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“It's like groundhog day”: smaller booksellers rail against Amazon's latest low tax bill

While the online giant's revenues soar, bricks-and-mortar stores fight on.

When I spoke to independent booksellers last week, their pitch was clear: level the economic playing field, and we’ll compete with and outdo Amazon.

Recent signs for bricks-and-mortar stores have been promising. The managing director of chain Waterstones, James Daunt, recently told the Bookseller that a new fixed pricing structure “in some form or another” would be a “fine thing”.

There are other suggestions too. Lizzie Kremer of David Higham Associates (the agents who represent Owen Jones, Jacqueline Wilson and Stephen Fry among many others) is the vice president of the Association of Author’s Agents. She proposes independent-exclusive special editions “priced at the right level for those sellers and offering content exclusive to them for their customers”.

With topics like this finally being raised, the debate that bricks-and-mortar booksellers have long coveted now looks like it’s starting to happen. But, in the here and now, they still have an economic fight on their hands.

Amazon this week announced that the amount of corporation tax it paid in 2016 halved from £15.8m to £7.4m. This is despite turnover rising from £946m to £1.46bn. Those numbers put Amazon in another universe from most booksellers, who have to struggle with things like rents rising far more rapidly than their still-recovering turnovers.

In response, booksellers are mobilising. The Booksellers’ Association has launched an emphatic attack, with Giles Clifford, head of corporate affairs, calling Amazon's annual announcements of its low tax payments “groundhog day”.

Clifford said that the low level of tax “gives Amazon – possessed of a huge market share and all the associated commercial bargaining power that goes with it – a further, substantial, advantage over its competitors in the UK book trade”.

It’s not the only advantage benefiting the internet giant. Amazon’s UK arm has, over the years, been the recipient of generous government grants. In 2012, Amazon paid £2.44m in corporation tax, just less than the £2.5m in grants it received from the Scottish government which enabled it to build a new distribution warehouse in Dunfermline.

Clifford, representing British booksellers as a whole, sees this as a systemic issue, describing shops as “constantly forced to compete with one hand tied behind their backs”.

 “This is an annual reminder that the current system of taxation is out of date and discredited,” he said. “It is simply wrong that the current system is so heavily weighted against bricks-and-mortar retailers, who are paying £2.41 in business rates for every £1 paid in corporation tax.

“We already know that the Waterstones on Bedford High Street is paying 17 times more in business rates than Amazon. This deeply unfair system must end.”

Clifford, who says that the association will be taking the matter to parliament when it reconvenes in September, has described “ensuring a fair market” in bookselling as a “top priority”. But as Amazon's latest tax bill shows, there are few signs the status quo will change without a fight.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear