Making Books Disappear

12 04 2009

A few months ago, I posted here about the dangers I saw in the Amazon Kindle and the rise of digital publishing—namely that as we move our books and other media from a printed to a digital format, we increase the odds that they can be altered or even deleted without our consent and possibly without our knowledge.

censorship

It’s a bit of a paranoid thesis, but I think it moved closer to reality today when it was revealed that Amazon had “reclassified” a whole slew of books dealing with LGBT issues—from gay romances to academic works on the impact of homophobia to Heather has Two Mommies—as “adult” and thus removing them from some searches, sales rankings and bestseller lists on Amazon.com.

That Amazon chose to reclassify books with any sort of gay theme—be it academic, literary, or journalistic—but not those with much more explicit heterosexual content is blatantly homophobic and certainly worthy of discussion. But what I’m more concerned about is the creeping corporate control over the flow of information and ideas.

In a world of printed media, the consumer holds at least some of the power. Once a book is disseminated into bookstores, libraries and homes, it’s a herculean if not impossible task for a single entity—the executive suite at Amazon, say—to move, reclassify, alter or censor it in one fell swoop. As we’ve seen from Amazon, though, in a digital world, titles can be removed wholesale from searches, rankings, etc. quietly and overnight.

Given that, it’s not too big of a stretch to imagine a day when a handful of big-name sites like Amazon dominate the distribution of literature—on devices like the Kindle, they already do. Say these companies, for whatever reason, decide that a particular title—a political manifesto, maybe, or a book on radical Islam—isn’t “suitable” for their audience. What’s to stop them from quietly removing the offending title from search results, from rankings, or just taking it down altogether?

Of course, it’s always been up to retailers to decide which books to sell and which not to sell. But the digitization of books gives way to an unprecedented centralization; Instead of hundreds of thousands of bricks and mortar booksellers in America, there might be maybe three or four online outlets. Do we really want to trust to the discretion of a handful of corporations that kind of power over the flow of information?

It’s important to note that Amazon never announced this change. Much like the Facebook TOS changes that caused such a stir back in February, they just… did it. Quietly. So that a book that would have shown up in your search results on Friday would have been absent on Monday. No announcement, no opt-in, no empty space on the bookshelf, almost like it was never there.

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16 responses

12 04 2009
Sierra

Excellent post, Urbzen! And a point I don’t think many people have really considered.

12 04 2009
Homo Homini Lupus

Censura y correción moralista en Amazon.com…

Leía en The Daily Dish que los rankings de Amazon.com han sido atacados por los grupos de correción política estadounidense.  Estos grupos moralistas de extrema derecha conservadora se han encargado de asesinar, atacar, estigmatizar y demonizar a millo…

12 04 2009
Ana Pires

You make a good point. Seeing the uproar all around the Internet gives me hope though. They did it quietly and without any sort of announcement, yes, but people certainly noticed. I hope Amazon will cave in and change everything back. Which I expect they will, but we’ll see.

12 04 2009
Melissa

Plus – when the world goes all Fahrenheit 451 on us – there won’t even be books and homes to burn so the unemployment rate will sky-rocket. Bad news, indeed.

13 04 2009
Welcome to the Amazon Moral Police Just Sayin’ « Redneck Romance Writer

[…] a disease. Nice. Real nice. The possibilities that this presents, broken down in its scary scenerio HERE , are terrifying. Perhaps you need to evaluate your policies. As someone who reads and writes […]

13 04 2009
Donna George Storey

I think your fears are totally justified. My book is one that was shoved into the back room suddenly, on Thursday April 9, and de-ranked on April 10. My book has a bit of lesbian content, but all sexually explicit works (except sponsored by Hugh Hefner) are targeted. The secrecy and the current bumbling protests of a “glitch” are showing us just how much power Amazon has. Fortunately, the immediate outcry is reassuring. Let’s hope the all mighty dollar wins over censorship this time, but this reminds us that we must stay vigilant.

13 04 2009
Mr. FAMU

I really enjoyed this post and will be coming back to your site again. Its amazing how events like this can really bring a community of online users together and also lead to one exploring many other new blogs. I personally feel this whole amazon thing gives me a Fahrenheit 451 vibe. Books have been central to my development as a person. Its just really dismaying I expected better of Amazon.

13 04 2009
Em

What gets me is the companies that do this with no notification. In this day and age, are they really so foolish as to think that people won’t notice the changes and raise a stink? If they were up front about it, okay yes people would still raise a stink. But probably not as big a stink as, “Look what they tried to HIDE from us.”

13 04 2009
Jorge Marchant Lazcano

Soy un escritor chileno probablemente afectado. Mi novela “Sangre como la mía” de temática homosexual, ha aparecido en Chile (Alfaguara), España (Editorial Egales) y recientemente en Francia (“Un sang pareil au mien” Autrement Editions). El artículo es muy aleccionador sobre lo que podría pasar en un mundo cada vez más globalizado, pero al mismo tiempo, cada vez más conservador. El comercio mundial está siendo manejado por grandes corporaciones y las pequeñas librerías tienden a desaparecer. El mundo digital tiene grandes ventajas pero – a la luz de lo sucedido con Amazon – se corren grandes, gravísimos peligros, de dimensiones insospechadas.

13 04 2009
luddite

call me one, but I intend to keep my old books around for many reasons, including this one.

I once spilled an entire bong full of water on one of my favorite paperbacks. I managed to dry it out, and it was still readable.

Lets see a kindle do that.

13 04 2009
JasonQR

Your hysteria is severely misplaced. Once this is resolved can you please follow up with another post effusively praising Amazon for providing such an amazing selection of LGBT material every other day of the year for the last 10 years?

The idea that Amazon as an organization is somehow anti-gay is just way off the mark.

13 04 2009
Cait

http://tehdely.livejournal.com/88823.html

Many suspect it was a bad algorithm mixed with a trolling organization. Not so much Amazon on purpose.

13 04 2009
HoboSpaceJunkie

Amazon may or may not be an anti-gay organization but it acted in an anti-gay way and deserves all opprobrium directed its way. And Urbzen will effusively praise Amazon when content providers like the New York Times and other similar publications begin printing/posting their ‘corrections’ on their front pages instead of buried where no one will see them. Or when she feels like it. Or never. How’s never? Is never good for you?

14 04 2009
Rumena

An insightful post. Couldn’t say it better.

Since someone has already mentioned “Fahrenheit 451”, I have nothing more to add.

14 04 2009
Mike Cane

>>>In a world of printed media, the consumer holds at least some of the power. Once a book is disseminated into bookstores, libraries and homes, it’s a herculean if not impossible task for a single entity—the executive suite at Amazon, say—to move, reclassify, alter or censor it in one fell swoop.

But NOT impossible. And it’s done with paper all the time.
http://mikecane2008.wordpress.com/2008/01/02/the-urgency-of-ebooks/

I’ll still place my bets on eBooks over paper books.

18 04 2009
Brianna J

Wait – you think that it’s easier to remove information from the Internet than from the physical world? To be sure, it’s easy to delete digital info – but it’s even easier to copy it. Conversly, it’s difficult to hunt down every last physical copy of a book, but also difficult to distribute it under pressure. And physical books degrade.

The Internet was built to withstand a nuclear attack. Censoring just it isn’t that simple.

That’s not what’s at stake here – money is. The authors would like to profit from their book sales, and have their books listed to that end (as is their right) If it was a true censorship issue, people would be releasing the information on websites, ftp, and anonymous networks faster than you could blink. Remember the AACS key mass postings? Like that.

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