Archives for category: Bookstores

Via Book Business Magazine we receive this tale of woe originating at The Bookseller.

Peter Donaldson, managing director of Red Lion Books in Colchester, relates

“A few days ago, a customer approached our counter. She had in her hand the just published, new edition of that wonderful reference work Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Endlessly fascinating, it is an idiosyncratic treasure trove of word history, culture, folk lore and legend—and one of my favourite books. At £45, the price was more than our customer was expecting. I encouraged her saying that running to 1,600 pages it’s a monster of a book and one that will be used time and time again. For the right person it will become a loved friend in the bookshelf for a lifetime. Looked at in those terms, the £45 seems less daunting; more an investment and lifetime resource.

However, it seems a less worthwhile investment when The Book People and Amazon are selling it for £12.99.

I am well aware that since the demise of the Net Book Agreement every retailer can set their own prices for all books. I also recognise that, like supermarkets, some retailers of books might sometimes choose to sell at an unrealistic price as a “loss leader”. However, we also all know that there is some relationship between the discount a publisher gives and the price that a company can realistically sell at.

I think it is clear that selling a new book at over 70% discount (plus free postage on a heavy book) is way beyond normal discounting of new titles and one can only presume that the publisher, Hachette’s John Murray, has given a discount which enables this. If so, then surely it is short-sighted. It undermines sales through high street shops, which are under enough pressure anyway. Shops that support and sell across the range of John Murray’s books.

If you consider the publisher’s earned income from a title across different market sectors, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that, in reality, high street bookshops are subsidising the discounts given to online and direct-to-consumer operations like The Book People.

We and our customers are treated as mugs.

Brewer’s might be a relatively recent addition to the list, but I believe at least six generations of John Murrays will be turning in their graves!”

Now of course he’s right, isn’t he? Not necessarily I fear. The whole tale seems a little odd. As far as I can see, John Murray doesn’t in fact publish an edition of Brewer — though several other publishers do. It’s one of these popular reference books which has largely migrated to the special markets/promotional/remainder-table market, and all sorts of publishers compete for the lowest denominator buck. No doubt Mr Donaldson is referring to the Chambers 20th Edition of the book which was published on 1 November this year at £45 in hardback. (Chambers is also part of Hodder & Stoughton, which in turn is part of Hachette — acquisitions make for messy structures, so who knows whether Red Lion Books may not be ordering their Chambers books from the Murray rep?)

The Book People do indeed have a Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable for £18 but it’s a paperback of the 19th Edition, also listed as coming from Hodder & Stoughton. Amazon UK offers this edition at £13.93, while they do indeed show an offering of Mr Donaldson’s £45 hardback for £12.99. However if you drill down to the next level you’ll find that all the copies Amazon UK is offering are from partner sites, book dealers, and while there is indeed one copy offered at £12.99 most of them are over £30. Indeed one intrepid seller in Germany is trying to tempt you with a price of £51.09 (these odd looking prices on Amazon are usually translations from a different currency). It almost looks like Amazon hasn’t ordered this edition at all. Chambers published it a month ago, so it can’t be a matter of the books not having arrived yet. Maybe Amazon have decided that the market for Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is just too capricious to play in, and have decided just to leave it to the remainder-table market.*

One can sympathize with Mr Donaldson, clearly a fan of the book. A well-stocked bookstore should no doubt represent this book.  Maybe in addition to his £45 copy he might buy for 1 penny a “good” used copy of the 1981 edition as a discounted alternative.

The problem appears not to be with Chambers’ or Hodder & Stoughton’s discounting policies, and certainly not with John Murray’s. The problem is the modernization of the book market, enabling people to access books “slightly used” or allegedly “new” at all sorts of prices. Sure things were simpler with the Net Book Agreement. I used to like it when the telephone was tied to the wall, and you didn’t have to remember to take it with you, but now we just have to play along.


* This explanation becomes rather less probable when one finds Amazon US offering the £45 book, as a regular Amazon-stocked item. They show their discounted price of $37.39 as being reduced from a published price of $59.95, consistent with a £45 UK price. This entry is just what one would expect from any regular book stocked by Amazon. It is a bit odd too though. Amazon lists publication date as 5 March 2019. The ISBN they show is the same ISBN as Chambers is using in the USA. The publisher who they say will be supplying this book in March next year is Teach Yourself, yet another imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

However, as of today, you can buy a new copy of this book from Amazon US but you can’t get one from Amazon UK, where you can only get it from a partner dealer. Can it just be that Amazon UK is out of stock temporarily? If they cannot supply a book, Amazon will take down the publisher’s information leaving only any partner offerings there may be. If this is the correct explanation, it’ll be interesting to see what price they ask when/if it comes back into stock. However the book is currently available for instance from Waterstones at £45, and from W. H. Smith at (sorry Mr Donaldson) £29.25. Brave new world that has such discounts in it!

Websites with cultural aspirations (must include Making Book I suppose) love to reproduce photos of nice-looking book places.

Here’s a showing of bookshops and libraries in Scotland, followed by a library photo gallery from The Atlantic. Fascinatingly they both feature a phone box converted into a library from different ends of the UK. One wonders how people are meant to access the shelves in this Seoul library.

Photo: Aaron Choi/ Shutterstock

Even just to dust the books, if as I suspect, they’re only there for display.

Running a bookstore is obviously not quite the same thing as running any other business. I suppose there may be the odd ironmonger fascinated by those ancient pliers lurking in the back corner, but booksellers are surely more at risk of having strong feelings about their inventory than any other retailers. Still, if you open a bookshop and insist on stocking it only with books you love, you risk disappointment culminating in early financial embarrassment. On the other hand the reason why local independent bookstores are currently doing better than big chains is precisely this feeling of the stock being selected by someone with likes and dislikes, and who is there to talk about their choices.

NPR tells about the tweet storm (maybe just a tweet weather incident) consequent upon Southport, UK bookseller Broadhurst’s Bookshop‘s announcement “I have just sold a book that we have had in stock since May 1991. We always knew its day would come.” Their tweet is followed by several comments which are worth seeing.

Now, if Broadhurst’s were to inventory only books which they had held in stock for 25 years, they would of course not be doing too well. No business can afford to keep its capital tied up for that length of time — as book publishers have been forced to acknowledge over the last fifty years. It would make for an interesting study to work out the average age (time since it was printed) of books sold by publishers over the last century. I’d guess that nowadays the answer would be less than one year, whereas back in the sixties it might have been near two: obviously new books will always tend to sell more than back-list, so looking only at back-list one might find numbers more like 2-3 years today and 5-10 back then. We publishers used to love to hang onto those objects we so loved and had lavished such care and investment dollars on creating. I can remember in my early days in this business finding in the “slow-moving stock” part of the warehouse books which had been printed in the 18th century. We’d even wrap up slightly damaged books and keep them so we could sell them off years into the future when we’d begun to run out of stock. These were called first copies. All publishers overprinted in those days; there was a letterpress technological determinant driving this, and we went along with it happily. These books looked so good; we all cared deeply about them; and laying down a few years’ stock made us feel warm and virtuous. Just not a really good business plan, as we were eventually forced to recognize.

The tightly managed bookshop nowadays cannot afford to hold their inventory for too long; probably something like one year would be considered too long. Sitting on the sidelines one often gets the impression that large bookselling accounts are settling their bills with publishers by returning for credit books which they’d ordered a year ago. In this way they come close to acting like a consignment supplier — taking a cut on the sale of inventory which is actually owned by the publisher. Rigorous inventory control and profitability are (unfortunately for the sentimental bookman/booklady) essential to business survival. There’s a certain Quixoticism involved with 25-year old inventory, and the romantics among us should perhaps do whatever we can to encourage such behavior.

I particularly like the proposal of one of the respondents to the Broadhurst tweet who plans to go into bookshops and buy the book which has been in stock for the longest time. Such regular randomness should result in a fascinating collection of books: inevitably some of them will be good, won’t they? It’s sort of like hanging about in second-hand bookshops.

Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the link.

Amazon, as we all know, has opted to place its second headquarters in two places: Long Island City in New York City and Crystal City adjacent to Washington, DC. Nobody (except presumably Amazon people) yet knows what’ll go here and what there. Apparently DC is richer in computer programmers, while NYC is the center of book publishing and media, retailing, advertising, and finance.

Shelf Awareness carries a report on reactions in the book community, which reads in part “In strongly worded letters to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ABA CEO Oren Teicher wrote that ‘it is unconscionable that state tax dollars paid by [New Yorkers & Virginians] would be redirected to subsidize one of the world’s largest — and most profitable — companies, which, among other things, has a history of doing whatever it can to drive competitors out of business and to avoid paying its fair share of taxes.’

Teicher added: ‘It is simply bad public policy to direct public money away from infrastructure, first responders, and public schools — which benefit all [New Yorkers & Virginians] — and, instead, to direct that money to a single international mega-corporation with a market capitalization that dwarfs virtually every other company. . . Local businesses are the backbone of our state’s fiscal health. The news of such massive public subsidies to one of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations is contrary to the long-term interests of all [New Yorkers & Virginians].'”

Fair enough I guess: that’s Oren Teicher’s job. However I can’t really see why Amazon’s having HQ 2.1 in the city really carries any more of a threat to local booksellers that their being based in Seattle did. If they want to build a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, Amazon will build a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Does anyone really think that by putting staff into the Citicorp Jackson Avenue building, Amazon will suddenly realize that this is just where they should have had a bookstore all along. Of course as they move more and more high-paying jobs into the area they will inevitably improve the outlook for local retail businesses, but I assume they have pretty sophisticated analysis of where they might place new stores, and don’t just watch their employees flooding out of the building to buy their lunch.

There’s lots of knee jerking going on over this issue. NYC has managed to prevent Walmart’s setting up stores in the city, so some ask, what’s the difference between Walmart and Amazon. Well, rather obviously, the difference is that Amazon is bringing headquarters staff jobs, not retail stores which would directly negatively impact local shops. (Of course, one can argue that Amazon does indeed represent a threat to local retailers anyway; but that on-line retail threat would exist whether their headquarters were in Walla Walla or Long Island City.)

I have heard it claimed that the tax subsidy in New York City amounts to about 7¢ on every $1 of salary paid. The mayor says that the city will be getting $13.5 billion in tax revenue over the 25 year life span of the deal. Obviously such estimates are based on assumptions about staffing and salary levels. There will apparently be 25,000 new jobs over 10 years, with “most being paid $150,000”. The job total may rise to 40,000 over 15 years. I can’t really see how this is a bad deal for the city. Sure, it could have been 6¢ or less — but surely the city’s tax take from income taxes earned from good paying jobs which didn’t exist yesterday is worth a lot more than that. And there will be tax benefits from the extra consumption of new employees. Even before this deal $2 billion had already been committed in infrastructure in the already growing area of LIC. Amazon is donating part of their site for a school. Of course Jeff Bezos doesn’t really need any subsidy, but all of the subsidies offered to Amazon are subsidies available to any company. In other words, according to the mayor, NYC refused to fashion any tailor-made incentives for Amazon. One can deplore the common practice of states and cities providing subsidies to bring jobs to their communities, but, if everyone’s doing it, refusing to take part obviously guarantees failure. City boosters who claim that even if NYC had refused to talk to them Amazon would have come here anyway are just whistling Dixie. If the purists had prevailed in their insistence that no subsidies should have been offered to a company run by the world’s richest man, the end result would no doubt have been that 100% of HQ2 ended up going to Crystal City or somewhere else. Seems like a reasonable sprat to catch a rather large mackerel.


The account given by Shelf Awareness of the trouble over CEO Demos Parneros’ firing, B&N’s chronicle of a deal undone, sounds embarrassingly like an episode of a trashy television drama. You’ll have to scroll down a little to get to the S.A. story: it’s the fourth item. As The Digital Reader points out this is just the opposite of the kind of publicity Barnes & Noble could use right now.

For a couple of years we have all been living in fear of a Barnes & Noble collapse. True, the share price did bump up a little recently, but maybe that was just because of take-over rumors. Surely the brutal truth is that the day of the massive bookstore has passed. Twenty years ago someone who was looking for a non-bestseller book would know that the widest inventory holdings would be found down at the mall, so it would be worthwhile driving down there to take a look. Worst case, B & N, Borders, Walden could special order it for you and in a week or so you’d have the book. Nowadays it’s just not worth using the gas — they probably won’t have the book anyway, and everyone knows that Amazon will, and will be able to get it to you quicker and cheaper than any B & N special order can.

More and more the center of gravity of bricks-and-mortar bookselling looks like settling on the local independent bookstore.* Its stock has been selected with the local customer base in mind, so maybe you will actually find that book there since they may have anticipated your interest! Offering the sort of intimate, personal experience that a chain just can’t manage, your local bookstore is above all local, and book readers are preselected to want to encourage local businesses which are making clear efforts to cater to an audience of neighbors. Barnes & Noble appears to recognize this — they’ve been trying to move towards smaller stores. But no matter how good the staff they put into these smaller stores may be, B & N cannot escape the crushing reality that they are not a local store: they are a national conglomerate. Killingly though, from the shareholder point of view, can small stores generate the sort of sales volume needed to keep a Fortune 500 company going?


* I’ve been preaching this small-is-beautiful line for ages. Just the other day I dragged it in to a discussion of the outlook for book publishing.

I thought it would never happen, but no doubt that was because of an undue fixation on our national governmental stasis. How could we forget that many states are different? The city of San Francisco has just budgeted $103,000 to support eleven independent bookstores. The Mission Times (via Shelf Awareness) tells the story.

“In addition to the grant money, the bookstores will receive technical assistance for marketing, human resource consulting, and help negotiating long-term leases.

The recipient stores were Green Apple Books, EastWind Books, Dog Eared Books Valencia, Dog Eared Books Castro, Alley Cat Books and Gallery, Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, Comix Experience, Bolerium Books, Mission: Comics & Art, Stevens Books and Just a Touch Christian Bookstore.”

I still await, with dangerously bated breath, the legislation which will make it illegal for landlords to jack up the rent on bookstores beyond some sort of acceptable level. We have rent control and rent stabilization in New York City for people’s apartments, so why not for socially important shops too? It’s not really good enough to cross your fingers and hope that the landlord will be socially responsible enough to moderate rent demands on their own initiative. This did in fact recently happen when Three Lives was saved. No doubt one could make a list of other important institutions to be included, like the corner grocery store. We recently rallied (successfully, rather surprisingly) in this neighborhood against a chain pharmacy’s plan to turn our supermarket into a massive drug store — more pharmacies we don’t need, food we do.

The Travelodge chain has bothered to compile a list of books left behind by their guests in their British hotel rooms. Apparently they’ve had to deal with 70,000 abandoned books this year.

The top twenty forgotten books thus far in 2018 as recounted by Travel & Leisure are:

  1.  “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
  2.  “The Couple Next Door” by Sharri Lapena
  3.  “Bad Dad” by David Walliams
  4.  “Origin” by Dan Brown
  5.  “The Secret” by Rhonda Bryne
  6.  “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  7.  “Paul O’Grady’s: Country Life” by Paul O’Grady
  8.  “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn
  9.  “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway” by Jeff Kinney
  10.  “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling
  11.  “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” by Johanna Brasford
  12.  “IT” by Stephen King
  13.  “The World’s Worst Children” by David Walliams
  14.  “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” by J.K. Rowling
  15.  “Big Little Lies” by Liana Moriarty
  16.  “All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class” by Tim Shipman
  17.  “Harry Potter: Coloring Book,” Warner Bros.
  18.  “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
  19.  “Donald Trump: The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump
  20.  “Disney Princess Beauty and the Beast Magical Story,” Disney

Now of course to get on the list a book has to be quite popular: a lot of people have to be carting it around. But is that all? Doesn’t leaving your book behind imply a sort of loss of interest. After all if you were really into the book, in that can’t-put-it-down sort of way, well, you sort of wouldn’t be able to put it down, would you? One or two of the books might be thought of as falling squarely into that category. Unsurprisingly several children’s books figure: always difficult to get them to focus on packing.

Many of the guests leaving books behind did report that they did so because they’d finished the book — though one wonders who was asking them.

Perhaps even more fascinating is Travelodge’s list of odd things left behind in rooms.

Link via BookRiot, 4 September 2018.

It’s hardly surprising that independent booksellers should feel frustration and powerlessness in the face of discount-granting publishers. Publishers not only get to determine the discount they’ll give, but also set the retail price off which that discount is granted. But, while I’m sure it’s never easy balancing your books, surely this piece from Publishers Weekly by bookseller Jonathan Platt can be said to miss the point that costs have gone up for everyone not just for bookstores.

Unfortunately we live in a world where neither bookstores nor book publishers function as public charities or quasi-governmental organizations. I dare say arguments in favor of such a situation would prevail in Utopia, but unfortunately we are doomed to deal with the here and now. We regularly hear how publishers should be giving authors a better deal. The same argument applies at both ends of the publishing supply chain: most books just aren’t selling as many copies as they once did. Publishers can keep their income up by simply publishing more of them, which doesn’t help bookstores any, nor authors other than those who can churn out multiple volumes each year. Now we should admit here that publishers’ margins have improved a bit over the past year or so: but surely no business owner would suggest that any improvement in profitability should immediately be passed on to customers. If this were to go on for a longer period, who knows?

The way retailers can counteract overhead cost increases is to increase sales revenue. Some of this happens just because the prices of books go up. Obviously 47% of a $29.95 novel is more than 47% of a $6.95 one — the price at which Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969. (See How to boost your sales?) No doubt it’s frustrating that you as a bookseller have no control over the price of these books, and while it’s quite legal to charge more than the face price of a book, it requires considerable intestinal fortitude to set such a policy — in the face of on-line discounting this might also be suicidal.* To the extent that price increases for books march more or less in step with price increases for everything else, this is perhaps of little comfort. (I would argue that trade discounts have in fact grown since Portnoy‘s days: perhaps not as much as Mr Platt would like, but grown.) Real revenue enhancement unfortunately has to come from selling more books or other stuff, or doing the job with fewer people. Harsh perhaps, but the same reality is faced by the publisher and any other businesses.

Be it noted that many independent bookstores are having success in achieving just these ends, and that we are in fact living through a time of bookstore growth. Heck, even Barnes & Noble opened a new store in Maryland last week.


* I wonder if any good would come of changing the pricing policy for books. Mr Platt justly identifies discounting by big-box and on-line stores as a large issue. His implication that this was a sort of general policy decision by publishers is of course not correct. If someone offers to take a huge number of copies off your hand, you may be liable to offer a discount: I dare say if you went into Nonesuch Books & Cards and asked to buy 100 copies of Fear, even Mr Platt might be willing to cut you a little bit of a deal. I would imagine that if publishers were to attempt to fix discounts to big retailers on an industry-wide basis this would in fact be an illegal restraint of trade. But would it help if publishers were to cease establishing a retail price and selling to bookstores at a discount from that price, and change to selling at a net price — more or less half of what their retail price is today? Bookstores would then be able to set whatever price they wanted, and might perhaps then be less at risk from losing sales to discounters? Not sure that’d be so. I expect what would happen would be a flight to the lowest price available from say Amazon which anyone can discover instantly on their iPhone.

While our current system may not be perfect, it does, I suspect, function better than any achievable alternative.

We all watch in amazement as Penguin Random House surges ahead to ever greater heights of publishing output. Now of course we do have to allow for the possibility that they, or parent Bertelsmann, are making a mistake in getting ever larger in an already mature industry. Though that’s perhaps hard to believe: we are used to thinking they can do no wrong. They seem set on a course of industry dominance. (Is industry dominance not always a good thing? Perhaps not if you are dominating a doomed industry? But is book publishing doomed?)

The New Republic has an article, entitled “Penguin Random House is Building the Perfect Publishing House”, which examines the relationship between Amazon and PRH, or more accurately speculates about this relationship.

The Passive Voice provides a link to this piece, and follows it up with some acerbic commentary including this concluding paragraph: “PG [Passive Guy, the voice of Passive Voice] is continually amazed that anyone in the book business thinks Amazon is anything less than the best thing that has ever happened to traditional publishers and authors of all stripes. Despite all the platitudes staggering around physical bookstores and literary bars, there is absolutely nothing inevitable about the traditional publishing business in the digital age.” Don’t these two sentences kind of cancel one another out? If we have no future, how come anything current can be the best thing that ever happened to us? PG does tend, it’s true, to the view that the best thing that could happen to publishing is that it should go away, and this would of course sort all this out. A corrective to his partial, off-kilter view of publishing might be provided by Joe Esposito’s sober analysis at The Scholarly Kitchen of How Traditional Publishing Works.

Is Amazon the best thing that ever happened to publishing? I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing, but for publishers, just like the advent of ebooks, it’s probably a fairly neutral thing. Sure Amazon’s size enables it to command ever greater discounts. Still, even without Amazon upward pressure on discounts was always there: the book chains came into existence at least in part to enable them to increase their negotiating heft. It’s true that pre-Amazon we used to have to sell our books to a multiplicity of smaller retailers, and now we get to sell lots of copies direct to a single large retailer. We still try to sell to the little stores too though, so it’s not as if Amazon had saved us anything by increasing our efficiency. Before Amazon, books were sold. Now that we have Amazon books are still being sold. Not as many copies of most of them as it happens, but that may have nothing to do with Amazon. The industry grows its output and massive corporations like PRH can churn through a lot of titles in a season — but of course PRH is basically just the result of consolidation of lots of smaller lists. All those books would still be there if they came from 90 publishing houses rather than just one. Amazon is indeed a huge retailer, and obviously has a giant presence in all book publishers’ thinking. But the publishing process remains basically identical to what it was twenty five years ago. We’ve taken advantage of a few technological advances, but we’ve been doing that ever since the scribes held up their hands in the face of Gutenberg’s Bible. Nowadays we publishers may have to fight harder to preserve our margins, but we have become pretty skillful at pressuring our suppliers too.

The Passive Guy also opines “Amazon doesn’t need to sell books. Randy Penguin does.” (Randy Penguin is what he wittily calls PRH.) And I suspect he may be right on this. Amazon started out selling books because they were simple; they commanded a reasonable price, the inventory wouldn’t spoil, the people who wanted them were likely to be digitally connected, and many people actually did live quite a long way from the nearest bookstore, and would certainly be willing to wait a day or two after buying the book before they actually saw it. I dare say one could figure out what percentage of Amazon’s sale is now comprised of books, but I do know it’s not the 100% it was initially. Cloud computing services, film and TV production, space exploration, and a list of retail offerings as long as the Amazon itself, must make books almost a sentimental reminder of the good old days when the company was just a little rivulet. Publishers are quietly increasing the number of books they sell direct to consumers (see my recent post D2C). We used to think that competing with Amazon would necessitate building a system as big and efficient as theirs: now I suspect we can see signs that a little-by-little response may be perfectly adequate.  Who’d be utterly amazed if Amazon didn’t end up just getting out of the book business, and selling the whole kit and caboodle to someone? Maybe PRH if they’re still intent on growing?

TechCrunch tells us of discussions around Senator Sanders’ introduction of a bill in Congress to regulate the “corporate culture” of big companies; Walmart and Amazon as well as the fast food industry are seen as large targets.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post to view it in your browser.

The bill, named the “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies” Act (after Jeff Bezos) was introduced on 5 September by Senator Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna of California. The bill would require companies with more than 500 employees to pay 100% tax on every dollar of government assistance that their workers receive. This tax would apply to everything from Medicaid and food stamps to public housing and other aid, which sounds rather hard to figure out: but hey what are bureaucrats for?

Unsurprisingly Amazon says it’s a great place to work. We have of course often heard about how horrible it is to work at Amazon, how workers queue up for hours to get through the anti-theft system at the end of the day etc. etc.. Maybe, maybe. It’s always easy to describe your workplace as awful: the boss is ignorant, your colleagues lazy, the work stultifying. I wouldn’t be confident that I wasn’t guilty of such a thing every now and then. Disgruntlement is endemic in the labor force. As I have occasionally had to say, “If it was all fun, we wouldn’t have to pay you to come in”. Amazon claims that their average hourly wage is $15, which falls right into Senator Sanders’ wheelhouse. Of course people persist in using median and average so as to maximize the impact of their argument. I wonder how the median salary at Amazon quoted by TechCrunch as “$28,444, less than Bezos makes every ten seconds” is calculated. Does it include Mr Bezos’ salary? Sen. Sanders gives examples of lots of Amazon workers making less than $15, and obviously there must be a lot to make that median work out.

Here’s Washington Post’s similar story. Although it is Mr Bezos’ own paper, it plays a pretty straight bat on the subject. I don’t really know the rights and wrongs of the Amazon wage structure, but if a company were systematically to be paying its workers less than they “should” be, confident in the knowledge that the workers would be able to make up any shortfall against the basic cost of living by getting food stamps from the government, I’m not sure whether I would regard this as altogether wicked. You pay the wages you need to pay in order to attract workers. If you pay too little, workers will find other jobs — something which I agree may be difficult in particular instances. If a worker, having a job anywhere, is able by the terms of the government’s SNAP regulations to qualify for food stamps, I can’t see any problem with their getting food stamps. At $15 an hour and a full time job you would not qualify for food stamps I think, (depends on the number of dependents etc.) but increasing the minimum wage might be a better approach than this odd tax claw-back. We might also look into the growth of part-time employment, a common means of by-passing benefit payments.

The food stamp program exists to ensure Americans, especially children, get a decent basic diet, and can be regarded more like a national health program than a work assistance one. Surely, just because a company is notoriously profitable cannot be turned into an argument that the nutrition of their workers should not be a concern of the state. We can probably all agree that it is desirable that anyone with a decent job should be able to feed their family out of their wages. The problem comes when they can’t, either because the pay packet isn’t large enough, because they can’t get enough hours, or because, as conservatives might claim, they spend their money on other frivolous stuff. Everyone has to think that children shouldn’t suffer malnutrition because of the spending choices of their parents. The (rather moderate) socialist Sen. Sanders ought perhaps not be attacking employers: shouldn’t he rather be introducing legislation to extend food stamps under SNAP to even more people, trying to curtail part-time and zero-hour contracts, or perhaps even pushing yet again for a national health scheme?