Thursday, January 10, 2013
Big Brother Is Watching You
Isn’t it amazing how Amazon manages to find every book in existence and offer it for sale? You may not agree it does, but I’m convinced.
The first book I remember borrowing from the library, at the age of six, was a book called Sally and The White Horse, about a little girl who is captured by Barbary pirates. I had tried before to find it, but one day recently, it occurred to me to search for it on Amazon, and there it was: in trade paper, titled The White Horse, part of a series about Sally by Elizabeth Coatsworth, a beloved and prolific children’s author whose name I knew, though I hadn’t realized she wrote that particular book.
On the day my latest, Death Will Save Your Life, went online, I googled my name in the Amazon search box. On the first two pages, I found listings not only for anthologies including my short stories andfor my chapters in books on clinical work with substance abusers and online therapy, but a citation of my 1976 translation of a French biography of “romantic feminist” Flora Tristan, Gauguin’s grandmother, in a history of women “from prehistoric times to the present.” To cap it, the citation appeared only an inch or two away from a listing for a book on feminism in the Soviet Union, which had made a fleeting mention of Flora Tristan in a footnote, by a woman I’d never heard of whose name is the same as my very unusual maiden name. Small world.
Then there’s the Kindle, the device that Amazon used in its world-changing devaluation of books—the McGuffin in what might be considered a crime against writers, although a boon for readers. I can’t complain about my Kindle. Most recently, on Christmas Day, it kept me patient and happy as I stood in line at a movie theater with a sell-out crowd, waiting for a film whose starting time had changed mysteriously from 3 to 4 pm. So I have to set that against the fact that as an author, I can’t sell any of my hardcover mysteries for more than ten dollars each at book fairs or festivals. At $15, they’ll simply sit there—even if my publisher’s price to me for author copies is higher than I can sell them for.
If Amazon had stopped there, I might love it as a blessing of the new technology the way I love my GPS, my iPhone, and the EZ-Pass that lets me sail through toll booths on the highway. But no. I already had a taste of Amazon as dominatrix a couple of years ago, when she cracked the whip by pulling all of publishing giant Macmillan’s products offline (including my two books published with St. Martin’s/Minotaur and the corresponding Kindle editions) to win a tug-of-war about pricing. At the time, I wished a pox on both their houses, since the higher prices publishers want mean fewer willing customers for the books.
Now, we knew already—and thanks to an article in the New York Times, the whole world knows—Amazon is bullying both writers and consumers by selectively deleting the customer reviews they have made essential to an author’s success by pegging visibility to customers to the number of positive reviews. The closest to an explanation they’ve been willing to give the public is that an author can’t be allowed to review another author’s book because the two are competitors. If you can find a way that that makes sense, please comment and let us know. They also claim they’re purging reviews by authors’ family members, supposedly to stop the unfair practice of “sock puppets,” fake superlative reviews by biased readers.
And that’s where Big Brother Is Watching You comes in. How the hell does Amazon know who my relatives are? And how intrusive does it have to get before we turn around and find our privacy, maybe even our civil liberties, gone for good? Amazon isn’t even getting it right as they pick and choose among which readers are allowed to say they like my work. So far, they’ve barred two reviews: one by a work colleague of my husband’s who’s thrilled to know an author and adores my series, the other by an established online reviewer who’s always been a fan of my work and makes a point of being upfront about giving objective reviews.
My current e-publisher has made it clear my books will sell only if I “appease the Anaconda.” But what if the Anaconda stacks the deck by setting an impossible task and punishing attempts to give it what it wants? Where do we go from here?