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A little tea, a little chat

I've been a compulsive reader, writer and theatre goer all my life. My book blog is here: http://alittleteaalittlechat.wordpress.com/ Mostly food at the moment but also knitting is here: http://cathyingeneva.wordpress.com/

Currently reading

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
Sheldon S. Wolin
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Gustave Flaubert
Nebula Award Stories 3
Harlan Ellison, Gary Wright, Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, J.G. Ballard, Anne McCaffrey
Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe
Helge Kragh
Max Frisch
Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism - Sheldon S. Wolin Updated 18 August 2013 I don't know why this is hard to understand, but when you are buying from Amazon, you are making a statement that you think people should exist like this:


instead of like this:


Not only are you happy to treat people like that, but you are happy with the rest of the consequences, which will come back to haunt you.

Updated 4 August 2013: I get asked how to avoid buying from Amazon: http://pioneerbooks.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/buying-books-and-avoiding-the-tax-avoiders/

Update 28 July 2013: Wow. I received a personal email from Amazon today, some guy called Otis. I thought I should share it with you:

On behalf of the Goodreads team, I want to say thank you. You’re in the top 1% of reviewers on Goodreads! Your many thoughtful book reviews help make us a vibrant place for book lovers.
And our community has been growing! We now number more than 20 million members on Goodreads.
Every day readers from all over the world are connecting over a love of books. And our 25 million reviews – including yours – are a big part of that conversation.
Thank you for your support of Goodreads, and keep reading! I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of your next book!

It ends with an exhortation to share this mail on facebook and twitter.

So, I just wanted to say hey, Otis, I'm glad you're lovin' my thoughtful reviews and hanging out for the next one. You must be some busy dude beavering away, reading all those reviews. I'm so happy that my community is now full of bots and people who have no books to mention whatsoever but want to shag me. It's great. Communities should be huge. MEGA huge. What would be the point of goodreads if it were just a small community of people who love books. And yeah, sure thing, I'll join facebook and twitter right now to continue to do your work for you. No wonder Amazon so wanted to buy you, goodreads is quite the superior business model, getting all those people to do all your work for zero pay.

By the way, the usual spurious use of statistics. What the fuck does being in the top 1% of reviewers mean? Not that I want to know, I just want to point out that it is a piece of bullshit.

Update 19 July 2013: One of the things I find fascinating is to discover that there are people on goodreads who think it is perfectly dandy that Amazon doesn't pay the tax it should. I guess in a way they could argue they are happy to pay higher tax rates themselves in order to support this idea. Unfortunately, it is only big companies, and especially multinationals who are able to implement this approach. So, it isn't just the amazon supporters who are paying the extra tax to make up for what Amazon avoids. It is also people who do not wish to support Amazon. One of the points that has been made lately is that small business have no way of avoiding tax. Booksellers have been discussing the idea of becoming a huge corporate body in order to avail themselves of the possibilities, but the fact is who wants to do that? We live in a society. Tax is part of that. It seems to me it is sociopathic to try to avoid this part of social life.

In the UK people have been trying to do something from the bottom up to enforce the payment of tax by Amazon. This has led to a petition signed by 170,000 people presented to parliament. The following is part of the speech that accompanied it.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con):....

However, this avoidance is not without its victims. It is businesses such as Warwick Books in my constituency and ordinary people who pick up the bill. Through this creative tax planning, the burden of taxation is shifted on to individuals and businesses that do not have the resources to spend on reducing their tax bill and on hiring expensive accountants to find loopholes in tax law.

I understand that there are some who believe that businesses have a moral duty to pay only the absolute minimum of tax that they are legally obliged to pay, but I cannot believe that that is the case. Businesses, even multinational companies, are still members of society. They benefit from a strong education system, a functioning health care system, decent roads, a transport infrastructure, the police and our armed forces. The reason we raise taxes is in order to produce public goods. We can argue whether the Government spend that money wisely, or whether the Government should provide this or that service, but that is the basic principle behind taxation.

Businesses have a moral responsibility to play a full part in our society, and structuring their businesses in order to avoid taxation and to make it harder for tax authorities to monitor their business is not fulfilling that responsibility. Voluntarily paying tax is not a long-term solution to this issue. What is needed is for multinational companies to take responsibility for their actions and respect the fact that they need to structure their businesses to reflect the way they are operated, rather than merely to avoid that taxation.....

Many of these companies depend on individuals and businesses buying their services, but as they avoid taxation, the Government have to find this revenue from other sources, reducing the profits and incomes of others and leaving them with less to spend on other goods and services. The regulatory arms race between multinational companies and states seeking to raise revenue is also distracting. It is distracting the corporations from focusing on productivity and creativity, and one wonders what marvels or products might have been created if multi- nationals had put the effort they put into avoiding tax into developing new ideas, services and products....

The sheer mechanics of the situation make it clear that action purely from the Government is unlikely to be the solution to the problem. There are hundreds of thousands of multinational companies, and only a handful of tax regimes capable of monitoring their information. It is always a game of catch-up, and while reforming tax codes and greater enforcement may help, they will not reach the nub of the problem. That is why I believe that we need to focus on the culture in international business, on the structure of these businesses and the codes of conduct they abide by. Fundamentally, businesses are staffed by people, and if we put in place the right frameworks, I believe that we can appeal to the better angels of their nature. This is the only long-term solution.

This isn't rocket science. Paying tax is a moral duty. Moral for human beings, moral for businesses. The simple way for businesses to understand this is to boycott them unless they behave in the right way. It isn't a game. It isn't about what you can get away with.

Update 18 May 2013: a word of reassurance for Amazon supporters.

Amazon supporters in the UK may have been alarmed to discover that Amazon found it could not avoid paying 2.4M in tax last year on sales of over 4B. But rest assured, the British government found a way of offloading the money it is saving in austerity measures - you know, taking money away from social services and libraries and public transport and so on - it gave slightly more BACK to Amazon in subsidies.

More on why you should avoid Amazon.

If you support Amazon, you know, go with the flow, take what’s good for you, as Tabasco and Paul Bryant think is the right thing to do, these are some other practices you are supporting:

Censorship by Amazon such as the removal of wikileaks from their Cloud.

Amazon campaigns designed to exploit small businesses until they are able to kill it completely: Amazon actively and explicitly advises people to go into shops to see what they want to buy, touch it, talk to a sales person about it etc and then buy it from Amazon. I’m not just blaming Amazon for this, people don’t have to go along with it. But they did and do. Please be advised that where you sit in my ranking of the world is scum.

Censorship of books. This one is both alarming and hilarious and results from the modern mentality of people wanting to get everything for nothing. ‘Hey, this is SO great. You get on Amazon, you buy self-published books and they are SO cheap.’ Then the complaints start coming in when people pay small amounts of money for crap. It’s a small amount of money because the writers have cut out the people who used to turn their writing into something publishable. So Amazon started to employ people for whom English is not their first language (this is my understanding), doubtless paying them the fair wage that all your good supporters of Amazon care about so much, and got them to start going through these self-published books and pulling them off Amazon lists, informing the writers that they had to be brought up to a publishable standard. How interesting that Amazon is now the world opinion on what that is. Laughably, some people pulled were well-established and credentialed writers who used language in the ways they pleased….not what these censors had learned in high-school English classes, however. Not that the writers are laughing, but hey, go with the flow, right, boys. What do you care if Amazon employees re-write the books you buy for next to nothing on Amazon.

I particularly like this story as a person who has spent quite a lot of my life not only writing, but also editing, type-setting etc. By all means buy books that aren’t edited by people with an appropriate command of the English language, by all means buy books from people who have no idea how to design and type-set a book. But what’s with complaining when you get an illiterate awful looking .pdf that somebody’s friends did a Twitter promotion for? What’s THAT all about?!!

Amazon Turk, crowd-sourcing, which some of you will know about. You get a group of people to do work for you, ranging from unskilled to highly skilled, ranging in pay offered from nothing (seriously) to whatever you think is appropriate. I am involved with a uni group in Geneva who has been using this to gather data for their research. A little while ago they got a message from Amazon saying that they were in violation of their agreement for asking workers to download an app. Interesting in itself – why WOULD this be illegal? One would think it is a free market place, you put a sign up saying $x/hour, download a program to speak French in your phone and do ‘y’. Next workers would decide whether they wish do to this. But no, for whatever reason, it is illegal. Being a uni group, spread around the world, it took them a while to figure out what to do about this. Meanwhile, Amazon wrote to them, closed their account for ever with no possibility of recourse to any higher authority AND confiscated all the money in their account. That’s pretty interesting, wouldn’t you say? Amazon tells you that you are doing something illegal, closes you down and takes all your money whilst giving you no right to appeal, discussion, NOTHING. Not that they didn’t try writing to support to discuss it further. A handy way for Amazon to make a few extra bucks, wouldn't you say? I'm gobsmacked that this is legal.

For those going with the flow, skip this, as you won’t care…., but some of you may not know that after goodreads had a sort of tactical falling out with Amazon where we all thought goodreads was on the right side, goodreads enlisted even more people than usual to do their unpaid librarian’s work on the site. Indeed, I sat next to Manny as he spent some hours now and then putting lots of book information back onto the site as part of his attempt to help. Not that he did a lot of work, but I surely do feel sorry for all the ‘librarians’ of goodreads who have done all this unpaid thankless work, thinking that it was because a few nice computer dorks who like reading needed help setting up their site. And I challenge Paul in his idea that ALL these sorts of things are started up by people expecting to make a huge amount of money whilst getting most people to work for nothing and that we should all know and expect that. I don’t know it. I am on various sites that I don’t think are like this at all. Why should the internet be any different from businesses in general? There are some that are set up for greed. There are lots set up for love. I think people believed goodreads was one of the latter….but it turns out it wasn’t.

What I am at a complete loss to understand is that to me, speaking as a historian, it is so obvious that what is happening with Amazon is close to some horrific science fiction story somebody like Orwell or Bradbury would write and we all would be reading thinking, hey, we're gonna make sure THAT never happens. But it is. And you all don't get it.


This, I expect IS the last actual new text I will put on Amazon as I remove my reviews. You can find it at my blog:


but since so many people have asked me how to buy books and avoid Amazon, I will spell it out here too.

How to buy books and avoid Amazon. If you don’t yet understand the many reasons you should avoid having anything to do with Amazon, please hop online, it won’t be hard to find some links.

1 If it isn’t too late, if it hasn’t closed down yet, visit your local bookstore. Buy books they have in stock. Ask them to order books for you. Be happy to have had a nice walk, a browse in a shop stocked by people who care, be happy to talk to a human being in the flesh. Understand that paying them extra is what you have to do unless you want your books to be shipped to you from a migrant undercutting the local workforce whilst housed in some sort of camp guarded by dogs. You probably wouldn’t want to have to do your job like that – whether you be a teacher, an accountant or a street sweeper – and neither should a bookseller have to live like that. Do your local streets look better if they have book shops and bric a brac shops, clothes shops, butchers, bakers and green grocers? Or do they look better if your local streets are full of nothing but OxFam shops and supermarkets whilst Amazon hides somewhere you can’t see it, waiting for you to press the button.

2. Buying online. Secondhand books. My business was part of the movement at the time that established ABE as the biggest of the databases that exist now. These are collectives of secondhand booksellers who joined forces so that the customer could go to one place and see and compare what was available from them. Some of them have real shops as well, some don’t. We haven’t had a shop since the late 1970s, but that’s a story for another time.

My business is still on ABE even though it has been taken over by Amazon. Why? Partly because we find that we would have to close down without being on ABE, but also because although Amazon now owns the company we built up in the same way goodreads members decided to put their weight behind that particular company, it hasn’t resulted in any changes at all that we are aware of. Certainly not for us. We are still a large number of independent booksellers just as before. We still all independently pay our tax. I know we pay every cent we owe not only legally but also morally. As my father who started the business, once said to a new accountant: ‘Don’t tell us how to avoid our tax. We live in a society. Somebody has to pay tax.’ Yes, we are on the poor side. 

However, whereas our moral weight used to be in support of ABE, it no longer is. We are part of other databases too, which aren’t owned by Amazon. I most highly recommend www.biblio.com which is a very friendly institution still on the side of both the bookseller and the book buyer. For Australians, at least, there is also www.booksandcollectibles.com.au which is a very basic site, no frills, but lots of people love it for that. Both these sites are large databases of big groups of booksellers. From any of these you will also get links to individual sellers and their sites – we have a site and a blog, for example.

I would beg you to go to secondhand booksellers rather than Oxfam, which with various unfair advantages, is aggressively and hostilely competing with booksellers. Again. If you buy from your local bookseller, you are giving money to the person who will buy meat from your butcher, clothes from your clothes shop, eat in your restaurant, pay for their kid’s music lessons. If you want to live in a community, support the community. If you want to live in a wasteland, shop at Oxfam.

May I add another complication. All sites like biblio and ABE start off with high standards, you have to demonstrate in some way that you are a bookseller of repute, because it is by their thus established good name that they are able to start letting in all and sundry without any standards. So, there are lots of sellers on all these sites now which aren’t what I think of as genuine booksellers. They will have vague descriptions of books up like ‘may have marks’ or ‘this item may ship from our warehouse in Sydney or in London or in NY’. Booksellers are little people. They don’t have warehouses all over the world stocking millions of books. They can see their books, they know what they look like, each book is a precise entity. They are like us, we have about 45,000 books listed on line with maybe another 50,000 we are struggling to get through to list. Personally I try to buy from ‘real’ booksellers. I also avoid the ones who tell you that they are employing sheltered workshop people which is why you should buy from them, or that they give 5% of each order to charity. P-leeease.

3) Buying online. New books. Quite the saddest moment in my book buying life recently was discovering that The Book Depository is now owned by Amazon. It was the leading competitor. As you will be aware, there is an organisation in the UK that makes sure big companies like Amazon don’t swallow up the competition. However, that organisation works in support of Amazon by letting them take over at a time when they can argue it isn’t fundamental to the industry. So, Amazon waits. If (say) The Book Depository stays really small, it ignores it. If it starts becoming a meaningful competitor it buys it before it gets so big that the powers that be won’t let it be swallowed up. That was the argument that led to the ruling that permitted Amazon to buy The Book Depository.

To be fair, realising that there are various ways of being owned by Amazon, I started a written discussion with The Book Depository to find out if they are still paying their taxes as they did, ie in the UK and in an (one hopes) honest way. I never received a frank answer to this. That has me now at a point where I have decided to stop buying from The Book Depository, even though it is with a heavy heart: living in a non-English speaking country it is relatively hard to buy books in English. BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE. We do have a couple of new bookshops here which stock English books, one of which is specifically and only English. I love it being there and I hate the thought that it is going to close down sooner (or later) because we all want to save a few bucks by buying online.