Amazonfail & The Cost of Freedom

by Patrick on April 13, 2009

By now, you’ve probably heard all you care to hear about Amazon’s incredibly stupid decision to “de-list” books with adult content (and especially books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender themes and subject matter).  You’ve read the excellent blog posts, the well-written letters to Jeff Bezos, followed along on Twitter and the retorts by independent booksellers.  You’re probably about ready to turn the page on that whole mess and continue with your life.

Don’t.

This is more important than that, and now is the perfect time to think about whether you want to trust one company to dominate the book market, or any market, for that matter.  The benefit of having  a rich, diverse ecosystem of vendors and suppliers has never been more obvious:  many sources of information equals choice, and choice equals freedom.  It’s actually your freedom that’s at stake here, and putting things back the way they were, fixing the notorious “glitch,” won’t change that.  Because your freedom was at stake long before this recent de-listing experiment. Anytime you limit yourself to fewer suppliers, especially of something as vital as information (and if you purchase a Kindle, you’re effectively doing just that, limiting yourself to a single information provider), you’re putting yourself at the mercy of that provider.

And what kind of a provider is Amazon, anyway?  They’re not the most transparent of companies.  In fact, they’re among the least transparentThey give jack to charity, they don’t pay state sales tax despite doing much business in every state, and they aim to be nothing less than the sole provider of media on the planet.

Do you want that much power in the hands of one company?  Even those among you who believe in the benevolent dictator model must be worried about this.  Think for a second about what Amazon did here.  In the world of ecommerce, the search is king.  Almost everybody who shops online visits a site to find a specific product.  By intentionally obscuring and manipulating the search results of your site, you are making a clear statement:  We don’t want you to read these books.  I can tell you from experience that if something is difficult to find through a search, it will not sell.  Not only was this a suspicious action on Amazon’s part, it had the potential to be very “successful” (ie, it would’ve greatly decreased the sales of those titles).

I know you think I’m overreacting.  You say, “So what?  They’ll list the books again, and surely they won’t be stupid enough to try something like this again.  After all, we caught them, didn’t we?”  True…this time.  My point still stands.  Concentration of power is a dangerous thing.  “But what if it was a hacker?”  I think the point still stands.  This is the proverbial putting of eggs in too few baskets.  I think independent publisher sales rep John Mesjak put it best when he tweeted this statement:I haven’t read all of #amazonfail, so I am likely repeating, but my takeaway: this S#!T happens with monoculture gatekeepers. Go IndieBound!”

It’s worth noting that Mesjak uses the word “monoculture” here, a word derived from agriculture.  It’s taken us some thirty years (since the passage of  Earl Butz’s “Get Big or Get Out” Farm Bill in the 1970s) to realize that having a few corporations control our food supply was a really bad idea.  What have we seen as a response to this?  A rise in small, local farms, increased urban farming efforts, and a locavore movement that allows people to opt out of a corporate food culture that is destroying our bodies, our country and our planet with alarming speed.  The small, local farm, something that was all but extinct ten years ago, is beginning to make a comeback, as communities realize the value of growing their own food.  As we see small, independent, locally-minded bookstores closing every day, ask yourself whether you want a future where certain books are unavailable to you because of corporate fiat or whether you want the freedom to choose.  It might cost you a dollar or two more, but isn’t it worth it?

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    { 25 comments… read them below or add one }

    Doug 04.13.09 at 3:25 pm

    How many independent booksellers would struggle if it weren’t for the way that Amazon works with third-party, independent sellers? It’s not so simple to condemn them for being so dominant when some independent booksellers I work with get a lot of their business from Amazon customers. It’s just not that simple.

    lp 04.13.09 at 4:09 pm

    I actually do know independent booksellers who choose NOT to work with Amazon as third-party indie sellers. Instead, they utilize outlets like TomFolio, or the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), or even Alibris. In other words, it is a choice they’ve made. Same as it is a choice some have made to purchase books through Amazon vs. purchasing thorough an independent bookstore.

    So, in essence, it kind of is that simple.

    At any rate, Amazon may claim a system ‘glitch’ as the culprit here, but it seems to me there was a deeper glitch at work in this instance – failure to see (or accept) this de-listing exercise for what it is: censorship. Amazon may not have seen it this way initially, but luckily, there were others out in the world who quickly recognized this and responded rapidly to the troubling news.

    And I don’t think it’s possible to overreact on such a passionate matter as censorship and the limiting of choice; if we don’t react or overreact when things like this happen, then…who will?

    paul 04.13.09 at 4:18 pm

    How many people who buy from Amazon don’t pay sales tax to their state, even though most states require you to do that. It isn’t amazon’s responsibility to pay an individual’s sales tax on a purchase made in one state and shipped from another. Most states aren’t equipped to monitor individual sales that are made via the internet, but obviously most individuals don’t follow up on their part of the social contract — paying their obligatory share of sales tax.

    Also, whatever the glitch was that caused 57,000+ titles to disappear from Amazon’s search mechanism, it wasn’t censorship.

    Dave Nattriss 04.13.09 at 4:28 pm

    It was a genuine mistake – 57,310 books were taken out the site-wide search, most of which weren’t GLBT-related at all. Full details at: http://blog.seattlepi.com/amazon/archives/166329.asp

    But yes, you have a point that we should never encourage ‘monoculture’.

    yara mayer 04.14.09 at 5:44 am

    yeah, and even when bookstores DO choose to sell through Amazon, they still have to compete with Amazon ITSELF in price… and what kind of competition is that?

    yara mayer 04.14.09 at 5:45 am

    Yeah, and even when bookstores DO choose to sell through Amazon, they still have to compete with Amazon ITSELF in price… and what kind of competition is that?


    Doug 04.13.09 at 3:25 pm

    How many independent booksellers would struggle if it weren’t for the way that Amazon works with third-party, independent sellers? It’s not so simple to condemn them for being so dominant when some independent booksellers I work with get a lot of their business from Amazon customers. It’s just not that simple.

    Colleen Lindsay 04.14.09 at 6:36 am

    I’d buy the glitch theory if in fact I didn’t actually know three people who received the customer service letters citing a new company policy regarding adult material.

    At this point, they’re simply backpedaling to save face. They need to address those company policy letters.

    David Lauri 04.14.09 at 6:38 am

    A genuine mistake which Amazon doesn’t want to acknowledge at all on its own website? A genuine mistake that started in February with the de-ranking of books Amazon deemed to be adult and thus worthy of hiding?

    As for charitable donations, it’s not entirely fair to say Amazon doesn’t give anything back, although it is fair to say they don’t give something for nothing. What they do give is commissions on purchases made from links to their site, and my church has earned some money that way. However, we’re no longer linking to them for now.

    sassjemleon 04.14.09 at 7:06 am

    what, no complaints about google?

    Prokofy Neva 04.14.09 at 7:34 am

    I hope you will apply that same vigorous outrage at “monoculture” to Wikipedia and Google.

    sassjemleon 04.14.09 at 7:44 am

    i love amazon; i love not having to leave my house to shop. i will not stop using it because of some silly glitch in their equally silly ranking system.

    DrNels 04.14.09 at 8:59 am

    Obviously, independent booksellers are independent, so their practices differ, but I have been told by two independent bookstores that they would not specially order books for me because they were on gay topics. So I’m not ready to celebrate the independents just yet. And I always buy from third-party, independent sellers from Amazon first if it is cheaper, which it usually is for the books I buy.

    Stephen Peters 04.14.09 at 9:02 am

    I agree with a lot of your points, but even early in the day yesterday it seemed apparent that Amazon had not made an actual decision to do this. So why would you even lead with that?

    Mia 04.14.09 at 9:28 am

    @paul and @davenattriss:

    Also, whatever the glitch was that caused 57,000+ titles to disappear from Amazon’s search mechanism, it wasn’t censorship.

    Has this been substantiated? As far as I know, we only have the spokesperson’s word for it. Has there been any evidence that non-LGBTQ (and transsexual and rape survivor and disability) literature on, say reproductive technology had been deranked wholesale? Those who have been following, perhaps a little too closely, this whole debacle on twitter know that much of this originated by the actual AUTHORS who had their books removed from search. I have no reason to believe that authors of books on non-LGBTQTsRSD subjects are any less motivated to check if their books are available to potential customers. In short, if there were 25,000 deranked books that were completely unrelated to LGBT issues, I believe we would have heard about it–BEFORE that inept so-called apology. And that I’ve yet to see evidence of the supposed non-LGBTness of the deranking makes me pretty doubtful.
    Note to Amazon PR: Care to give us a list of those 57,000 books? Or is that a threat to national security?
    Great post, Patrick, by the way. I plan to make a trip in the near future to Bluestockings, NYC’s sole remaining bookstore that caters to queers.

    jenn 04.14.09 at 9:52 am

    i find it interesting when we cannot have conversations without jumping into an ‘all or nothing’ state of mind. there’s a lot of grey in this world.

    to say that, as a Kindle owner, i am limiting myself to only one information provider is ridiculous. my Kindle is not my only source for books. i still visit my local library and purchase many books – all of which i purchase from Vromans. in addition, not all information comes from books. i read the paper, i talk with people, i am connected to the internet. i follow stories online and in my own neighborhood. can i not be an amazon customer and a supporter of the independent businesses?

    however, i agree with your point in that it most likely is not the best policy as a society to let one (or two or three) big businesses have all the power or control over what is available and how. it is scary when (glitch or otherwise) a large amount of books go missing from Amazon because it does point out the ease with which things like this could be done in the future.

    Vashtan 04.14.09 at 10:01 am

    Brilliant post. I’m linking and spreading it.
    Amazon lost my business over this – and books/CDs and all that were my largest expenditure after rent.

    Rachel 04.14.09 at 3:41 pm

    I couldn’t agree more — nice work. We linked to you at: http://flapcopy.blogspot.com/.

    Emily St. J. Mandel 04.14.09 at 5:56 pm

    Great post, Patrick. I agree wholeheartedly with your point about monoculture.

    Joe Franko 04.14.09 at 10:06 pm

    Thanks so much, Vroman’s for this blog and posting. In all of this, Amazon still doesn’t “get it.” They could have kept my business if they had issued a simple apology. I didn’t care why it happened, but they should have issued an apology immediately, saying that what happened was unacceptable as part of their corporate culture. Lacking such a statement, I can only conclude that censorship is not unacceptable and that their only concern was that they were caught at it.

    I have today cut off all my subscriptions and my email notifications from Amazon. I have cancelled my Amazon Prime account. From now on I’ll buy my books from Vromans and support freedom, dealing with a company that clearly cares about my business.

    Robin Rowland 04.15.09 at 4:52 am

    The problem is that a quasi- monopoly existed before Amazon came around. While people here are championing the independent bookstore (and I love independent bookstores) the chain bookstores were and are a dominant force.
    The fate of the author depends on what the computers at the chains say
    (a much more insidious system than Amazon’s, since the publishers and chains always blame the author for poor sales).
    Also with the recession picky publishers are now saying no and no more often, so more authors are going to self-publishing. For example, most photo books are now self published. Independent bookstores don’t want to deal with self publishing while Amazon does deal with self publisher. (As publishers do less and less for authors and the cost of self publishing goes down, there will soon be a tipping point which will make self publishing a force. At that point Amazon will dominate even more and the independents will have to deal with self published authors)

    See my blog The Amazon Cluster Fark : The Return of the Jedi-Author

    MrSteve 04.16.09 at 8:37 am

    Back in the ’90s, the comic book industry fell apart, leaving one distributor to pretty much hold a monopoly over everyone.

    Most people who aren’t into comics don’t know about this, and a lot of people who are don’t care because they can still get their copies of Batman, Spider-Man, or even the “arty” graphic novel that was reviewed in the current Entertainment Weekly.

    But try talking to the comic store owner who is dealing with a customer service nightmare because someone in that distributor’s shipping department decided that the store owner is “causing problems.”

    Or talk to the small press publisher with a quirky book that the distributor can’t be bothered to carry; few comic stores are in a position to write checks to small publishers with a few titles.

    The irony is that, at the store level, just about all comic book shops are independent bookstores; I’ve heard of some companies that have more than one store (usually contained within a small region), but there isn’t a comic book megachain with the global power that the bookstore chains have.

    However, the comic stores and the publishers can be bullied by the one distributor that rules them all.

    Richard Millard 04.17.09 at 8:41 am

    For me, it’s very simple: I’ll buy my books where I can find them. If I can find them at my local indie bookstore, great. But the harsh reality is that inventory at most local bookstores is very limited (at least in my field) and the special order process through most bookstores is very cumbersome and slow. With the possible exceptions of Seminary Co-op in Chicago and Blackwells Oxford in the UK, most physical stores just don’t carry a breadth of inventory that I find really interesting. I can find many more relevant titles, more quickly, at Amazon, and I can have them delivered tomorrow if I want.

    There’s a reason that Amazon “dominates” the book trade, and it’s not that Amazon is an evil, nefarious corporate monster. It’s because Amazon provides what people want: (1) selection, (2) service and (3) price (in that order). If indie stores want to survive they have to compete in these areas, but the obsession with price is a mistake. From my perspective, price is the least of it. For me, it’s about selection, selection and selection.

    M. Glenn 04.18.09 at 1:32 pm

    I’ll admit, I’m going to look into this story further.
    I do have a caveat: everything in the story above may be true– then again, some of it may be exaggerated. Since it’s posted on a bookstore’s own blog– one can’t help but recognize that Vroman’s, however honest and ethical they may be, do have a motive to slag Amazon and try to convince people not to buy from them (not saying you’re doing that, Vroman’s, just that the possibility can’t be ignored).

    There’s also another caveat: I do a lot of my book, cd, and dvd buying from Amazon– for two reasons: 1. selection– generally so far I’ve been able to find anything and everything I’m looking for through Amazon (though sometimes it’s via Amazon directing me to third-party sellers)– that hasn’t been true of shopping at local bookstores and such back home 2. Convenience and availability– while I’d go to a regular bookstore first perhaps, and then check Amazon, *IF* I were back home– right now I’m deployed overseas as a soldier in the US Army– there are NOT very many alternative sources that will mail books, music and movies to APO addresses… and even fewer that provide a site that I can search and order these products on the web from overseas and have them delivered out here. Kinda limits my options, and lemme tell ya, the selection at the AAFES PX sucks– and they DO censor out anything that the military considers subversive or improper.

    Kam 04.22.09 at 7:13 am

    I am definitely going to choose another bookseller for my purchases, especially independent bookstores whenever possible. Amazon is too big and too powerful. People should think twice about what price they pay for convenience.

    Bruce Jensen 10.10.09 at 7:27 am

    Some stores use Amazon (mainly used bookstores), but Amazon is putting the stores that sell new books out of business. If Amazon’s anti-competitive practices were reigned in, there would still be internet sales for anyone wanting to sell online, but more walk-in and e-mail orders for brick-and-mortar stores.
    In the last three years Amazon has become every publishers biggest customer, an astonishing development. They are now offering free shipping for a $25.00 purchase and they discount nearly everything. I suspect they are getting a special deal from many publishers, as they constantly request higher discounts from them. This could be a violation of federal law.
    The American Booksellers Association is fighting for “e-fairness,” trying to get states to tax internet purchases. This is good, but the ABA is nonetheless in denial about Amazon. They think the stores have to do things differently from how they have done them in the past. I agree, but there is only so much you can do against an emerging monopoly. People walk into stores, write down titles and then leave the store and buy from Amazon. How long do we wait to challenge them? Do we wait until they control 50%, 60%,70% of the new book market? By then it will be too late, and there will be no bookstores like Vroman’s, or City Lights, or Seminary Coop, or Books and Books or even the University bookstores as we now know them, some of which carry a broad range of titles.
    Who is going to fight them. There needs to be a legal challenge. It is fine for them to use books as a loss leader to sell cameras or whatever, but should they be allowed to destroy an entire way of life in the process?

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