What Responsibility does Amazon have?

“I have no responsibilities here whatsoever.”– A few Good Men

Author’s Note: This is a continuation of the debate from the previous two articles. This article represents the last one in the series. This post will make more sense if you read the previous two posts first.

The third and final question we asked in the first post is to determine what responsibility if any that Amazon has in this situation. Of course, that will end up being extended to any and all publishers, but as I will soon outline, Amazon is in a unique place in the marketplace. I’ll outline exactly why that is and will try not to bore you.

When I looked for a spot to publish my last book (The Hall of Fame Index Part II) I settled on Amazon. There are really three kinds of publishers. There are traditional publishers. They agree to publish your work and either give you an advance and royalties or just royalties. There are some costs associated with publishing that they may or may not assume.

A part of that process includes editorial control. The publisher has the absolute right to accept or reject parts of the story or the entire story. My first two books worked this way. The publisher did not like the general idea of the book I pitched, but liked a small portion and asked me to write an entire book on that subject.

The second kind of publisher is what we normally call vanity publishers. They charge people money for the rights to publish their book. The publication process is similar to traditional publishing, but they charge you for every step of the process. Obviously, they are not going to publish anything that is going to make them look bad, but they don’t particularly care if the book makes money or not. They earn their money with the services they provide.

Amazon is the largest of what we would call self-publishers. They provide very little in terms of services. The cost for them to produce the book is minimal. That means the cost to the author is also minimal. I chose this route because I had lost money with traditional and vanity publishers. It also meant that I could get the book out faster. No one was there to monitor the content. That meant it was on me to catch grammatical and typographical errors. It also meant there was no oversight as to the tastes of what I wrote.

A book about the Hall of Fame is certainly not going to offend many people. Books about killing left-leaning politicians certainly might. However, since Amazon doesn’t restrict who publishes with them then they could be said to be operating differently than a traditional publisher. It would be more accurate to say they were a publishing platform.

We have seen issues with platforms before. Twitter and other forms of social media are platforms. Platforms ideally do not make value judgements about whose point of view is correct and whose isn’t. Yet, they all have terms of service. Those terms of service can limit what we might call misinformation. It also would limit calls to violence or hate speech that might lead to violence.

Here we have to immediately make two distinctions. First, we should note the difference between fiction and nonfiction. It’s one thing to suppress speech which is factually incorrect and could lead to people being misled into believing things that aren’t true. It’s another to suppress someone’s creative work. Now, we are talking about taste.

The second distinction is made based on how those other platforms usually deal with their issues. The usual course is for someone to notify the administrators to a problematic post or tweet. Once notified, the administrators can then make the call on whether the post in question needs to be taken down or have a warning label attached.

Obviously, people aren’t profiting directly from tweets or Facebook posts. So, Amazon is slightly different on this front. However, those that argue that Amazon should police itself aren’t exactly sure of what they are suggesting. When Amazon (or any other self-publisher) has gatekeepers that judge what goes through or not they cease to be self-publishers and become either traditional or vanity publishers.

With the change comes all kinds of unintended consequences. First, it should be noted that any and all costs associated with the use of gatekeepers would be passed onto the authors. So, Amazon would cease to be an inexpensive option. Secondly, in order for the gatekeeping aspect to work, the production process would slow down considerably. Then comes a battery of questions. Is the gatekeeper simply saying yes or no or would they have authority to force changes in content? Would Amazon then add editors and designers to the equation or would a single gatekeeper be responsible for all of that?

Of course, the alternative is what we have here. Individuals voiced their concerns to Amazon and Amazon chose to shut the books down. It’s messy and slow and we certainly could expect a ton to slip through the cracks, but the alternative just might be worse. Freedom of speech is never free, but the closer we can get to unfettered the better off we probably are.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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