Charkin To Bezos: ‘Our Industry Should Salute You, and Kick Back’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

In his column today, Richard Charkin’s ‘Dear Jeff’ letter captures the publishing industry’s perennially conflicted viewpoints on Amazon.

Shopping at London’s Walthamstow market on November 3. Image – iStockphoto: Victor Huang

Editor’s note: The weeklong FutureBook conference, opening today (November 16) will on Tuesday feature an interview with Andy Hunter, the American entrepreneur behind the Bookshop.org platform. As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, Bookshop.org allows independent bookstores to have their own pages for digital sales from which they get 30 percent. This month, the program has opened in the UK with at least 130 shops. At this writing, the UK site says that £160,058 (US$211,585) has been raised for local booksellers. –Porter Anderson  


By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘I Have Some Reservations’
This is a time for risk-taking. The status quo is changing and we must adapt.

In that spirit, I’ve taken a risk of offending old friends in the publishing world with this open letter to Jeff Bezos and the book trade in general.

Dear Mr. Bezos and colleagues:

I have followed the amazing Amazon story from a publisher’s point of view since the very early days. My admiration for the extraordinary entrepreneurial success and for the focus on customer satisfaction has always been tempered by Amazon’s potential damage to the overall book trade, of which I’ve been a long-standing participant in various roles.

Richard Charkin

I was prompted to write this after a friend sent me a link to her new e-commerce platform whose purpose was “to avoid enriching Mr Bezos.”

This coincided with the launch here in the United Kingdom of Bookshop.org to support independent bookshops by creating a white-label, affordable e-commerce platform. This initiative, following on from its successful launch in the United States, has been greeted by the book trade with enormous enthusiasm and is regularly posting impressive-sounding sales figures. Hooray, I say. Anything that creates new avenues for the distribution of books is to be welcomed.

I do, however, have some reservations.

Some of this enthusiasm is, in my opinion, simply antipathy to Amazon, sometimes tacit, sometimes more open. This is a misconception.

There’s no way that Bookshop.org will ever compete with Amazon for customer satisfaction. Not least, it will never be able to offer the breadth of products that are available through Amazon—music, video, printing machines, stationery, food. Nor will the revenue generated for an individual independent bookseller save it from the spiraling costs of COVID-19 security, empty high streets, deteriorating economies and all the other effects of the current, and I fear continuing, crisis.

“I believe we should be clear-eyed about the absolute importance of Amazon and its subsidiaries.”Richard Charkin

And Bookshop.org will certainly not damage Amazon itself. In fact, I imagine the strategists in Seattle welcome such initiatives as “proof” that Amazon is simply a normal player in a highly competitive market.

That said, Amazon itself has much to answer for.

I’ve spent large swaths of time and effort trying to protect our industry and the business I work for from the threat of a dominant retailer imposing unreasonable trading terms and laying waste to the vibrant and multidimensional book trade. I’ve suffered standoffs in which Amazon removed “buy buttons.” I’ve had a public slanging match with the founder of Audible, my good friend Don Katz.

Our industry has had to deal with Amazon’s occasionally liberal interpretation of territorial rights; the pressure to use Amazon’s print services; the requirement to pay large amounts in co-op advertising which has never proved financially sensible for the publisher; attempts to force subscription services on publishers; and the subtle use of a dominant market position which, interestingly, is now being addressed by the European Union’s competition authorities.

In addition, there’s a widespread belief that Amazon’s tax planning is at the “aggressive” end of the spectrum and that its relations with its workforce, particularly the lower-paid workers, are questionable.

“Bookshop.org will certainly not damage Amazon itself. In fact, I imagine the strategists in Seattle welcome such initiatives.”Richard Charkin

That said—and I shall continue to argue about these and other matters—I want to extend a huge thank you to Amazon, Audible, Abe Books, Kindle Direct Publishing, and the rest for everything you and your team have done to allow the book trade to function effectively throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Doubtless, there will be authors, brick-and-mortar booksellers, and traditional publishers complaining about the additional market share you’ll have taken. I can empathize with them, but I believe we should be clear-eyed about the absolute importance of Amazon and its subsidiaries.

You have invested enormously and at risk to create what you have created. You have made an incredibly generous gift to the UK Book Trade Benevolent Society. I believe your well-endowed foundation in the United States will similarly give back some of the money earned from books.

Without Amazon in all its aspects, I cannot imagine how many authors and publishers would have been able to cope with the last many months of variants of lockdown. You have saved our industry, and I believe our industry should salute you and your teams, as well as continue to kick back against the negative aspects.

Kind regards,
Richard Charkin

The World’s End in Camden Town, London, a pub closed in the current British government COVID-19 restrictions. Image, November 12 – iStockphoto: VV Shots


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About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the IPA and the UK PA and for 11 years was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is president of The Book Society, vice-chair of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Frankfurt Book Fair. He is a non-executive director of Bonnier Books UK, Liverpool University Press, Institute of Physics Publishing, and Cricket Properties as well as founding his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Richard has an MA in Natural Sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a Supernumerary Fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London.