Last updated November 2016
Doing Ethics by the Book
Amazon’s march of conquest continues. The percentage of print-book consumers using the online giant rose seven percentage points between 2014 and 2016, to reach two thirds of all buyers.
The UK has only one large remaining national high street chain focused specifically on books– Waterstones, which has about 30% of the non-Amazon market. Most of the remainder is taken by WHSmith, which has about 25% of it, the Works, with 15%, and Tesco, with 13%. The others, including Blackwells and Foyles, have only a few per cent each.
The independent bookshop sector is not feeling well. There are 894 independent bookshops in the UK, but since 2005, the number has fallen by 42%.
Amazon’s monopoly over the e-book market is virtually complete. The Booksellers Association estimates that its share of total UK e-book sales is as high as 95%.
When other companies have tried to get into the game, they’ve rapidly given up again: Book Glutton, FictionWise and Books on Board closed in 2013. Nokia Reading, Sony Reader Store, Diesel Ebooks, Ebook.com, Samsung Books and Scholastic Storia shut in 2014. Tesco Blinkbox Books, Entitle, and Flipkart Ebooks followed suit in 2015. Oyster, Waterstones, Txtr, Sainsbury’s Entertainment gave up in 2016, and Nook pulled out of the UK in the same year, although you can still buy e-books for non-Nook devices from Barnes and Noble in the US.
The tiny proportion of sales that aren’t from Amazon are now largely from Apple iBooks, WHSmith and Google Play Store.
E-books now account for around 18% of total book sales. After growing very fast they have now levelled off while print sales have revived, which has prompted lots of speculation in the media about the end of the digital revolution.
Amazon’s hegemony over e-books is connected to its domination over e-readers. Kindle almost entirely owns the e-ink market, with Kobo and Bookeen being its only real remaining UK competitors. See our guide to e-readers.
Officially you can only use Amazon’s own e-books on Kindles. However, there are ways to get non-Amazon books onto Kindles. We explain how to below.
Ownership of e-readers has also plateaued at around 29% of adults.
The anti-social finance category broken down
Our worst rating for the likely use of tax avoidance strategies was awarded to Alibris, Waterstones, Abebooks, Nook, Apple, Google, the Book Depository and Amazon. Our middle rating went to Kobo and WH Smith. All others got our best rating.
The following companies were marked down for excessive directors pay: WH Smith (highest wage £3.9 million), Nook (highest wage $2,9 million), Google (highest wage over $100 million) and Apple (five people received over $25 million).
Environmental reporting and supply chain management
This is not a sector brimming with corporate social responsibility policies.
We expect companies to discuss their key environmental impacts, be taking measures to reduce them, and to present independently audited environmental performance data. But hardly any of them were - every company but WH Smith and Better World Books got our worst rating for Environmental Reporting.
On the management of workers' rights in supplier companies (Supply Chain Management category on the table), the only companies that got a best rating were WH Smith and Oxfam. Apple got a middle, and all the others we rated got a worst. We did not rate Ebooks.com and NearSt in this category because they are digital-only and don’t sell physical goods.
As books are made of paper, this is a key area for this sector, and we rated all of the shops that sell paper books on their published policies on timber sourcing. To achieve a best rating we expect to see a commitment to not source illegal or unsustainable timber but to use a high percentage of FSC certified timber or recycled paper.
Oxfam and WH Smith both had good policies.
As far as we could find, none of the others had a wood sourcing policy.
Avoiding Amazon if you own a kindle
For those of you who already have a Kindle e-reader here are some handy hints to help you avoid Amazon when buying e-books for it.
Feedbooks is a free, open-source version of the Amazon Kindle store and it’s totally legal.
To use it go to feedbooks.com/help/kindle and download the Kindle-formatted catalogue. You do this directly on the device via the built-in browser.
Open the catalogue like you would any e-book and browse through the available titles. When you find something you want, select it; you’ll be taken to a download page and the book will automatically be loaded onto your Kindle.
Project Gutenberg is a similar site but you’ll have to download the e-books to your PC first and then copy them over to the Kindle via USB cable.
Kindle-friendly file formats
Any file offered in MOBI or Plain Text is a perfect format for the Kindle; other formats – HTML, for example– will require conversion first.
Install Calibre on your PC/Mac to convert incompatible formats to Kindle-friendly formats.
Future-proofing your purchases
As we’re sure you’re aware, under Amazon’s licensing agreement they can remove any (or all) of your e-books from your Kindle e-reader at any time.
There are two options to guard against this.
The first is an illegal hack to remove DRM (Digital Rights Management), which we could not condone.
The second option is this:
Download all your existing books to your PC and save them as a backup copy. You’re allowed to do this. You should also be backing up the text files on your device that stores all of your notes and highlights, just in case.
Keep your Kindle’s wireless connection turned off unless you need it.
This will reduce your participation in Amazon’s cloud storage system, and increase the odds that should Amazon try and delete anything you’ll have some advance warning from other users’ tweets and posts if not from Amazon itself.
How to read non-Amazon e-books on a kindle
You can read pretty much any e-book on a Kindle, but you first have to convert it into a Kindle-friendly format such as MOBI. You can do this with a free piece of software called Calibre, which is available on the web at calibre-ebook.com.
Then you need a way to get the book onto your Kindle. The easiest way is to email it. Go to www.amazon.com/myk, tap on "Your Devices," choose your Kindle, and next to "Email” you’ll find your Kindle’s email address. Then click "Settings" and scroll down to the "approved personal document e-mail list." Click "add a new approved e-mail address," and add the email address from which you intend to send your newly converted non-Amazon e-books.
European Commission’s investigations
In June 2015 the European Union competition regulators opened an investigation into Amazon’s practices in the digital book world, focused on the company’s controversial rule that publishers must not sell their books for less to anyone else. Amazon is currently in talks with the regulators about the matter, but as of October 2016, no ruling had appeared.
The Booksellers Association has tried to get the regulators to also look at Amazon’s practices in the physical book market, although no investigation into this has yet been launched.
Keeping books on the high street
Research from Bowker Market Research (BMR) and UK Enders Analysis suggest that physical bookshops are critical for book discovery and selection. Enders Analysis argues that Serendipity and accidental discovery generates as much as two-thirds of UK book sales, and that it doesn’t work online.
Yet if consumers want bookshops to continue to exist, they have to support them. The Booksellers Association is on the frontline in the battle against Amazon, and has for several years run a campaign called ‘Keep Books on the High Street’. They have campaigned for local bookshops to receive more preferential government treatment, and produced “we pay our taxes” badges for window displays.
While nobody is imagining that online trade is going to go away, the Association has argued that just shifting ten per cent of online shopping back onto the high street would make a colossal difference to local traders.
How to find independent booksellers
You can find your local independent bookshop by searching www.indiebound.org.uk
This site also offers a book recommendation section, where local bookshops give advice on the best latest releases, and gives details of Independent Booksellers Week. The latter runs from 18th to 25th June 2016 and will see numerous activities and events at local bookstores throughout the country.
Swapping and lending books
E-book lending sites
Lending and borrowing e-books has started to become a big thing, with a huge proliferation of sites. These include:
Your local library – it is not widely known, but most UK libraries lend e-books as well as physical ones, having signed up to lend e-books through their own system, which is called “OverDrive”. As long as you are a member of the library, you can access them without even leaving your bed. You just install the OverDrive Media Console on your e-reading device, search for your library, and start borrowing books.
www.booksfornooks.com – a site for lending between 'nook' owners.
www.lendink.com – this is a buy / sell / swap site.
www.lendle.me – a lending site for Kindle books.
www.booklending.com – this is a lending site for Kindle books.
Swapping paper books
There are also places you can go online to exchange paper books:
www.bookcrossing.org – register your book and then set it free by leaving it on a park bench or in a gym, allowing it to find a new owner.
www.readitswapit.co.uk – a UK-based book exchange service.
www.bookmooch.com – mail your books to someone who wants them in exchange for points and then use your points to buy books from other users.
WHSmith was the first chain store in the world. It wouldn’t strike many people as an obviously ethical retailer, but it is the only company to get our best rating in all three of the main policy categories: Environmental Reporting, Supply Chain Management and Timber Sourcing.
It has a detailed supply chain management report that even addresses difficult issues such as banned unions in China. The reason that it doesn't do better in our ratings is that it gets marked down for paying its CEO nearly £4 million pounds, and for selling leather goods, tobacco and pornography.
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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1 Mintel, 2016, Booksellers