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. 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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'