Boyd Tonkin: Amazon, the blundering and clueless giant, will have to watch its step

The Week in Books

A hefty slab of a cookbook weighs down my desk. Nothing odd about that, in the season when every primadonna with a white hat chucks a volume into the Christmas stewpot. Except that this one - The 4-Hour Chef by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and action-man Timothy Ferriss - sports a chilling logo on its spine: "Amazon Publishing". Ferriss likes his culinary artistry on the rugged side - indeed, the foodie stuff runs alongside a rather scary kind of survivalist manual - so I'm not surprised to find a spread that shows you how to rip the heart out of a freshly-slaughtered deer before you cook it.

Bloodthirsty metaphors, anyone? To many bookish eyes, Amazon itself has been wrenching vital organs from the bleeding body of the trade prior to feasting on the remains. It already ranks as the major platform for online authorship, thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing. To see the retailer's insignia on a more traditional parcel of dead trees indicates its soaring ambition.

In their own ways, all the digital behemoths have begun to encroach on the terrain once occupied solely by specialist publishers. Yet as Stephen Page - chief executive of Faber & Faber, and one of the sharpest thinkers on the future of his business - once pointed out to me, publishing remains a secondary activity for all. Amazon itself is a giant logistics and order-fulfilment firm; Google a mass harvester of consumer data for onward sale, via its search and storage services; Apple a restlessly innovative technology developer and marketer. As players in publishing, they are hobbyists. Yet such is their size and clout that even these second-string forays can sway the sector. Their rising might accelerated the merger of Penguin and Random House.

I doubt if Amazon's bosses have much time or inclination to read Shakespeare. But if they turn to Measure for Measure, they might find what Isabella says to Angelo: "O, it is excellent/ To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous/ To use it like a giant." And that super-sized irresponsibility, which has bred so much seething resentment across the world of writing, bookselling and publishing, came into focus this week at the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Led by Margaret Hodge, MPs delivered a tongue-lashing to Amazon's stonewalling director of public policy, Andrew Cecil. The firm's hapless - clueless - front-man came across as the James Murdoch of online retail.

As we have long known, Amazon pays very little tax on its UK (or other European) revenues thanks to its fiscal registration in Luxembourg. Amazon.co.uk is merely a service company which does not even own its stock. Some exemplary research by The Bookseller has exposed the huge abyss between the company's earnings and its tax contributions in Europe. In the five years after 2006, Amazon EU S.a.r.l. "has reported cumulative sales of €23bn, but combined profits of only €55m, on which it has declared net tax of €15m." In the meantime (to take just one example of what such legal tax avoidance means), its UK customers pay for the upkeep of roads that bring Amazon-sourced goods to them. Why does Amazon think itself above all that?

This is all entirely legal: as legal as a busful of barristers. But being legal does not make it right. Amazon's leaders should know that many key insiders in the fields they seek to dominate view them as a pack of bullying chisellers and cheats. Publishers and authors fear their power, and seldom speak out. And, as Cecil's feeble outing showed, Amazon doesn't care much anyway.

It seems that HMRC will now investigate the company's UK affairs, although there is no suggestion of any impropriety. In the court of professional and public opinion, however, Amazon stands squarely, and justly, in the dock. Over the coming years, the swaggering giant needs to watch its step.

Peak practice from an in-house explorer

Wade Davis, who has won the Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize for his Everest epic Into the Silence, boasts perhaps the coolest job title on earth: Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. And the most oxymoronic: surely the explorer is never in residence? Whatever: his truly superlative account of the traumatic impact of the Great War on the climbers of the 1920s - and on their grief-stricken culture – offers a peak read. Even a year before the war's centenary, it seems unlikely that any new book on the legacy of 1914-1918 can top this one.

Unearth this bombshell of a book

Unless you take a close interest in contrarian polemic, there's no particular reason why you should have heard of Richard Webster. A bookseller and freelance researcher who died last year, he enjoyed nothing more than puncturing modern pieties and exposing popular delusions. And nowhere did he do so more explosively than in his 2005 book The Secret of Bryn Estyn: the making of a modern witch hunt. At no point did Webster deny the reality of foul abuse at the north Wales children's home, now infamous again. However, he traced in forensic detail the grafting of a mountain of lies on top of a kernel of actual crime, as police "trawling" operations wrecked innocent lives. The book remains deeply controversial. Still, it will repay close study in the post-Savile panic. Bryn Estyn's shocking secret? That most of the demonised staff did a good, caring job.

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