In last December’s issue Vanity Fair ran an article entitled “The War of the Words”. The article’s lead-in includes the question “How did Amazon — which was once seen as the book industry’s savior — end up as Literary Enemy Number One?”  The Digital Reader sounds doubtful that Amazon was ever seen as a savior. Well, maybe savior would be putting it too high, since we were not thinking back then that we might be in need of one, but when Amazon came on the scene and started selling books, and books, and more books, many a pair of publishing hands were rubbed gleefully together. The industry’s beef with Amazon is nothing more than its previous beef with the retail chains. Any dominant channel will cause concern as its strength allows it to keep on pushing for better terms of supply.

In a subsequent post by a former Amazonian The Digital Reader answer their doubts themselves. To me the key difference between Amazon and the previous world order of chain stores is that back then after the initial sales push when the stores would be full of copies, the book would begin to disappear, vanishing totally after about six months. Amazon on the other hand is brilliant for back list sales: the book can remain available for ever, without selling any minimum quantity. This becomes even more true when we get to print-on-demand: Amazon have their own POD installation and have overnight delivery agreements with others. So they don’t even need to hold stock. Sure in the old days Borders or whomever would offer to special order an older book for you, but you had to really want it to go down that road.

These debates were occasioned by the tough negotiations between Amazon and Hachette, which of course ended with a conciliatory whimper rather than the big bang which the commetariat almost seemed to be hoping for. Here’s another, more recent story from Publishing/Writing giving a sane appraisal of Amazon’s undoubted strengths and value. (Link via The Passive Voice.) Amazon is now almost every publisher’s largest retail account — getting rid of your books is a fairly “good” thing to have happen, and the company that does most of that is really your best friend, however fraught relationships may occasionally be.

Of course Jeff Bezos knows that being big means you’re a big target. The latest turmoil about their labor practices, provoked by an article in The New York Times, is an example of how it goes on and on. (You may run into a paywall trying to access this piece.) Amazon seems to work their employees hard and push them to be better. Some people value this; others resent it. Obviously there are better jobs than working in a massive warehouse — but not everyone has access to them. Many people are rather happy to have any job, even if they do have to go through metal detector gates as they leave work. It does sound as if they have relatively high turnover but that’s true of many places nowadays. As Mr Bezos says, according to Quartz, if it was all that bad they wouldn’t be working there. And when the job scene perks up many of them will probably be able to find other better jobs — which may be the moment at which Amazon ups its pay rates.