A worrying tale of Amazon's power

Mark Lynas's book on environmentalism appears to have been withdrawn from sale. Why?

Please see update below main post . . .

If the mess over the "Murdoch empire" has shown us one thing, it's that near-monopolies are problematic. Here's another one: Amazon.

The environmentalist, author and NS contributor Mark Lynas has spent the past few years writing and researching his new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans.

But look at the book's Amazon page -- on its opening weekend, when reviews are published, advertising is bought and a sizeable proportion of sales are made -- and the book is mysteriously listed as being "under review".

This product is not currently offered by Amazon.co.uk because a customer recently told us that the item he or she received was not as described.We are working to resolve this as quickly as possible. In the meantime, you may still find this product available from other sellers on this page.

It's hard to see how a book can be "not as described", unless Fourth Estate mistakenly had it printed on loo roll or in hieroglyphics. (Martin Robbins at the Guardian has a copy of the book and says he can see no technical problems with it.)

Peter Forbes, who was due to review the book for the Guardian, believes that the message is the result of someone invoking Amazon's complaints procedure because they disagree with its message.

If so, it's a worrying development, particularly given Amazon's incredible dominance of the book trade. There are several other subjects -- the Middle East, evolution, abortion -- which attract similarly strong feelings as climate change and it's uncomfortable to think that partisan players can, in effect, sabotage the release of books with which they disagree.

Lynas has written a blog on the subject, which lists alternative (and much smaller) outlets that are still carrying The God Species. He writes: "That the book should be withdrawn completely from sale just a day after its launch is a disaster for me . . . That this could be the work of interested parties who find the message of the God Species too threatening is even more troubling. In a free society, surely open debate about all issues is paramount and one of our most deeply held values."

He quotes an email received by a customer trying to buy the book. In it, Amazon states: "Please be informed that an item will be under review or investigation if series of reports from customers show that the item purchased was not as describe or has incorrect product details/description." As he notes, an automatic response with several typos doesn't fill you with confidence that Amazon is taking this seriously.

Update, Sunday 10 July: Mark Lynas has just posted on his blog that a "high-level source" at Amazon tells him that the book was withdrawn because it was a trade paperback and was advertised as a hardback. This hasn't been confirmed but he says he no longer suspects activists were involved.

He adds:

However, it is clearly the case that had I not been able to draw attention to the situation with the help of so many other people on Twitter and elsewhere, the matter would not have received much attention from Amazon -- possibly for several days -- and the book's chances would have been quite effectively scotched during the most vital launch period.

This does perhaps illustrate the dangers of market concentration when a single online bookseller now controls 70% of the UK market, and soon to be more if Amazon's takeover of the Book Depository is waved through by the British competition authorities. It certainly seems unfair that a book can be sunk through so easily and with so little justification because Amazon.co.uk is so dominant in the market and so slow to respond to complaints. I would hope that it could learn from this saga and tighten up its processes so other books do not suffer a similar fate immediately after they are launched. It seems very clear that if the Twitter campaign had not snowballed so quickly, the situation would still be unresolved now.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.