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[personal profile] desayunoencama
There are two primary issues here, I think, which can be broken down into:

A) Who has the authority to determine what is or is not obscene or morally objectionable?


B) How Amazon has reacted over the past months to works that have been deemed "morally objectionable" by some of their clients.

Both issues, however, involve power struggles, imbalances, and abuses.

Questions of obscenity such as Issue A are almost always a case of a majority group--already in power--attacking and suppressing a minority group.

The reasons for the attack are almost irrelevant.

Whether one group is trying to impose their morality on everyone or the very existence of the minority group undermines or calls into question some fundamentals they hold as doctrine or just makes them feel less powerful, the bottom line is that a powerful group uses its power to squelch a less-powerful group or groups.

In the case of amazonfail, this was metonymic: not the groups themselves but cultural manifestations of the groups, so it included works with LGBT content, works of alternative erotica and other sex-positive texts, etc. These victim groups happen to have strong collective identities--which in part emerge from or are reinforced by the homophobia, misogyny, sex-negativity, etc. they have to endure and fight against from the mainstream culture--and are also internet-saavy and vocal; they were able to spread the word quickly and widely.

A rhetorical question:
What would have happened if some white supremacists, for instance, had systematically tried to rig the system to derank works by writers of color?

Especially communities of color who, for whatever reason--questions of access, socialization, etc.--aren't as internet-enabled...

It's quite likely what was going on might have gone unnoticed for much longer.

One of the reasons many minority groups have watchdog organizations like the Anti-Defamation League or GLAAD is because they need them to combat anti-semitism or homophobia/lesbophobia/transphobia, respectively, in the two cited instances.

(Having grown up as a Jew in America, when I came out of the closet as a gay man in my late teens, I suddenly went from belonging to a minority of perhaps 2% to a much larger minority of 10%!)

But I digress. The underlying fundament of Issue A is a question of wanting both power and control and using it to imposing one's personal belief system on others.

It's pretty obvious that for Issue B, Amazon has responded badly and irresponsibly by using an automated system that deranked titles with objections against them--without inquiry or recourse.

Many (though by no means all) libraries and schools, for instance, have systems in place to protect books which have been challenged, and even in today's fully-automated world their challenge systems are not simply a one-click process. There are checks and balances in place to prevent rigging the system.

Those of us who've been in the LGBT publishing and bookselling field for a while will remember the targeted and biased homophobia by Canada Customs and Vancouver LGBT bookstore Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium.

Some over-simplified backstory: Sex-negative anti-pornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon equated all pornography with rape and male violence against women, and in 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada incorporated some of their anti-pornography legal work into their obscenity law (in the decision R. v. Butler).

In practice, Canada Customs used this obscenity legislation not to impede the importation of actual works of heterosexual works of pornography which might conceivably be considered violence against women (an issue I won't get into for the present) but to specifically target gay material and lesbian material, preventing or making difficult and expensive its entry (or event re-entry) into Canada.

As I recall, one of the items that had been seized by customs and which was influential in the lawsuit were copies of an issue of the US lesbian magazine GIRLFRIENDS that were going to Little Sister's. What was deemed obscene in the magazine--their justification for the seizure--was an excerpt from a book by Canadian author Persimmon Blackbridge which had been published by a Canadian publisher (Press Gang, as I recall) and which they were now banning from re-entering Canada.

Canada Customs were in fact found guilty of this homophobic targeting and discrimination {see} though they were exonerated under the Butler decision.

The problem with these situations is that the burden of proof falls on the victims, and even then the power imbalance is such that the system usually remains in place.

Little Sister's was the victim of systematic and targeted homophobia by Canada Customs, for which they had to pay the financial burden of hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours to fight and prove (time and money taken away from their primary pursuit, which is selling literature). And at the end of the day, after winning a highly-publicized case, nothing changed.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund exists to fight many analogous situations with regard to illustrated or sequential art works.

In the case of amazonfail, the burden once again has fallen on the victims, in this case writers of LGBT material, sex-positive erotica, etc. It's not like a notification was sent to them that their book was challenged or objected to, they find out--if they even do, I'm sure some have been celebrating the recent holidays and have not yet become aware of the situation--after the fact, and must now expend time and energy to undo a situation which should not have been allowed to happen in the first place (and this is where Amazon's culpability primarily lies).

Aside from the direct losses (books not able to be found and therefore bought because they've been deranked and no longer show up in searches) there are indirect losses: how many pages of LGBT material are not being written because their authors are checking to see if their books have been deranked, taking action to try and have them reranked, or are otherwise following the situation?

What is further underscored by all of this is just how dangerously out of balance the system is, and how in particular has far too much power within the system today. Too many publishers, especially publishers of books that speak to or about "minority" experiences, rely on Amazon for getting their titles into the hands of readers.

A few weeks ago unashamedly threw its weight around (see "Last week, revealed Amazon was changing its terms and scrapping the existing 30-day payment period. Instead, publishers can have a 15-day payment period but must offer Amazon a further 2% off—bringing the total discount to 62%. Those publishers who do not offer the extra discount will see their payments made on Amazon's "standard terms”--effectively 60 days. Amazon applies the payment period at the end of the month in which the transaction took place. This means that those publishers on the latter scheme could wait up to 90 days for payment.

Although the internet retailer first contacted publishers on 24th March, the deadline for a decision was 1st April."

Distribution is, today, the biggest problem in publishing, and publishing has been changing because of changes in the distribution channels and system.

On the one hand, With the consolidation of distributors, we've seen the disappearance of the midlist.

We've seen a loss of diversity of voices as distributors go under and many independent publishers can't survive the losses of the monies owed to them.

(Not to mention the consolidation on the publishing side of things, with imprints being combined or canceled, leading only to more homogenization instead of plurality.)

It's worth remembering how, a decade and a half ago, a number of independent publishers went under because of the aggressive expansion of Barnes & Noble; at first, everyone was euphoric, because all of a sudden the major chain store was ordering much larger quantities of books than before. But this was a false increase in demand; it was not that there were more buyers for these books, but rather that B&N needed to "wallpaper" all those new stores. And rather than get stuck paying for those books, they returned them, and instead of the expected money for all those higher print runs publishers got stuck with a higher print run and a boxes of unsold inventory, many of them hurts.

On the other hand, we've seen a rise in e-books and p.o.d. technology, which is changing who has access to books: both in terms of who writes them as well as who and where people can buy and even read them.

Where will things end up? I, for one, don't know. I do think that the system as it currently stands is broken (distribution, returns, centralized chain bookstore ordering, etc.). I've also learned, after years of publishing with both mainstream and independent publishers, that it's very difficult to change the system. Let's say you write a children's books about horses that would be perfect to sell at tack shops. If you sell this book to a corporate publisher like Scholastic or Simon Schuster, you're not going to be able to change the system to get them to invest the time and legwork to get their books into this alternative distribution network, even if it might sell many more copies than they would through traditional book channels. The system is inflexible. For an independent publisher, especially one which doesn't already exist entrenchedly in the traditional book channels, it may be worth their time to investigate such alternatives (although everything works on economies of scale).

Recognizing that the system exists and how it works is an important and I think essential step step.

Why we write is a personal decision we each need to answer for ourselves.

And why--or if--we publish is a separate question and decision.

How we publish is in flux, and affects all of us: writers and readers both. Some of it (technological advances, etc.) is beyond our control. Some of it (where we purchase, what we purchase, etc.) we can influence. I think it's important to know that our actions can and do have repercussions, and we should try and act consciously and responsibly whenever possible.

That's another way of fighting, especially when one belongs to one (or many) groups that do not have power.

Date: 2009-04-13 08:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

All of this has made me rethink the way I purchase books. For the longest time I avoided online, mostly because I had access to at least 1 decent indie bookstore or did my shopping in bulk when traveling.

Since moving four years ago that's not been the case. I've been relying on Amazon after several bad experience with a couple of GLBT bookstores. I won't shop at a GLBT retailer just because they are a GLBT retailer if their service is horrible, which I've found to be the case.

Anyway, I'm in the process or re-ordering the stuff I canceled with Amazon from a indie bookstore.

I'm dumbfounded that they haven't said anything other than this whole thing is a glitch. What a PR disaster.

Disability-themed books targeted also

Date: 2009-04-13 08:41 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It seems that a few disability-themed books have been targeted also. More detail and links:

As a bisexual woman with multiple disabilities, I have to say that people with disabilities in many ways are a weaker minority group than GLBT people, partly because we're far more likely to be poor, and partly because people with disabilities face more accessibility barriers that make it harder for them to participate in on-line discourse and fight back against oppression via on-line resources. (There are about as many disabled people as GLBT people, about 10% of the world population according to World Health Organization estimates.)

Admittedly, it does seem as if it may be GLBT books that are being more systematically targeted. But then again, no one seems to have yet done a systematic job of collecting information about disability-themed books that may or may not have been affected, so so the disability angle may be bigger than it seems at first glance. It is my hope that the fuss over the Amazon mess will bring closer attention both to repairing the damage done to (non-pornographic) GLBT books AND ALSO disability-themed books.

Date: 2009-04-13 09:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Impressive overview of censorship and systemic problems in publishing & distribution.

However, please bear in mind that Canada CUSTOMS (the arm of the Canadian gov't that stops stuff from flowing freely into Canada) is different from the Canada COUNCIL (full name: Canada Council for the Arts.) The Canada Council is the Canadian equivalent of the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S., only better (IMO) because it not only provides needed funding for art projects, it oversees the Public Lending Rights Commission which pays published authors a percentage on the number of times their books are borrowed from public libraries. This system also exists in Britain, but not in the U.S. (Hint: especially in this time of recession, U.S. authors need the extra cash, and could organize to lobby for it.) Googling Public Lending Rights would take you directly to the site which explains how it works.

Date: 2009-04-13 10:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Mea culpa. Slip of the fingers which I've corrected.

I'm used to typing Canada Council, since I've published a number of anthologies with Canadian publisher Arsenal Pulp Press, and so long as they each have at least 50% Canadian content the Canada Council provides a grant which is what's used for the honoraria.

FYI, in Spain CEDRO is the organization which handles disbursement of both the proportional share of the cannon for photocopy machine licenses as well as Public Lending Royalties. (In fact, we should be getting the annual payment later this month, on April 23rd, Sant Jordi, World Book Day....)

Date: 2009-04-13 11:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Some over-simplified backstory: Sex-negative anti-pornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon equated all pornography with rape and male violence against women, and in 1992, the Supreme Court of Canada incorporated some of their anti-pornography legal work into their obscenity law (in the decision R. v. Butler).

That's not oversimplified. It's misrepresenting Dworkin and MacKinnon.

Date: 2009-04-14 02:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wonderfully informative and thought-provoking. Thanks!


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Lawrence Schimel

July 2009

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