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9 July 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 8:52am

A worrying tale of Amazon’s power

Mark Lynas's book on environmentalism appears to have been withdrawn from sale.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

By Helen Lewis

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”.

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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 He writes: “That the book should be withdrawn completely from sale just a day after its launch is a disaster for me .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 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.