Censorship or salesmanship?

Mark Lynas makes a complaint about what he describes as possible censorship related to the release of his new book The God Species. Apparently, it got pulled from Amazon.com in the UK. He writes:

The God Species withdrawn from Amazon – censorship?

Starting some time on Friday morning a strange note appeared on the Amazon.co.uk page selling The God Species paperback. This read that the book had been withdrawn from sale “because a customer recently told us that the item he or she received was not as described”. Since then Amazon has stopped selling the book, and despite attempts by my publisher to resolve the situation the book is still not on sale.

Screenshot:

and goes on to say:

I now understand that Amazon is likely to have removed the book from sale because its automated systems received a number of similar complaints about the book. So a relatively small number of people, perhaps as few as five, can conspire to get a new work taken off Amazon’s web site. Amazon says it will quickly examine whether the complaints are justified but in the meantime potential customers arriving at its web site will be told the book is unavailable. The book’s reputation will be damaged because of the natural assumption that there is indeed something wrong with it that obliges Amazon to remove it from sale. Even if Amazon puts the book back on Monday afternoon, damage has been done.

Well, maybe. The Streisand effect is now kicking in. For example, I was not aware of this new book until I received tips on it being “censored”. And, Lucia has now weighed in, uncritically. The Guardian has made an issue out of it too.

While Lynas has recently come to terms with his previous erroneous views on greens, Wow, Lynas tells it like it is. for which I applaud him, he is also known for doing outrageous things to get attention, such as doing a pie in the face to Bjørn Lomborg at his book signing for The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book that doesn’t seem to be that different from The God Species based on the description.

So, given Lynas past behavior, I can’t tell if what we are seeing is “censorship”, or if it is simply a cleverly staged faux takedown (easy to do anonymously online these days) to kick in The Streisand effect thus making thousands more people aware of his new book, and perhaps buy it later? People often want what they can’t have more than something they can get anywhere. What better way to boost sales than to make the book look taboo and then get media to start hollering about it as the New Statesman has done?

Right now, the Amazon UK website continues the restriction, and Amazon US website has no restrictions, and allows pre-orders.

So, as I said, given that Lynas in the past has tried to shut down Bjørn Lomborg’s book signing, a form of censorship itself, I can’t take his claims at face value. We’ll see how it plays out.

Hopefully, either way, Amazon will adjust their policy to prevent such problems in the future, no matter what the motive. Perhaps taking a “innocent until proven guilty” stance on product removal might be more productive.

Added clarification: For hardware, software, appliances, etc, I can see the point of such a policy to limit liability and damage to customers. But, we are talking about a book with the opinions of an author, and who offers a warranty with opinion? If we allowed such things, we’d have takedowns daily of newspaper articles worldwide where the catchy headline doesn’t quite match the body of the text.

Hopefully Amazon will implement a separate policy on book sales to prevent such problems and cries of censorship in the future.

h/t to Barry Woods

UPDATE: Within 6 hours of this posting, the restriction has been removed, so much for Mr. Lynas brief worry of “censorship” from Amazon.

OTOH, his website at  http://www.marklynas.org/ now returns a “403 error” – forbidden, which checks out from two different networks and the three different browsers I have access to.

Strange.

- Anthony

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54 thoughts on “Censorship or salesmanship?

  1. Perhaps taking a “innocent until proven guilty” stance on product removal might be more productive.

    The problem with that is that you really open your customers to the possibility of fraudulent sales. Amazon is better to err on the side of the consumer, who are their end customers. Loads of people by from Amazon on the web because of the reputation that most of the goods are legit. It would make no sense to open the consumers to fraud to protect the vendors.

    REPLY: For hardware, software, appliances, etc, yes that is a valid liability restriction policy, but for books with opinion? That’s my point and I’ll make it clearer in the text. – Anthony

  2. So a relatively small number of people, perhaps as few as five, can conspire to get a new work taken off Amazon’s web site.

    Anonymous complaints are a great way to get state’s Child Protective Services agencies to harass your ex-spouse and gain custody of your children.

    It would be nice to really know what’s going on, but I feel a wave of “don’t bother” beginning to sweep over me. Besides, I need to go grocery shopping.

    I notice the US Amazon site notes Bill McKibben’s eaarth and James Lovelock’s GAIA are “also bought” items, so I guess UK readers have alternatives.

    Amusingly, the page for THE GOD SPECIES (don’t people know how to capitalize titles any longer?) starts out with:

    Editorial Reviews

    Praise for ‘Six Degrees': “Six degrees takes a fresh and interesting approach to the familiar topic of climate change. Gripping and remarkably balanced, this book does not just focus on the doom and gloom of climate change but also displays practical optimism towards the issues facing us. … -This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

    If that’s on the UK site, then the complainers might have a case!

  3. You can always go out to http://www.abe.com to go buy a book. They are an affiliation of booksellers. Many of them engage in OOP and overstocks, but many also list books currently in print. A reasonable place to check the asking price for antiquarian books too if you are going to bid on one at ebay.

  4. it’s my understanding that only the government can censor books, movies, etc. Amazon should be able to control what they offer for sale.

  5. I see no reason to doubt that perhaps just a few activist have taken exception to this book and maniuplated amazon. Mark has seriously annoyed some green/environmentalists in the uk

    The same technique is often used by activist in say the Guardian comment section or the bbc, report abuse and the comment is removed.

    I absolutely no reason to doubt Mark Lynas on this, having followed it before all the twittering/media stuff started.

    As I explained in an email to Lucia, a few juvenile activist probably did it, it might only take half a dozen before automatic systems kicked in.

    REPLY: Unfortunately, we may never know for sure. I doubt Amazon will reveal much about the investigation – Anthony

  6. Looks like the “big sin” is being pro-Nuclear power.

    If anything, the disaster at Fukashima shows that even when you F-up (foul up) incredibly, a lot of
    natural processes limit the damage extent. (Unless you have a PROMPT CRITICAL event, as Cherynoble and you set your graphite moderated reactor on fire…something which NEVER happened before, oh WAIT http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire …oh well, it was only 25 years before Cherynoble, and not enough time to learn from it…as all the details were buried. (DANG, wrong again, it was completely published, “Court of Inquiry”, by 1962…)

    Now let’s compare SO2, coal train auto collisions, mine disasters, etc. (Hum, BP and the Gulf of Mexico?)

    I think it is all summed up best here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toG6aSQFF7Y

  7. Warning: Possible error detected

    From Amazon (US):
    The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans [Hardcover]

    List Price: $25.00
    Price: $16.33 & eligible for FREE Super Saver Shipping on orders over $25.
    You Save: $8.67 (35%)

    This title will be released on November 1, 2011.

    Publisher: National Geographic

    Not even out yet and already heavily discounted.

    Other variants:
    The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans [Kindle Edition] [Paperback]
    Publisher: Fourth Estate (July 7, 2011)

    Possible error: Amazon US is accepting pre-orders on the NatGeo-published hardcover. Amazon UK has stopped selling the Fourth Estate-published softcover. The full titles are similar but not exact. It is not demonstrated that these are both the exact same book, same contents, just with different publishers.

    And, as can be seen, Amazon US is currently involved in selling the one that Amazon UK stopped selling, directly with the Kindle version, and not accepting pre-orders as it’s already out.

    As to the “censorship,” possibly someone mistakenly thought they were getting the nice NatGeo book but instead got the older “Fourth Estate” edition. Note Amazon US isn’t directly selling the “Fourth Estate” paperback for some reason, perhaps it’s no longer being printed.

  8. If he hasn’t done so yet, he should make it available in Kindle here in the US, which can then be downloaded in the UK–not the same exactly, but a way around possible censorship.

  9. Well, as a UK resident, I’ve just successfully grabbed the free Kindle sample of “The God Species”, which includes the Introduction and first chapter, and I can see its “Buy now” button on the site.

    Great publicity wheeze!

  10. Sounds like the GREENS having some revenge on Marks recent BLASPHEMES!
    Or could be as you state Anthony, and others a mistake in the book that is being promoted. I would rather it be the latter, but the one brain cell in the back is screaming the “FORMER”. The brain cell caps not mine. HA HA

  11. I really can’t blame anybody for beiing somewhat cynical, new book launch, controversy, etc, etc !

    Yet, as a Comparison… not long ago some activist in the uk, decided it would be a laugh to register a jamesdelingpole domain name and redirect it to http://www.realclimate.org.

    James being a very sceptical journalist and Telegraph blogger

    That guy turned out to be a researcher or the british Antartica survey!, if i remember correctly. Same sort of thing most probably happened here, as no author/publisher would run the risk of making !mazon look bad. Just a few indivduals manipulating Amazon in a juvenile way.

    It does just highlight how intolerant some activists can be… his pro- nuclear stance most likely.

    I totally agree very unlikely that Amazon will say anything, when they get round to going in to work Monday morning, in the UK, they’ll just disable the automatic block quietly….

    I do hope that Amazon turn off this feature for new books by mainstream publishers, otherwise it may get tried on other books.

  12. I think Kadaka has a line on it – it’s probably a “this is the wrong edition, I ordered the other one and they substituted it without asking” situation, not anything at all like a censorship problem.

  13. Its odd the way religions are always far harder members seen to have become heretics than they ever are on those that never believed in the first place, Lynas is in the process of finding out first hand that its not enough to believe you most believe in the ‘right way’ and never stray from the path of ‘purity’.

  14. Mark is a drama queen. His flip flopping is drama queen “all the way down”. This appears nothing more than a stunt – a pie to the face of book buyers.

  15. From Barry Woods on July 9, 2011 at 11:04 am:

    Yet, as a Comparison… not long ago some activist in the uk, decided it would be a laugh to register a jamesdelingpole domain name and redirect it to http://www.realclimate.org.

    Hmm, that gives me an idea… Drat, “Environmental Media Services” also registered the realclimate-dot-com and -net versions at the same time. But “reallyclimate.org” is available!

    Anyone here know how to do a redirect?

  16. Whatever the reason for this sales stoppage -it is no surprise that the Guardian and the new Statesman are wading in. They are not doing because they now heart Lynas again – they do it because this is a wonderful opportunity for them to clobber the evil corporate monopoly that is amazon dot co dot uk.

  17. “Hopefully, either way, Amazon will adjust their policy to prevent such problems in the future, no matter what the motive. Perhaps taking a “innocent until proven guilty” stance on product removal might be more productive.”

    Perhaps but Amazon is working in a country (the UK) that does not have the 1rst amendment. There may be no way for them to continue to stay in business while having an “innocent until proven guilty” stance.

    My take away from this is not Amazon is a bad guy…it is happy 4th of July and thank god I live in America.

  18. I’m afraid this kind of sabotage is not unique. Some people here might know about a Firefox add-on called “Web of Trust” where users can vote on whether or not a website is potentially dangerous, e.g. for installing malware or for being a scam.
    However, one site which I have been visiting for years has suddenly been flagged up with a red danger warning. It is a blog hosted on wordpress and doesn’t sell anything. The only conclusion I could come to is that that the site concerns a controversial subject (not CAGW but just as heated) and takes a non-mainstream view.
    When alerted that activists are almost certainly voting against the site simply because they don’t like what it says, Web of Trust simply shrug as if the fact that many people will be put off going to a legitimate site because of their add-on is of no concern.
    Anyone using WOT or anything similar might be advised to vote their approval for any sites like this as a way of forestalling any sabotage attempt on anti-CAGW sites.

  19. And now it appears (only appears) that Lynas’s website has been hacked. It could just be a server problem, but the timing is interesting.

  20. Well!

    Canibalism among activists is what we are experincing. Hard core anti nuclear Greepeace against luke greenies. From history we know these peolple are unable to reason or neogotiatiate.The fractions within the “Green” movement. Trotskist against leninists…. well we have seen it before.

  21. I’m putting my money on:

    “simply a cleverly staged faux takedown (easy to do anonymously online these days) to kick in The Streisand effect thus making thousands more people aware of his new book, and perhaps buy it later? People often want what they can’t have more than something they can get anywhere. What better way to boost sales than to make the book look taboo and then get media to start hollering about it as the New Statesman has done?”

    Standard sales tactics nowdays.

  22. jeez said on July 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm:

    And now it appears (only appears) that Lynas’s website has been hacked. It could just be a server problem, but the timing is interesting.

    I’m just seeing simple “403 Forbidden” errors, for the link in the post and marklynas.org, nothing resembling “hacking.”

    With the link being posted here on WUWT, Lynas’ site traffic probably shot up 8000%, at least. It might have looked like a distributed Denial-Of-Service attack, which Lynas may ironically expect to be launched by we “Deniers,” triggering a site lockdown.

    But if he wants to claim it was “hacking” to get a sales boost for his book (“They’re doing anything they can to censor my message!”), fine, let him try it. Just look at how well it’s worked to suggest censorship on Amazon!

  23. All the versions that are not out of stock are available from within EU. So it seems to be just BS.

  24. Amazon in the UK said that distribution of the book was getting held up “

    …because a customer recently told us that the item he or she received was not as described.

    A customer. One customer.

    Er, WTF? One customer? WTFF? Did that customer (“he or she”) get a copy of Earth in the Balance in a dust jacket from Lynas’ book? Were there pages misprinted, or sections bound out of sequence? Dusted with pathogenic E. coli from some batch of organically-fertilized Kraut cucumbers?

    Might be defects in a print run, or in the binding process, might be mischief in the warehouse at the publisher, or at Amazon.com’s facility in the UK.

    Hm. Is it available from Amazon by way of their Kindle portal? It’s advertised on Amazon.com in these United States as available both in text and as an e-book effective 1 November 2011.

  25. Can someone tell me what the book is about? I am an Anthrodeist, so the title is tempting. But … I don’t wish to support ideololgical enemies.

    What is an Anthrodeist? An Anthrodeist believes knows that Man invented God in His own image and has given consciousness to inaminate matter.

  26. Just a thought … Is the Green Movement going through a Bowel Movement? :-)

  27. Update: I’ve just re-checked the Amazon-UK site. The “Item under review” notice has now gone, and the book is flagged “In stock”.

  28. Amazon’s “Item Under Review” note indicates that the book may still be available from other sellers on the page. This suggests that the problem is with a specific vendor not with the content of the book. Perhaps, as some have suggested, people are receiving a version different than they ordered, which would make Amazon’s response entirely reasonable. I might take the time to explore the truth of this, but life is way to short to be wasting a valuable piece of it on something which appears to be very, very much ado about nothing.

  29. Anyone who has worked in printing knows how easily printing errors can be made–whole sections repeated are not unusual–and it may only affect a small percentage of the run. But you can’t send something like that out. As automated as printing is, it still has the problem of human error.

  30. I don’t think Lynas is pulling a marketing trick here. He was very open on his blog and responded to a lot of skeptics coming to his thread about the IPCC / Greenpeace connection. I suspect it’s harrasments by the anti nuclear Green faction. The Lomborg stunt might have been clever self-marketing but this here…. don’t think so – no cameras around. It would be a *worse* marketing stunt than his previous efforts. Why should he do less efficient tricks now than he did in the past.

  31. kadaka (KD Knoebel) says:
    July 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm
    “With the link being posted here on WUWT, Lynas’ site traffic probably shot up 8000%, at least. It might have looked like a distributed Denial-Of-Service attack, which Lynas may ironically expect to be launched by we “Deniers,” triggering a site lockdown.”

    On the aforementioned thread he actually acted genuinely surprised by how nice various skeptics were to him, so i don’t think he expects an attack from us.

  32. I’m just seeing simple “403 Forbidden” errors, for the link in the post and marklynas.org, nothing resembling “hacking.”

    I had that very problem with my own web server today (I own and operate them). It was a problem with anti-leeching parameters being set. This is done to prevent people from not only linking, but including content in their site that is served by the remote site. It is bandwidth theft, and sometimes the prevention for it will throw a 403 error.

  33. REPLY: For hardware, software, appliances, etc, yes that is a valid liability restriction policy, but for books with opinion? That’s my point and I’ll make it clearer in the text. – Anthony

    Well, that is a good point, but the problem is that Amazon wouldn’t know that the item is being flagged because of an agenda until it is made clear to them. If I were running an E-retailer I would certainly be concerned with the credibility of my products. If someone is selling what appears to be a book by all account, but turns out to never actually be received, or in the case of this flag, you get a box of apple cores instead of a book, that would create a credibility problem for customers buying from your e-store.

    If I were the business person, I would be much more comfortable explaining to vendors, whose market share I am expanding, that the process of vetting their product is important and that if I receive complaints, I have to investigate them before I can return their products to my marketplace.

  34. Lynas welcome to the real (climate) world. You dared to cross the line and question the IPCC, the high priests of climate science. Now you will pay the price for your heresy.

    This was predicted weeks ago at the time of your heresy. This author among other told you what would happen. Lucky it is only a book. Not so long ago it would have meant stoning or burning at the stake.

    Climate science is settled science. This means you are not allowed to question. Ask questions on real (climate) you will be censored. Ask agin and you will be banned. Question the IPCC and you will be excommunicated. Lynas, you have been excommunicated.

    You are in good company. Steve McIntyre, Judith Curry, they dared to question. Now you have dared. The question is, will you roll over and die as so many other have done, cowering in fear, or will you shout out? Freedom of speech, freedom of the press. The USA is the Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave. Fact or fantasy? The whole world is watching.

  35. Look at; http://www.banned-books.org.uk/
    Lady Chatterleys Lover
    Catcher in the Rye
    SpyCatcher
    Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone
    For Whom the Bell Tolls
    The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
    The Satanic verses
    So will this book now join the list of best sellers of all time ? Lets hope so.

  36. This martyr complex skeptics seem to try and wrap themselves in is quite sad, this entire story is a nonevent as the book was quickly reinstated (in just hours in fact) for info the amazon system does not work on just 5-6 votes but a percentage of total sales, so a small number of votes may get a book blocked but only in the total sales of that book are around 15-20.

  37. I find some of the comments reviewing this book rather odd, several claim to have not even read it, one seems to have not purchased it at all and is complaining about censorship. This is the oddest as you can’t leave either a comment or a review on a book with Amazon unless you have already purchased it.

  38. From Mark’s update on his site.

    Finally an apology for this website being unobtainable last night and this morning. The reason was bandwidth – it simply couldn’t cope with the volume of interest. Once again, thanks so much to everyone who stood up for The God Species – whether you agree with it or not. I am humbled by everyone’s commitment to protecting free speech – online democracy really works, and is sometimes the only way to hold big corporations to account.

  39. Now on Lynas’ site:

    Update 10am Sunday 10 July – Finally some explanation…

    I now understand indirectly from a high-level source in Amazon.co.uk that the complaints received about The God Species – which resulted in the book being taken offline by the company – may have been regarding its description as ‘hardback’ when in fact the copies sold are in a format known as ‘trade paperback’. This is not confirmed, and I have no evidence or confirmation in writing, but it seems most likely that this has not been the result of any malicious activity on the part of any individual, group of individuals or organisation. (This explanation also seems odd given that the screenshot below of the Amazon page when the book was offline clearly shows it listed as ‘paperback’ – so why anyone could have bought it expecting a hardback and then complained remains a mystery.)

    This comes after previously stating:

    Although I cannot prove it, I now believe that this is a malicious attempt at censorship by individuals or organisations who find the content of The God Species threatening.

    Oh well, he’s gathered a boatload of 5-star reviews from people who haven’t read the book and are merely doing it to protest the great “Amazon censorship conspiracy.” The cumulative star rating is what shows up on the listing, right under the title and author, so many people will immediately conclude it’s some Great Scientific Work without knowing how it got said rating.

    Mission Accomplished.

  40. My reason for doubting the censorship claims: Amazon would sell any book. Including the classic Vreni Schneider: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Winter Olympic Games, Slalom Skiing, Giant Slalom Skiing, Half Man Half Biscuit. No, that is not a joke. That is the title. Kinda makes me think of ManBearPig, lol.

    Check this story out:

    http://www.chrisrand.com/blog/index.php/2010/02/27/odd-tale-alphascript-publishing-betascript-publishing/

  41. Heh. There were thirteen reviews at Amazon UK about the book, one was a one-star asking for equal treatment with regards to fighting against censorship for both (C)AGW and skeptic books. I wrote my own “review” quoting what I did in my last comment, said people should feel free to keep giving those 5-star reviews to a book they didn’t read to protest the great “Amazon censorship conspiracy,” and I was giving it 1 star due to Lynas’ prompt statement about the “malicious attempt at censorship.”

    Apparently they read the submitted reviews rather closely. My review didn’t make it, but the “didn’t read” reviews are all gone. There remains one review by someone who apparently did read it going by the content, who didn’t gripe about “Amazon’s censorship.”

    Even today, one person’s opinion can make a difference.

  42. Good post. A reminder to think things through before jumping to conclusions. Very interesting!

  43. “it’s my understanding that only the government can censor books, movies, etc. Amazon should be able to control what they offer for sale.”

    I don’t know about the UK, but In the US it’s exactly the opposite. A private enterprise can pick and choose to promote and sell anything that the want, or conversely refuse to carry anything that they don’t want. The government on the other hand is forbidden from inhibiting the expression of ideas unless there’s a VERY clear public safety component or similar that they could get judges to agree with.

  44. “it’s my understanding that only the government can censor books, movies, etc. Amazon should be able to control what they offer for sale.”

    After re-reading what I was responding to, I realized that I misread it. Yes, amazon can control what they sell.

  45. In defense of Amazon’s policy, the ” item received was not as described” error is used to report shipping errors or outright fraud. That is, it’s an indictment against the _seller_ and says nothing about the product. In this case, it could be that the buyers ordered “The God Species” and received “The God Solution” or that they ordered hardcover and received paperback. It could be an innocent mistake or it could be fraud on the part of the seller (by which I mean the publisher, not Amazon). Fraud and mis-deliveries are not limited to hardware, software or appliances. They are every bit as damaging to the customer in a delivery of books. Whether innocent or deliberate, Amazon is right to investigate and hopefully to see the problem quickly fixed.

    Could the Amazon policy be misused by a customer with an agenda? Possibly but only after actually buying the book. Only actual buyers can get to the page with that option. I think your “innocent until proven guilty” policy would open up Amazon and all of us customers to much greater risk of abuse than the occasional overzealous takedown, especially when it is so quickly corrected.

  46. This is not censorship. Businesses have a right to decide what products they sell. Would you accuse a Christian bookstore of censorship if it refused to sell Anton Levy’s Satanic Bible? Businesses decide every day what products they will offer and have policies and processes in place for evaluating a products impact on sales. Amazon chooses to use customer response and various logarithms ( I assume) to determine what products will be sold. I have no problem with this.

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