC Panorama recently showed a programme filmed undercover, which showed the same thing. What century are we living in? To add insult to injury The Observer claims that Amazon paid £2.4 million in corporate tax in 2012 and got back £2.5 million in grants.
There’s no two ways about, I have got to start buying less from Amazon.It’s really mostly books. I don’t really like buying electronic goods from them. My laptop came from John Lewis (where I was able to talk to a nice young man about which model was most suited to my needs) and my printer came from Printerland.
As for books, well, there are always bookshops (though not for much long if Amazon have their way). Buying on-line is harder – at least, not really much harder, but more expensive. To test this out, I looked up the recent winner of the CWA gold dagger, Dead Lions by Mick Heron, on Amazon where it costs £12.72 for a hardback and on Abebooks where it was £13.83, postage included for both. That’s not actually a huge difference. The winner of the Creasey dagger for the best first novel, Derek.B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, was £3.85 on Amazon and £5.48 on Abebooks (in fact I’d already bought that at Waterstones). Really should one be paying much less than a fiver for a new book, something that it has probably taken someone at least a year to write?
My new year’s resolution will be to buy fewer books from Amazon and more from other sources. Actual books, that is, ebooks are another, more difficult matter, but at least no-one has to pack them up and post them.
For quite a large proportion of my life there have been only two ways to get hold of a book that one wanted to read, either through a library or through a book-shop, which essentially meant W. H. Smith if you lived in the sticks or maybe a second-hand book shop. No remainder book shops, no charity shops, no internet. My recent experience of reading the work of one particular author, new to me, has been a thought-provoking contrast. The first novel by Christopher Fowler that I read was THE WATER ROOM, which I bought a couple of years ago in a charity shop in Bristol, encouraged by my friend and fellow writer, Kate Ellis, who said she liked his books. I did enjoy it, but didn’t seek out any more. Then a month or two ago I spotted another of his, THE VICTORIA VANISHES, in my local Oxfam shop, remembered it had a nice review in the Guardian, and bought it. This one I enjoyed a lot: it reminded me of Edmund Crispin’s novels with its echo of THE MOVING TOY-SHOP and its range of eccentric characters but it also had an atmosphere all its own. I was contemplating buying another, when quite by chance I popped into a remainder book shop in Bakewell and found two more for only £2 each: BRYANT AND MAY ON THE RAILS and BRYANT AND MAY ON THE LOOSE. Both are excellent and I was hooked. By now I had four books in the series and I was feeling a bit guilty that the writer isn’t benefiting more from this so I bought the next one, BRYANT AND MAY AND THE PROPERTY OF BLOOD, as an ebook from Amazon for around a fiver. However I was still feeling a bit guilty because I had resolved to cut down on purchases from tax-dodging Amazon, so for the next book I went into Waterstone’s in Sheffield. I was disappointed to find they had only the books I’d already read. However the following week I found WHITE CORRIDOR in Foyles on St Pancras station and bought that. So it’s only on the sixth book I actually bought a hard copy from a proper, old-fashioned bookshop. Incidentally, I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect the writer will get a better royalty from the ebook than from the paper copy. Several other thoughts occur to me. Amazon has a big advantage because it can stock so much more than a bricks and mortar bookshop and if you buy an ebooks you can have it in seconds. I don’t have a bookshop within walking distance so that is a factor. Same is true of the local library, though I could have gone when I was in Bakewell. I intend to buy the other books in the series in some form that will put money in the writer’s pocket, because I really like them and think it’s only right. But part of the reason that I feel that way is because I am a writer, too. If I wasn’t, that might not even occur to me. On the other hand, anyone might buy a book in a charity shop, reasoning that they haven’t lost much if they don’t like it, and then go on to buy the author’s other books (or even decide to make a TV series of them – as happened with one of Anne Cleeve’s books). So it’s a complicated picture, though it strikes me that as more and more people buy ebooks – sales have already overtaken hard copies – there will be fewer and fewer paperbacks for charity shops or second-hand book shops. It will take a while to make an impact, but I think it must in the end. For now though it’s the case that books have never been available so widely or cheaply. For the reader it is great. I am not so sure about the writer.