Update 10am Sunday 10 July – Finally some explanation…
I now understand indirectly from a high-level source in Amazon.co.uk that the complaints received about The God Species – which resulted in the book being taken offline by the company – may have been regarding its description as ‘hardback’ when in fact the copies sold are in a format known as ‘trade paperback’. This is not confirmed, and I have no evidence or confirmation in writing, but it seems most likely that this has not been the result of any malicious activity on the part of any individual, group of individuals or organisation. (This explanation also seems odd given that the screenshot below of the Amazon page when the book was offline clearly shows it listed as ‘paperback’ – so why anyone could have bought it expecting a hardback and then complained remains a mystery.)
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, that 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. So I am hugely grateful for everyone who took action – but I should say clearly that I do not believe any longer that this is a case of ‘censorship’ or any kind. Instead, Amazon.co.uk’s automated processes kicked in response to complaints and the book was taken offline.
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.
Finally an apology for this website being unobtainable last night and this morning. The reason was bandwidth – it simply couldn’t cope with the volume of interest. Once again, thanks so much to everyone who stood up for The God Species – whether you agree with it or not. I am humbled by everyone’s commitment to protecting free speech – online democracy really works, and is sometimes the only way to hold big corporations to account.
Update 7pm Saturday 9 July – God Species back on Amazon!
I can only thank everyone who took part in the Twitter and email campaign to get it reinstated. I will now do my best, with my publisher, to find out what on earth happened. We still don’t know whether this is cockup or conspiracy – someone out there must know.
Starting some time on Friday morning a strange note appeared on the Amazon.co.uk page selling The God Species paperback. This read that the book had been withdrawn from sale “because a customer recently told us that the item he or she received was not as described”. Since then Amazon has stopped selling the book, and despite attempts by my publisher to resolve the situation the book is still not on sale.
Update: 3pm, Saturday
I now understand that Amazon is likely to have removed the book from sale because its automated systems received a number of similar complaints about the book. So a relatively small number of people, perhaps as few as five, can conspire to get a new work taken off Amazon’s web site. Amazon says it will quickly examine whether the complaints are justified but in the meantime potential customers arriving at its web site will be told the book is unavailable. The book’s reputation will be damaged because of the natural assumption that there is indeed something wrong with it that obliges Amazon to remove it from sale. Even if Amazon puts the book back on Monday afternoon, damage has been done.
Amazon needs to change the way it deals with complaints. Surely it should get someone to read the book before it decides to remove it from sale – or if the complaint is technical, such as a faulty batch of printed copies, there should be some way to ascertain this. Otherwise every single remotely controversial book will be subject to the same orchestrated campaign that appears to have blocked the sale of my book over the key launch weekend.
UPDATE – other outlets still online
Many people (e.g. the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis Hasteley in this excellent blogpost) have mentioned that this is a market domination problem with Amazon.co.uk, which holds a big majority of online sales, so has the potential to sink an author’s book if this kind of thing happens in the all-important first week after the launch. I agree. So here are some other options where the book is still available:
The Book Depository – The God Species (although this seller is apparently due to be bought by Amazon too?)
Word Power books – The God Species (independent online bookstore)
Here is the screenshot:
Although I cannot prove it, I now believe that this is a malicious attempt at censorship by individuals or organisations who find the content of The God Species threatening. That is also the conclusion drawn by Peter Forbes, who is reviewing the book for the Guardian, and wrote the following email to try to draw attention to this apparent attempt at censorship:
I believe this procedure is used for hardware purchased from Amazon which might have a problem. It is clearly inappropriate for books and seems to have been invoked for malicious reasons.
I have been in touch with Mark Lynas about this. I don’t know him, but being in the process of reviewing the book, I was horrified by what I saw on Amazon today and thought I should try to help. His publisher, Fourth Estate, has tried to get Amazon to remove this ban, without success so far. Mark and I suspect that this is an attempt by people who don’t like the message in the book. It is deplorable that Amazon allow such censorship on their site.
I am worried that if Amazon do not correct this very quickly other malign parties will notice this scam and take other books off the online market. Mark meanwhile is losing sales on his first weekend the book’s life. Pressure needs to be brought to bear on Amazon and I hope that the literary world will come together to make sure this happens.
As Peter Forbes says, if this is indeed a malicious action by – as seems most likely – anti-nuclear or anti-GM fanatics, then they have chosen their moment well. On the day after its release, The God Species was in the top couple of hundred for overall Amazon sales, and has now plummeted into the low thousands. If this was a spoiler for the launch it has unfortunately been all too successful.
That the book should be withdrawn completely from sale just a day after its launch is a disaster for me after the years of work I have put into writing and researching this material. 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.
I should say for the record that all the environmentalists I know are equally committed as I am to free speech. Nor do I suspect that any of the mainstream green groups could have carried out such an act – I know many individuals within them and respect them for their integrity and commitment. This can only have been done by a freelance ‘extremist’, but has been regrettably successful so far.
To the reader: you may not agree with some of what is in The God Species, but if you want to stand up for free speech please tweet this page and put pressure on Amazon to put the book back on its shelves (@AmazonUK seems to be the official Twitter address). To try to stop people reading something that you disagree with can surely never be the way to win an argument in a free society.
UPDATE 12PM – Saturday 9 July
The Lay Scientist Martin Robbins has a blog post up about this. Meanwhile, a friend has contacted Amazon and received the following in response:
Thank you for contacting Amazon.co.uk
I understand that you want to purchase the item “The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans [Paperback]”, however, you were prompted that this product is currently not being offered by Amazon.co.uk.
I have investigate the issue and I have found out that the product is currently not being offered by Amazo.co.uk because it is presently under review/investigation.
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.
After the investigation, the product will be available for purchase through our website if the issue is resolved accordingly.
I hope this information is helpful.
Thank you for choosing Amazon.co.uk.
Did I solve your problem?
No you did not solve the problem. Plus – an auto-generated response with typos. What kind of customer service is this?