Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Amazon’s Alleged Censorship

This is a crisis that came and went in a wink within twenty-four hours. If you blinked, you missed it.

On July 19th Daniel Greenfield on FrontPage ran a story about Amazon wanting an author to remove his book from its sales platform, with its cover featuring the Confederate battle flag, “I never thought any of my books would be on the banned book list.” Michael Dreese has written several books about the Civil War, and especially about the Battle of Gettysburg, apparently from both sides of that watershed conflict. The book, This Flag Never Goes Down: 40 Stories of Confederate Battle Flags and Color-Bearers at Gettysburg, published by Thomas Publications in 2004, has been up on the Amazon platform for at least eleven years.  It has an Amazon best-seller ranking, as of this writing, of 17,006.

Now, I have very, very few bones to pick with Daniel Greenfield. In this instance, I think he erred on the side of enthusiasm in his article. It looked like “censorship.” He jumped the gun. He is probably about as ambivalent about the Confederate battle flag as I am about it and also the Roman Eagle carried by Rome’s armies. They’re old symbols and their time and governments are long past. He wrote:

Amazon and Wal-Mart are really providing a master class in why monopolies are so dangerous. And Amazon, with its ruthless grip over book sales, has now moved on to overt censorship.

This latest target was a book by Civil War author Michael Dreese. Dreese has written a number of books, including two about battle flags. The one about Union battle flags is titled, "Never Desert the Flag". The one about Confederate flags is titled, "This Flag Never Goes Down."

Amazon, which still sells Hitler's Mein Kampf, decided to ban the second book

Amazon also sells the Koran and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Houston Chamberlain’s books on race and many other books one might be curious about from an academic standpoint.

Greenfield originally called Amazon’s action as an instance of censorship, and many of his readers concluded or agreed that it was one. He has since updated his column and removed the statement:

"Amazon, with its ruthless grip over book sales, has now moved on to overt censorship."

He has also announced that the book has been restored to the Amazon sales platform. 

“UPDATE: In response to the protests, Amazon appears to have un-banned the book."

HIs main source is a story by Channel 16 (Scranton-Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania), “Local Author Gets Book Pulled From Amazon,” dated July 17th, by Nikki Krize.

Recently Dreese got an email from Amazon regarding his book “This Flag Never Goes Down.” The book is about the Confederate battle flag. Amazon asked Dreese to take down the listing.

“It was kind of surprising at first. Being a nonfiction historical writer, I never thought any of my books would be on the banned book list,” Dreese said.

Dreese says he decided not to take action right away, but two days later, Amazon made the decision for him.

And many of the readers of the Channel 16 piece also came to the conclusion that this was Amazon imposing censorship.

However, Dreese’s book can still be found here. It would be interesting to know what exactly the email to Dreese said, and if in it Amazon threatened to remove the book if he didn’t. In any event, the crisis is past and the book can still be bought on Amazon. It would also be interesting to know what Amazon’s key objection was to the book: Was it just the cover, or did it object to the contents? If to the contents, there are a zillion books on Amazon that contain stories about or are diaries of American Revolutionaries and also British soldiers serving in the rebellious colonies. If it was just the Confederate battle flag, then we may as well ban books with covers that feature the old British Union Jack.

My original comment upon reading Greenfield’s article was:

This revelation about Amazon is an eye-opener. However, for those writers who don't fit the contemporary literary mold, Amazon is virtually the only means to see one's books published. The alternative is Barnes & Noble. The literary establishment shuts out writers who offend it. I asked PEN a few weeks ago why it didn't recognize "self-published" authors and their books (which they call Amazon authors). PEN, with its hundreds of authors and books the reading public has largely never even heard of, represents the literary establishment….

But on second thought, I added another comment:

"Amazon, with its ruthless grip over book sales, has now moved on to overt censorship."

Technically, this is NOT censorship, overt or otherwise. Censorship requires government force or authority on or over private communications of any kind. The Amazon sales platform is a form of communication, and Amazon owns it. I do agree that Amazon's request that Dreese remove his book for Amazon's listings is an instance of political correctness and I shall write Amazon about how stupid it is. But, as the government did not force Amazon to carry any of Dreese's titles, the government has not forced it to remove Dreese's Confederate battle flag book. That was Amazon's own short-sighted decision.

I would like to see the text of the email Amazon sent Dreese asking him to take down his book. So, another question is: If Dreese doesn't voluntarily take down that title, will Amazon remove it nonetheless? Or will it allow it to continue being listed? You know, there are so many titles on Amazon that are far more objectionable than a book about the Confederate battle flag. I mean, how many titles feature a cover emblazoned with the Nazi swastika?

Doesn’t that symbol raise the hackles of millions? Should its use be banned by Amazon, or by the government? Or at all? By whom? Should we pretend that the Confederate flag never existed, and that the Confederates used the gay rainbow flag as a rallying point on the battlefield? But, again, I must stress that Amazon's puerile decision was not an instance of censorship. 

What defines censorship is government force. That is the chief topic of this column. Say what you will about Amazon and its market share and its aggressive policies to capture as much of the book market as possible, it is still a private company and it may carry or not carry books as it pleases for whatever reason it chooses, wise or not. Amazon does not possess the power of the government to literally prohibit people from reading books, or suppressing a book to keep it out of mind and out of circulation.

I don’t know, as Mr. Greenfield observes, that Amazon is losing money or is in other respects underhanded in its business and author dealings. Amazon may be susceptible to political correctness, of bending under the winds of hysteria – the whole Confederate flag issue is a case in point – but it is still a private concern. It might even be guilty, as many major American corporations are – and Mr. Greenfield has written thousands of words on that subject, as well – of siding with the statists and wannabe Big Brothers and roots for a fascist economy that would give them a corner on their goods or services.

Some of America’s most notable icons were anti-Semites, such as Henry Ford, or were pro-Nazi Germany, as Charles Lindbergh.  But we don’t stop buying Ford cars or marveling at Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic in a flimsy “aeropplane.” It’s not their character flaws we're buying.

Major companies in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan helped to sustain those dictatorships. Mitsubishi recently apologized to former American POWs for using them as forced labor. (Mitsubishi also made Japanese warplanes, such as the Zero, and battleships, submarines, and other naval craft).  From all the information available to me, it seems that Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and current head, favors Democrats, although he is known to have donated to Republican PACs. He and his wife were behind a gay marriage referendum in Washington State, which passed.

One can accuse Amazon, or even Bezos, of a number of dubious or wicked things, but neither Amazon nor Bezos can practice censorship. Amazon is not armed and so can't point a gun at customers’ heads and force them to buy online. It doesn’t have a Gestapo that goes from house to house arresting and imprisoning people who patronize Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or independent bookstores.

Only a government, with the power to initiate force on its citizens, can do those things. Private monopolies cannot force people to buy its products. Major American companies that were accused of monopolization of oil products and other products lost their edge when they took their customers for granted and began “price gouging.” Newcomers came on the scene and took a lot of their business away.

I don’t think Amazon can even be accused of “crony capitalism,” that is, it isn’t being subsidized by Federal (i.e., taxpayer) dollars. If it were, it would fail.

 The most interesting episode of Amazon’s putative quest to monopolize the whole American book market has been its ongoing conflict with the Hachette Book Group. I have read a number of articles about the conflict, and the upshot is that the Hatchette Group assumes it has a right to be on Amazon’s sales platform, and not be subjected to book order delays to customers and pricing prejudice.

The LA Times ran a story on August 12th, 2014, on the nuts and bolts of the contentious relationship between Amazon and Hachette, “Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps.

How is Amazon bullying Hachette?
Amazon is subjecting many books from Hachette to artificial purchase delays. Books that had been available for next-day delivery now take 2-5 weeks to ship. Some titles don't surface in search as they should. And upcoming Hachette books, including the next J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith mystery "The Silkworm," are no longer available for pre-order. As a result, Hachette will sell fewer books.

This is perceived by many short-sighted authors as either censorship or hovering close to censorship. They have a “right” to have their titles sold on Amazon’s platform, even though Hatchette has its own online book purchasing and marketing platform. The dispute is basically over e-book pricing. Most of the authors who have signed a New York Times letter against Amazon are published by Amazon’s Kindle e-book program. So, what’s their beef?

But, wait. There’s another culprit in the barroom fight: the Federal government. The LA Times reveals:

In the Apple e-book case brought by the Department of Justice, publishers were accused of colluding over e-book prices; all settled. The judge's final order in the case, issued in 2013, laid out a schedule for the various publishers involved to renegotiate e-book prices with retailers, Apple and Amazon both. Hachette is up first.

So, it’s government intervention and anti-trust law that created the dispute. Who are the authors published by Hachette?

James Patterson, David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris, Janet Fitch, Michael Connelly, Sherman Alexie, Scott Turow, Malcolm Gladwell, Mitch Albom, Iain Banks, Emma Donoghue, Robin Roberts, Brad Meltzer, Mariano Rivera, Marcia Clark, David Baldacci, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Galbraith (pen name of J.K. Rowling) and many, many more.

In short, members of the current literary establishment, most of whose names I don’t even recognize.  I’m not a part of that establishment. I’m an outlier author. But I sell well.

On the other hand, Britain’s The Guardian ran a story on August 8th, 2014, “Bestselling authors take out full-page New York Times ad against Amazon” (at a cost of $104,000).

The extraordinary move is the latest salvo in a battle over terms which has seen Amazon delay delivery and remove the possibility of pre-orders on a swathe of books by Hachette authors, including JK Rowling and James Patterson. The online leviathan Amazon says it is attempting to "lower ebook prices"; publishing conglomerate Hachette argues that it is seeking "terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author's unique role in creating books, and the publisher's role in editing, marketing, and distributing them".

But let’s take a look at the letter or petition that was published in the New York Times.

Authors have moved to take sides in the debate, with the bestselling writer Douglas Preston collecting over 900 signatures to a letter – the text of which is due to appear in Sunday's advertisement – calling on readers to contact Amazon's Jeff Bezos "and tell him what you think" about the situation.

"As writers – most of us not published by Hachette – we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be 'Earth's most customer-centric company'," write the authors, who include Stephen King, Donna Tartt, Paul Auster, Barbara Kingsolver and a host of other well-known names.

Briefly, the signers of the letter wish to use Amazon’s soapbox on any terms, and Amazon may not establish its own terms for their use of the soapbox. The letter charges Amazon with:

…Amazon has directly targeted Hachette's authors in an effort to force their publisher to agree to its terms. For the past several months, Amazon has been:

--Boycotting Hachette authors, by refusing to accept pre-orders on Hachette authors' books and eBooks, claiming they are "unavailable."
--Refusing to discount the prices of many of Hachette authors' books.
--Slowing the delivery of thousands of Hachette authors' books to Amazon customers, indicating that delivery will take as long as several weeks on most titles.
--Suggesting on some Hachette authors' pages that readers might prefer a book from a non-Hachette author instead.

Excuse me if I seem to be blind, but I fail to see any evidence of Amazon wielding a gun or a nightstick in any of those practices.

One thing I have observed in my writing career is that most writers consider themselves a special class or breed of people who deserve special consideration and deferential treatment by publishers and other middlemen in the book trade, failing to appreciate – but relying on the fact   -- that their books are commercial commodities, like any other. They pose as being above “money grubbing” but depend on commercial contracts and economics for their royalties and, for some of them – the most commercially successful – for their sumptuous livelihoods.

In short, they don’t regard the relationship between a writer and his reader as a trade.  Perish the thought!  And they carelessly bandy about the term censorship the first time someone says no, not grasping its full meaning and implications.

There is a big difference between Michael Dreese’s book being banished from the Amazon sales platform and censorship. Amazon was not “censoring” his book. It was tantamount to a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses geeks showing up at my front door and my telling them to go away and to never darken my doorstep again. That is not censorship. That is putting out the unwelcome mat.

However, if the government prohibited door-to-door proselytizing by the Witnesses or Mormons or even by Muslims (as long as they weren’t carrying machetes or guns) under penalty of fines and/or imprisonment, that would be censorship.

It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp. Censorship implies and means force. Government force.

1 comment:

Ed said...

While I broadly agree with your article, it is one of a number of annoying articles one finds in the Objectivist literature that takes other non-Objectivist writers to task for not using terms the way Objectivists define them, rather than the way they are understood in common English usage. I consider myself second to none in my admiration of Ayn Rand's precision of writing, her striving for clear and concise definitions, and her prefacing any non-standard usage of a term with a full and complete definition, and then giving examples of poor or muddled usage in the common media. So, kudos to Rand.

However, that doesn't change the fact that the definitions Rand provides for a number of terms (such as "selfishness", "capitalism", "altruism", "sacrifice", and, yes, "censorship"), while wildly preferable to the common understanding, are not in fact used by anyone else speaking or writing in the English language in 2015. This fact makes communication difficult. In a very real way, unless an Objectivist writer takes equivalent care when writing an essay to define his terms and pointing out how these definitions are clearly superior to the common usage, then that writer loses people immediately, and in fact fails in his primary purpose, to communicate to non-Objectivists.

In the matter at hand, the term "censorship" in common usage refers to a generally unfair suppression of speech by any party, public or private. It doesn't matter that Rand's definition is better and more coherent than this common usage, that's not how language works. A single individual can, given an amazing amount of eloquence and persuasiveness, move the cultural cognitive needle on the definition of one word, or maybe a couple. But Objectivism insists on redefining a whole host of words. In a 1000-word essay then, the Objectivist writer is in a real quandary, either spend the first 300 words clearly defining his terms, and thus lose space for his real argument (and lose most of his readers to boredom) or accept the common definitions of words (with their inconsistencies and lack of precision) but have some hope of actually communicating with the non-Objectivist reader.

As an Objectivist myself, I use the words "suppression of speech" rather than "censorship" because I want to be both precise and understood. But Greenfield is not an Objectivist, and no reasonable person should hold him to the Objectivist definition of "censorship" besides a one-sentence reminder to a reader that in principle, "censorship" refers to government speech suppression, not private speech suppression. The bulk of any article should focus on the evil of Amazon's actions, rather than their right to engage in evil actions. When one hears about one's acquaintance cheating on his wife, one doesn't write a 1000-word article reminding the reader that everyone has the fundamental right to sleep with anyone he chooses despite his marital status and that the government should butt out, one simply notes that the person in question is a lout. And in this case, the appropriate article is one that describes and condemns Amazon's loutish behavior, not taking Greenfield to task for using a term in the everyday fashion.