The other day, I tried to set up an ad buy on Amazon for my recently published book, Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the American Dream (2020), which, keep in mind, I published on Amazon and to whom I pay a princely percentage for every book sold on the site, paperback or digital.
Yet, my proposed ad, which basically would have displayed a picture of the cover and a brief, innocuous description of the book, was rejected by Amazon for being too inciteful.
Amazon’s euphemistically named “Amazon Advertiser Support” sent me a form note of explanation when I protested my ad being rebuffed:
“We’ve determined that your book or ad copy contains inappropriate content that needs to be removed in order to run an ad with Amazon Advertising.
“We don’t allow books or ads that promote hate, or that incite violence or intolerance, or that advocate or discriminate against a protected group, whether based on race, color, national origin, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age, or another category.
“Also, ads for non-fiction religious-specific books are limited to keyword-targeted ads only (Headline Search Ads and Sponsored Products) using keywords relevant to that religion or about religion in general. This helps us provide a welcoming experience for all customers of all faiths and beliefs. [boldface mine]
“Advertisers of religion-specific non-fiction books cannot use Product Display Ads. Non-fiction religion-specific books include sacred texts (Qur’an, Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Guru Granth Sahib, etc.), commentary on these sacred texts, and educational or explanatory books about the specific religion. Non-fiction books about religion in general are acceptable.
“Lockscreen ads appear on Kindle devices which are highly personalized in nature and therefore we don’t allow any content which may be considered sensitive in nature.”
But Amazon didn’t explain exactly what is “inappropriate” in my book’s cover or text. That they rejected its ad matters because for self-published authors like myself, Amazon is virtually the only game in town, so to speak. So it’s not really a choice, and there’s nowhere else good to go if you’re not satisfied.
I should point out that, as far as I can tell, Holy Smoke in no way promotes hate or discrimination against legally protected groups or anyone or anything else, actually (as do President Trump’s Twitter feeds, one of which Twitter recently sanctioned him for — it was flagged with a “glorifies violence” warning label). In fact, I stress in the book that I honor religious people’s right to believe and find solace in their faiths, and that religion has bequeathed a lot of good in the world (albeit, also a lot of bad). Not that any of that seems to matter to Amazon.
But, in truth, my book does “advocate against” the continuing insertion of Christianity into American governance, which the founders insisted be completely free of religious influence, and it does in a sense “incite” (although “encourage” is more accurate) “intolerance” of this phenomenon.
I believe the book’s criticisms are exactly the kind of free speech that the Constitution enshrines — and I’m not complaining just because a book of mine is in Amazon’s crosshairs (at least not wholly). This kind of editorial restriction by a private company that is in effect a public trust, like electric power or cell-phone companies, should be intolerable to everyone. Private companies in the 21st century have become an essential conduit of American speech — CNN, Fox News, Twitter and Facebook immediately come to mind (and Amazon; books are “speech”) — and are becoming more essential every second. Indeed, the president’s own Twitter account has more than 80 million followers; that’s not a small neighborhood get-together. Amazon, as probably the world’s biggest book seller if not a social media platform, matters in this dispute.
The goal of my book, Holy Smoke, is to incite reason and discussion, not violence or bigotry — to criticize a religion that I (and many other Americans) fervently believe is relentlessly and unconstitutionally trying very hard to embed itself in American tax-funded public life and governance. It’s the opposite of the secular, rational civic ethos the Enlightenment-enthralled and deistic Founding Fathers envisioned and intended for their new nation.
If direct, even impassioned, criticism of any religion can be commercially restricted by gatekeepers of private companies in public spheres, I fear we are on a slippery constitutional, philosophical and practical slope.
So, like a lot of issues where business intersects with the nation’s founding free-speech values and ethics, business is concerned mostly about its reputation and bottom line.
Amazon’s decision to prohibit my book’s promotion on its Kindle “lockscreen” display ads, which it feels are more “highly personalized in nature” (read: more emotionally influential) than other more subtle ads with less visual “pop.” However, in fairness, I should note that Amazon informed me by email two days ago that it will allow me to run less-visible “sponsorship” ads for my book, which customers only see after searching for specific keywords, but censorship of just one kind of ad, to my way of thinking, is still censorship.
Amazon says it employs such censorship because, “This helps us provide a welcoming experience for all customers of all faiths and beliefs.” To me, that’s a disturbing sentence.
Maybe I slept through that part of U.S. Civics in high school, but I’ve always thought the point of protecting free speech is to protect ideas that are inherently not “welcoming,” even offensive, as long as they don’t purposefully risk personal safety or national security.
The ideal is to accommodate communication that is as free and unfettered as possible, making editorial or marketing decisions based on the solidity of reasoning and information, not on whether someone might get annoyed and cost you money.
For me, however, this is an academic argument. I have no hope of convincing a corporate titan such as Amazon to do what I think is fair and right by me — and what seems quintessentially American — as bean counters and lawyers obsess over profits, losses and potential legal quandaries.
But it’s still largely a free country, so at least I can speak freely here.
My point is, what I’m trying to stir up with my book is not trouble but awareness and change, which is what Thomas Jefferson was trying to do with the Declaration of Independence, as were the framers of the Constitution.
Imagine if those documents had been censored because they might have offended someone or hurt profits somewhere. Not that I’m in their league.
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“Erudite yet readable … very illuminating”
— Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” in praise of “Holy Smoke”
Buy either book on Amazon, here (paperback or ebook editions)