Outcry over book ‘censorship’ reveals how online retailers choose books — or don’t

From The Washington Post:

Crying “Censorship!” has become the right’s favorite book marketing technique.

Roger Kimball, president of Encounter Books, is the latest publisher to hawk his wares this way in the Wall Street Journal. Last week, on the op-ed page, Kimball complained that Amazon had stopped selling “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” by social conservative Ryan T. Anderson. Kimball called the move “a deliberate act of censorship” — presumably to placate critics who call the book transphobic. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Kimball went on to note that “When Harry Became Sally” has also been dropped by Bookshop.org, the indie alternative to Amazon. Far from providing an alternative, “Bookshop,” he claimed, “turns out to be little more than another minion for the Emperor of Wokeness.”

That’s silly, but one point Kimball made draws blood: How can Bookshop defend removing this 2018 book that offends liberal sensibilities while continuing to offer about 20 different editions of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”?

Bookshop did not respond to a request for comment. But the reason you can buy the Führer’s memoir from a woke online bookseller says a lot about how Web-based merchants function and how they’re changing our relationship to retailers.

Consider that your local indie bookstore contains titles that have been carefully curated according to how much physical space is available, which books the managers consider worthy and what they anticipate customers will want to buy.

The World Wide Web is a different world. Large online book retailers are essentially search engines. They populate their sites by automatically sucking up inventory data from vast wholesalers, such as Ingram, so that they can, in effect, offer every book that exists. In the 1990s, that was part of Amazon’s great innovation, which allowed it to be the World’s Largest Bookstore, despite the fact that it began in Bezos’s garage.

But the convenience of having more than 10 million titles at our fingertips fundamentally changes retailers’ function in ways people don’t often acknowledge or readily understand. There is, it turns out, a price for that infinite inventory. Unlike the cozy bookstore in your town, online booksellers don’t choose each book they’re offering. The role of curator — if it exists at all — has effectively been passed from seller to customer.

Under this system, if a title attracts sufficiently convincing and public objections, that title is taken down from the website. I saw this process firsthand in 2019 when I asked Barnes & Noble why it was selling David Icke’s antisemitic book “The Trigger.” B&N blamed “an independent publishing distributor,” and the book vanished. Earlier this year, I asked Walmart why it was offering the racist “Turner Diaries” on its website; I never got an answer, but the title stopped showing up.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone at Barnes & Noble or Walmart ever looked at these bizarre and hateful books and decided, “Yes, I think our white supremacist customers will love this!” Instead, these books were simply swept up in the retailing equivalent of bottom trawling that drags a net across the ocean floor, catching cod and shrimp along with old barrels of toxic waste.

This feels like a problematic way to curate literature. I don’t want to read antisemitic, racist or transphobic books, but I also don’t want the marketplace of available titles to be shaped by my own or other customers’ objections. If these massive book retailers aren’t really choosing which books to sell except in rare occasions when a few titles are excluded — then perhaps they’ve relinquished their editorial control and become merely administrators of public space, in which case the public may have the right to make certain demands on them.

. . . .

[Justice Clarence Thomas] went on to suggest that Amazon (along with Twitter, Google and Facebook) may be what’s called a “common carrier,” like a railroad or a telephone network. These older entities don’t choose whose freight or data they carry; if you can pay and you have a legal product, they must take it without discrimination.

He went on to suggest that Amazon (along with Twitter, Google and Facebook) may be what’s called a “common carrier,” like a railroad or a telephone network. These older entities don’t choose whose freight or data they carry; if you can pay and you have a legal product, they must take it without discrimination.

Thomas wrote, “There is a fair argument that some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers or places of accommodation to be regulated in this manner.”

If that’s true — or if the court later decides it’s true — large online booksellers could find themselves in a very different universe. At the moment, Amazon, Bookshop and others are playing two different characters simultaneously: They essentially function as common carriers, offering everything their wholesale databases and distributors can supply. But when a particular book attracts negative attention and offends public sensitivities, these same booksellers act as private businesses and remove that title. The time may be approaching when that clever maneuver is no longer tenable.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG wonders who exactly decided that book curators were necessary or desirable.

He suggests that “book curation” was and is, more or less, a marketing slogan designed to attract potential purchasers who want to elevate themselves above the hoi polloi who don’t see any particular virtue in a self-appointed tastemaker deciding what they will or won’t be permitted to ready.

For those outside the US, the reference to a “common carrier” is a US legal term that describes is a person or company that transports goods or people for any person or company.

Per Wikipedia:

A common carrier (also called a public carrier in British English) is distinguished from a contract carrier, which is a carrier that transports goods for only a certain number of clients and that can refuse to transport goods for anyone else, and from a private carrier. A common carrier holds itself out to provide service to the general public without discrimination (to meet the needs of the regulator’s quasi judicial role of impartiality toward the public’s interest) for the “public convenience and necessity.” A common carrier must further demonstrate to the regulator that it is “fit, willing, and able” to provide those services for which it is granted authority. Common carriers typically transport persons or goods according to defined and published routes, time schedules, and rate tables upon the approval of regulators. Public airlines, railroads, bus lines, taxicab companies, phone companies, internet service providers,[4] cruise ships, motor carriers (i.e., canal operating companies, trucking companies), and other freight companies generally operate as common carriers.

An important legal requirement for common carrier as public provider is that it cannot discriminate, that is refuse the service unless there is some compelling reason. 

(per Wikipedia)

Generally common carriers have a competitive advantage over private carriers because they are cost-effective and convenient. Common carriers typically offer standard or quite similar terms and conditions and often compete on pricing.

In many cases, common carriers are regulated by law in various ways to provide a more predictable and reliable service to shippers as opposed to a private carrier which may not be operate according to industry standard terms and expectations.

Back to bookstores, PG tends to prefer a store that is likely to have a book that he desires, regardless of whether the book PG desires is part of the book mainstream or not. For that reason, if Amazon starts to delist a wider range of books because one or more pressure groups find objectionable, PG will begin to look elsewhere on a regular basis rather than wasting his time on a site that is not a reliable purveyor of books he likes.

Additionally, rallying groups of people to demand book banning can definitely go more than one way. People with a wide variety of beliefs and opinions are fully capable to organizing themselves online to bring pressure on Amazon or any other vendor that has shown it will respond to pressure to delist this or that book.

21 thoughts on “Outcry over book ‘censorship’ reveals how online retailers choose books — or don’t”

  1. “That’s silly, but one point Kimball made draws blood: How can Bookshop defend removing this 2018 book that offends liberal sensibilities while continuing to offer about 20 different editions of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”?”

    Funny how this story from the Washington Post (“Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post”) neglects to mention that multiple editions of Mein Kampf are also available from Amazon, including several editions for Kindle.

    Reply
    • What makes little sense to me about the whole cancel-culture purely from a strategic point of view is that taking all the ebook copies of Mein Kampf off Bookshop and Amazon would make the world a better place.

      For one thing, removing a digital copy of anything from a leading online retailer will not remove it from the internet. I just searched for “mein kampf in english” and Google reported 13,000,000 results.

      For a second thing, there are important civilizational lessons to be learned from Hitler and Nazism. One reason that history seems to repeat itself so often is that human nature never changes and strategies that worked before have the potential for working again with an ignorant population.

      Canceling all details about how Hitler and his cohorts became so powerful and were able to lead what was a well-educated and highly-developed society for its time into incredibly perverse thoughts and behaviors will mean that the important cautionary lessons to be learned from such history may very well be lost or at least faded into meaninglessness.

      Knowing that Nazi = Evil is no protection against a thoroughly rebranded and updated version of the original.

      Reply
      • As a UK history student in the mid seventies studying Nazi Germany I was required to read Mein Kampf. It was available in both the university library and bookshop. And that was not all, books by Hitler’s ideological precursors also. Just as you were expected to read Marx when studying Communism.

        Reply
  2. I’m familiar with the concept of common carriers from a class on Business Law. Not a lawyer, so if anyone has better, more recent understanding, feel free to correct me.
    The law on common carriers is as ‘settled’ as any area of law can be – the businesses that are so classified are governed by some simple rules:
    – they have to take all comers (excepting those who are ACTIVELY engaging in an actual crime – not a ‘process’ crime)
    – otherwise, they can only eject those from the service who are disrupting it – hackers, drunk & disorderly, those making it impossible for others to use the service
    – in return for that classification, they are protected against civil suits brought by those who object to their carrying one and all (for example, a protester/group that, on the service, is behaving themselves)
    – if they start picking and choosing their users by other criteria, they lose their exemption from those lawsuits, and can be dragged into court (which would just about cripple most of those businesses these days – even Amazon)
    I’m inclined to think that such a decision in favor of common carriers would pass the court – partly due to quiet support of Amazon and others that could be classified that way.
    Hence, expect the pro-forcing removal of books/other goods to lose – BIG. At that point, their use of boycott tactics is GONE. Such a loss will cripple their movement.

    Reply
    • The common carrier idea was developed as a reaction to the new situation at the time. New types of commerce needed new concepts and new ideas. And those ideas serve quite well in the sectors of the economy to which they apply.

      We now find another new set of situations, and the old ideas don’t fit the new sectors. New concepts and ideas will be developed to deal with them. There will be different labels, and different applications.

      We can use existing concepts as a guide, but they really don’t fit the new situations.

      Reply
      • I don’t care if you call it ‘common carrier’ or ‘public accommodation’, but the idea that the big tech companies should be open to all (like they claimed when they started out, subject to the content being legal) is an important one.

        I would not at all object to big tech offering filters or curated views (similar to the ‘child friendly’ anti-porn filters they already offer, but more nuanced), but they need to be opt-in, and not forced on schools and libraries the way the current anti-porn filters are.

        In this, I am talking about all standard services (i.e. if you can sign up for it with a credit card and a laptop, it’s a standard service). Contracts that you negotiate for non-standard terms would need to be covered by different rules, and contracts for custom services, especially anything that requires creative work (writing a screeenplay, writing music, writing a pamphlet, creating a custom cake, creating a flower arrangement, etc) would not be covered and you would never be able to require anyone to do custom work that they don’t want to do.

        In terms of filtering abusive behavior. My feeling is to let each platform define their standard, but then force them to live up to it. If they say that racial statements are forbidden, then they can (and must)_boot people off who make racial statements. But if they boot one person off, and there are a bunch of other people making roughly identical statements if the race terms are changed, the company should be liable for damages.

        I think the combination of these three ideas (serve everyone, apply ToS evenly, and don’t try to force creative contracts) would be a minimum set of changes that would keep the government regulation at bay (I don’t trust future versions of the government to play fair with regulation), but would be enough to allow liability to private lawsuits to reign in the bad behavior we are currently seeing.

        Reply
        • Sensible. Solves a lot of contentious issues.
          I particularly see great value in the custom/negotiated deal aspect.
          (What has been going on in Denver goes beyond the pale.)

          It also addresses matters like marketplaces.
          Folks lump in all big tech companies while ignoring that there are very real differences: Facebook, Twitter, and search engines (not just Google–people laugh at BING’s 3% market share but that still represents billions upon billions of searches and dollars) are very different from the “curated” app stores the enterprise service companies and very different from the creative products companies. But politicians make no distinction.

          That is one of the biggest reasons the other tech companies are so hostile to Facebook, twitter, and Google, and Apple, too; their abuses invite politicians and heavy handed regulators into the entire sector and anything politicized quickly becomes bad business.

          The media tends to ignore judge Thomas for the most part but there are people in power who don’t. Applying (some version of) common carrier rules to social media and mass platforms is quite possible. But it needs surgical precision and nuance, not something the current breed of IdiotPolitician™ are known for.

          This could be good but it could also go south very quickly.
          Time will tell.

          Reply
          • what companies do you refer to when you talk about ‘curated app stores’?

            Apple and Google are the primary app stores, if you are booted from them you almost may as well not exist.

            I know Amazon has an app store, but you have to jump through hoops to use it (and it only works for Android). I don’t know of any other app stores that would qualify as ‘big tech’

            But I do acknowledge that any rules need to be able to be applied to all sizes of companies reasonably without crippling small companies. I think my set of rules above are reasonable, because small companies tend to not have problems serving everyone and applying their ToS evenly is not a big problem.

            Reply
            • Amazon has a PC app store. Also XBOX and Playstation. Microsoft also has app stores.
              There are also other android app stores. And gaming consoles also have app stores. Most are lockdown, except XBOX, which not only you run uncurated games and apps, it encourages you to write your own by activating developer mode.

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJ5aqx02QDI

              As for getting the Amazon app store installed?
              I had no trouble installing it on my Samsung phone. Flip side: My sister installed google play on her FireOS tablet.

              And I have sideloaded apps on my Fire TV Stick.

              It is a full continuum ranging from Apple’s total lockdown to Android’s semi-lock (you can install apps from other sources, including Amazon and other distributors or direct from the publisher, with some fearmongering) to Windows which lets you easily choose from curated lockdown (Windows S, for institutions) to just installing from disk or web at will.

              Reply
            • I forgot to mention STEAM, EPIC, and several other game appstores on Windows. Electronic Arts and Ubisoft among itgers offer up their own apps directly from their own stores.

              Microsoft actually delivers some of their most popular games on both their Appstore and on STEAM, where they are top sellers and outsell the MS store volume.

              The matter of app stores is a part of the “right to repair” debate that is ongoing…

              https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronics_right_to_repair#:~:text=The%20right%20to%20repair%20electronics%20refers%20to%20government,the%20consumer%20to%20use%20only%20their%20offered%20services.

              …and the question of what can people do with hardware they purchase.

              The XBOX answer is “You bought it, you can do anything you want to the hardware. However, if you modify the hardware, we won’t allow you on our network.” You own the hardware but they own the network.

              The developer mode unlock provides the ability to develop, distribute, install, and run arbitrary apps that conform to the Windows UWP standard.

              And indie game developer can use even tbe cheapest XBOX to write software, host it on the web (free or paid) and offer it for customers. Or run it privately. Which opens the door to non-gaming uses like control systems or (with the top of the line 12Teraflop model) scientific uses because the XBOXes are cheaper than comparable PCs.

              The traditional explanation for lockdowns is supposed to be security and integrity of multiplayer gaming on consoles. The Microsoft solution balances consumer rights with the integrity of the gaming network.

              Seems fair enough.
              You bought it you own it.

              Reply
            • Hot off the (online) press:

              https://www.windowscentral.com/thinking-about-microsofts-potential-new-app-store-windows-10

              A different kind of appstore, hosting both curated and uncurated apps.

              “Microsoft can see that users are heading to the Microsoft Store, searching for Chrome (for example) and not finding it, then closing the store app, opening their web browser, and downloading Chrome from there instead. The end-user isn’t bothered about whether or not the app they’re downloading has been correctly sandboxed or is going to use the Microsoft Store for automatic updates. They just want the app they went looking for.

              “Not finding the app in the store can lead to customer dissatisfaction. It looks bad on Microsoft’s part, and Microsoft not allowing those apps in the store just makes it harder for customers to get the apps they want. Why should a user have to download Chrome from the web when it could very easily be found and installed via the built-in Windows app store? It should just be there.”

              Reply
  3. Common carriers have to take all paying riders, and public accommodations have to take all paying guests. These are indeed open to all – all who will pay the price.

    Not sure about the rest of you, but I pay PG nothing for his hospitality. Anyone pay Twitter? I also pay Amazon nothing for their hosting. Never got an invoice.

    If the standard becomes, “Free for one, free for all,” then we are indeed in new territory.

    Reply
    • You use twitter? You notice any ads while you’re there?
      You’re paying.
      Ditto Facebook, Google, Bing, etc.
      You’re just not paying directly, with your cash.

      Seen this?

      https://www.cnet.com/news/apples-privacy-battle-with-facebook-just-became-all-out-war/

      People laugh at BING, forget it exists because it only has a 2.71% market share.
      Well, BING generated $7.74 billion in search advertising revenue in the 2020 fiscal year.
      Twitter? $3.71B (2020)
      Google, $136B (2018) most of it off ads
      Facebook, $86B (2020)
      Pinterest, $1.7B

      All those “free to use” services make tons of money off you and billions of users like you. Just like broadcast radio and TV and those were/are regulated common carriers. There is precedent.

      You don’t see a bill on twitter et al because you pay with a different currency: your eyeballs, your privacy, sometimes your identity…

      There is no such thing as a free lunch.
      If you’re not paying cash, it is because you are the product.

      Reply
      • The fact that a website makes money doesn’t translate to my payment. It’s easy to show the invoices go from Twitter to the advertiser, the payment goes from the advertiser to Twitter, and none comes from me. That is very different from paying for transport or a hotel room.

        Until people come up with a new doctrine to deal with a new situation, they will lose. The old tools deal with the old situation, and arguing for their use is a losing position.

        Reply
        • Yes it does.
          Your visit triggered a counter.
          The counter triggered a payment to Twitter.
          If you don’t go, you’re not counted and their payment goes down.
          So yes, you paid. Just not with cash.

          In fact, online ads are considered a better form of advertising because they can be attached to relevant content.

          It is exactly the same as the Nielsen ratings on broadcast, but way more precise; Nielsen estimates with samples and algorithms, Twitter and Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Bing all do count every eyeball. They also count people who “clickthrough” to the source of the ad; folks who not only were exposed to the ad, but actually reacted to it.

          This is *not* that new a thing; it is just a refinement of an old practice from newspapers, radio, and TV. All of which have been regulated by Washington. On occasion, even their content; remember the Fairness Doctrine?

          https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/FCC_fairness_doctrine

          Just this week I saw a commenter who was bragging of getting access to Microsoft’s GAMEPASS for “free”. And *all* he had to do was do all his web browsing with the MS browser, search with Bing, get his email with Outlook.com, all of which gave him Rewards Points, just like a credit card. Every month, he got enough kickback to pay for the $10 subscription. As I pointed out above, MS makes nearly $8B a year off Bing ads alone, never mind the others. And that is *after* the Rewards Points.

          Youtube “free” videos gross $30B a year and their ads sustain entire companies. “Free” is all over.

          There is big money in online ads because most people are so used to them they don’t see them as currency. But they are. Hundreds of billions worth each year.

          Reply
          • Yes it does.
            Your visit triggered a counter.
            The counter triggered a payment to Twitter.
            If you don’t go, you’re not counted and their payment goes down.
            So yes, you paid. Just not with cash.

            I paid nothing.

            It becomes a bit like Schodinger’s Box. We don’t know if I paid until we determine if someone counted me?

            Am I paying PG right now? If he is counting, have I paid? If he’s asleep at the wheel have I not paid? If he loses count have I received a refund? If I use a VPN, is it shoplifting?

            This has the potential to bankrupt me. Who knows who is counting me? The world if full of cameras. I need a budget. Drip, drip, drip, and I’m broke.

            Reply
            • People will pay for your attention, therefor your attention is worth money, and a thing worth money is effectively currency. You are indeed paying everywhere you go by handing over your attention. Make no mistake about it, you are product.

              Reply
              • Consumption is not payment.

                I tested this recently. I went down to the Ya’ll Come Back Saloon and ordered a plate of biscuits and gravy. Mel gave me the bill, and I told him I had already paid with my consumption of his cuisine. Unfortunately, the discussion that followed revealed Mel’s miserable grasp of the New Economics.

                Reply
            • Read the books, Daemon and Freedom(tm) by Daniel Suarez. He goes into vast detail about “payment by attention” building a whole world out of it.

              I usually read them a couple of times a year. It’s time that I read them again.

              Reply
              • I don’t think so. What do they say? What’s their argument?

                Maybe they’ll talk to Mel? He’s a real knuckle-dragger.

                Reply

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