You've Got Nailed
Amazon.com is my new Microsoft. I hate the cocky online bookseller with a passion.My animosity toward the "other" Seattle tech giant has been building since the first time I heard that a friend had bought a stack of books online."I didn't have to pay sales tax!" she announced triumphantly. Of course, she paid shipping, and sent her money straight into the Washington state economy. All the while, my favorite local bookstores are struggling, trying to survive assaults by Borders and Barnes & Noble. At least those corporate monsters hire locally. But who cares about all that "shop local" talk? Amazon quickly became one of the hipper things going on the Internet. While my friends sported Amazon t-shirts and sipped from Amazon mugs, how sweet, how corporate -- their rewards for staying out of local bookstores -- I boycotted the shits.Now I can really say, "I told you so." Ever since the public learned last month that Amazon.com accepts "co-op" payments -- "e-merchandising," Amazon calls it -- from book publishers in return for good book reviews and placement on the site, the bookseller has been on the defensive. Well, yes, publishers are paying up to $10,000 for placement in the "Destined for Greatness" section, but Amazon editors reserve the right to reject any books they don't think are good, the cheaters now say. Of course, all this was unbeknownst to shoppers until The New York Times reported the sales ruse in February.This week, Amazon told site visitors for the first time about its nifty money-making scheme. Suddenly the site's index page lists a link for "cooperative agreements" where Amazon tries to explain away the policy. Frankly, I find the truth-come-lately disclaimer condescending and offensive. Why do they accept the funds in the first place? "It's pretty simple: co-op helps us keep costs low and discounts to customers high." It also helps keep the profit margins high and local, honest bookstores in trouble, you know.My favorite part is that Amazon claims to have an ethical out because it says its editors can reject any book, even one that comes with a huge publisher bounty attached. They just don't bother to very often. "Well, we spend more time reviewing titles we think are good. Those are the ones we want to tell you about," the policy explains.Where have I heard this before? Oh yes, I remember. I used to be editor at a small newspaper chain in New York. The publishers would only allow good reviews; we could not offend current or potential advertisers. So food writers had to "look for the good stuff."Those publishers could give a crap about ethics. They wanted to make money off an unsuspecting public. (They also changed the readers'-choice picks to advertisers, but that's another story.)However, we editors hated the practice of fooling the public, of engaging in questionable business practices, even if it meant free meals. If I visited a restaurant with awful service and bad food, I had to write about the romantic atmosphere.Worse, while the restaurant owners loved the "good reviews" they could tape in their front windows, our readers knew we were selling them out. We had zilch credibility.Amazon is doing the same thing. By secretly (until they got caught) mixing up real reviews with bought ones, the company was being disingenuous -- and making it startlingly clear that lucrative co-op dollars are more important than leading an online readers' community. Now the practice continues under the guise that the editors have an out. But how do we shoppers know if that's true? They didn't exactly build credibility with the reading community before getting caught like Rep. Bob Livingston with his pants hovering around the ankles.Having the power to reject books and using it are two different things. How many promotions await for upstart Amazon editors who regularly diss high-pricetag books? Please. The last thing we need is another Seattle company insulting our intelligence."We would never trade our long-term relationship with you for a single sale," the site now promises.Yeah, well. I remember a philandering boyfriend uttering something real similar just after I learned he was screwing someone else. And, you know what? He kept screwing her once he convinced me I was his one and only. Once a cheater, always a cheater.E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.