After Protest, Booksellers Are Victorious Against Amazon Subsidiary
Posted November 7, 2018 6:22 p.m. EST
SAN FRANCISCO — A worldwide strike by antiquarian booksellers against an Amazon subsidiary proved successful after two days, with the retailer apologizing and saying it would cancel the actions that prompted the protest.
It was a rare concerted uprising against any part of Amazon by any of its millions of suppliers, leading to an even rarer capitulation. Even the book dealers said they were surprised at the sudden reversal by AbeBooks, the company’s secondhand and rare bookselling network.
The uprising, which involved nearly 600 booksellers in 27 countries removing about 4 million books, was set off by the retailer’s decision to cut off stores in five countries: the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, South Korea and Russia. AbeBooks never explained its actions beyond saying it was related to payment processing.
“AbeBooks was saying entire countries were expendable to its plans,” said Scott Brown, a Eureka, California, bookseller who was an organizer of the strike. “Booksellers everywhere felt they might be next.”
The matter was apparently resolved when Sally Burdon, an Australian bookseller who is president of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, spoke with Arkady Vitrouk, chief executive of AbeBooks. In a Wednesday email to her members after their talk, Burdon said Vitrouk apologized for the platform’s behavior “a number of times” and said booksellers in the affected countries would not be dropped as scheduled on Nov. 30.
“Arkady told us that ABE are very well aware of the mistake they have made,” she wrote in the email, which was viewed by The New York Times. “He stated that it was a ‘bad decision’ and that they deeply regret the hurt and harm they have caused.”
Richard Davies, a spokesman for AbeBooks, which is based in British Columbia, declined to comment on Burdon’s email. He provided a cryptic statement saying, “We are putting together a solution.”
The spark for the strike, designated Banned Booksellers Week, was less what AbeBooks did than how it did it. It provided explanations slowly and reluctantly, irritating booksellers who felt they were all being treated in cavalier fashion. Antiquarian bookselling is a close-knit community, with the official motto of the international association being Amor librorum nos unit — love of books unites us all.
“I would not have thought that we’ll succeed, but you showed the real meaning of our motto,” Adam Bosze, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Hungary, wrote in a message to his foreign colleagues Wednesday.
Vic Zoschak, president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, was optimistic on the sudden resolution. “I choose to believe yesterday’s dialogue between the two camps will be but a start to improved communications and relations, each dedicated to a continued win-win association,” he said.
Experts in selling on Amazon said such parity was difficult to achieve.
“I don’t think anything like this has ever happened before with any part of Amazon,” said Juozas Kaziukenas, chief executive of Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce analytics firm. “It would be much harder to have a strike on Amazon itself, just because there are so many sellers there and they are not part of an organized community.”
He added, “Whoever owns the platform owns the power. As a seller you are a small module in a massively complicated system. If a thousand of you say you will not do something anymore, 2,000 others will replace you. This is the harsh reality of being a seller.”
For Brown of Eureka Books, the lesson of Banned Booksellers Week was clear.
“We are entirely subject to their whims,” he said of Amazon. “We need to spend more time focusing our energies on our own business outside of the Amazon ecosphere.”
There was recently an effort to organize Amazon sellers as a trade association called the Online Merchants Guild. It was largely focused on sales tax issues, but the group said on its website that “the sky’s the limit in terms of how we can leverage our collective strength to improve the quality of life for all members.”
If nothing else, Banned Booksellers Week was the sort of public relations stumble for Amazon that seems a bit more common than it once was.
The company thrives on secrecy, preferring to release minimal information. It began as a bookseller and is now the largest in the world, controlling more of the market than any bookseller has ever done, and yet the number of serious books about Amazon itself could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
But as the company expands into doing everything everywhere, an iron grip is harder. Case in point was the recent news that leaked out that Northern Virginia was likely to be a spot for a new Amazon headquarters. That prompted Mike Grella, Amazon’s director of economic development, to lash out on Twitter last week.
“Memo to the genius leaking info about Crystal City, VA as #HQ2 selection. You’re not doing Crystal City, VA any favors,” he wrote. “And stop treating the NDA you signed like a used napkin.”