There are many aspects of Amazon’s business model that deserve praise, the outlandish claims and baseless accusations of some large publishing conglomerates and their famous authors notwithstanding. Amazon favors presses that keep their prices reasonable and gives a greater percentage of gross to those which keep e-book prices under $10.00. This benefits all readers, and is particularly good for college students, whom most publishers have traditionally treated as captive audiences and cash cows. The cost of textbooks has been rising outrageously and now constitutes a sizable fraction of college expenses. The University of Washington, for example, estimates average annual textbook costs at $1200.
The purchase of appropriately priced e-books can significantly reduce this. After all, there is no reason why students should be called upon to subsidize the publishers’ bloated bureaucracies and the huge royalties for textbook authors (who generally write the books while receiving full-time salaries as professors). There is in fact no reason why any publisher should charge more than $10.00 for an e-book, so Amazon is completely justified in attempting to rein in the cost.
Amazon offers an astonishing array of e-books at low prices, and an amazing number of quality titles are available free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The collected works of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, and many others cost under $3.00 each, and many of the classics of science fiction (one of my favorite genres) can be read for free. It can be argued that Amazon has democratized reading in new ways, not only by potentially lowering the cost of textbooks and other e-books, but also by making books (hard copy as well as electronic) easily available to anyone within reach of the internet.
There is another aspect of Amazon’s business model that is of immense value to those who might want to work outside the narrow confines of what is considered acceptable by the mainstream presses, including university presses. Namely, Amazon facilitates the distribution of books by tiny, independent specialty publishers, giving us access to readers on an unprecedented scale.
I speak from experience. My book, Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, had a long and tortuous path to publication. Along the way two presses broke contracts with me, and the head editor of one prominent university press said the book was “outside our comfort zone” and advised that I should tone down my criticisms of the Vatican. Ultimately, I decided to publish the book through the Kovalevskaia Fund, a small non-profit foundation for women in science, technology and medicine of which I am director. But in all but name the book was produced by an experienced small independent publisher named Aqueduct Press that is known for its high quality feminist science fiction. L. Timmel Duchamp, Kathryn Wilham, and Tom Duchamp, the motive forces behind Aqueduct Press, kindly worked with me to ensure a professionally produced book. Recently Sex and Herbs and Birth Control won the 2015 Transdisciplinary Book Award of Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research, beating out twenty-six other entries including books published by Oxford, MIT, Indiana, and other distinguished presses.
The book is not exactly selling well. But the fact that it is selling at all is due in large part to Amazon. Amazon is a godsend for small independent presses. The company does not disadvantage the tiny. On the contrary, Amazon encourages presses that keep their book prices low. And Amazon has the reputation of paying more promptly than other booksellers—a circumstance of some importance to a small press. All in all, it is safe to say that without Amazon it would have been difficult if not impossible to distribute Sex and Herbs and Birth Control effectively.
This does not mean, however, that Amazon is perfect. It is a huge corporation, and like any huge corporation in our capitalist world it can be accused of many things, including worker exploitation. What concerns me here, however, is Amazon’s peculiar taboo against allowing the word abortion to be used as a keyword for a sponsored advertising campaign.
Among the useful tools that Amazon offers—and one that is especially welcome to small presses with small budgets—is the possibility of creating a mini-ad campaign tailored to a specific audience. One can “bid” on keywords, with bids as low as two cents per click, and specify a low maximum budget. Amazon keeps track of the number of “impressions” (how many viewers see the page on which the sponsored link or ad is featured) and charges based on the number of clicks to the ad itself. If there are not many ads linked to a given word or term, or if one’s bid is higher than those of other sellers, then one’s ad is nicely placed at the bottom of the first page of search results.
Given the modest cost and the possibility of stopping at any time, we put in a two-cent bid on several terms: birth control, fertility control, women’s herbs, and abortion. All but abortion were accepted, and links to Sex and Herbs and Birth Control appear when viewers search these terms. Mystified by the absence of ads for the book under “abortion,” we upped our per-click bid to a whopping fifty cents. Still nothing.
Email with a sales representative revealed that abortion is in all likelihood a taboo ad word for Amazon. In fact, an abortion word search yields no ads or sponsored links on those pages at all. This seems bizarre and more than a bit disturbing. After all, a search for “Confederate battle flag” yields six sponsored links on the first page, four of which are to sites which sell that reviled symbol of racism and oppression. Why should Amazon have no qualms about allowing advertising for Confederate (or indeed, for Nazi) regalia, yet shy away from permitting relevant links on a word search for a legal women’s health-related procedure like abortion? There seems to be no rational reason for Amazon to spurn ads and sponsored links on its abortion word search pages. In fact, the action appears to smack of censorship of a particularly perplexing and troubling variety.
Postscript (added 1 February 2016): Amazon seems to have recently changed its policy, and sponsored links have begun to appear with abortion word searches.