Posted on March 12, 2021

Book Banning in an Age of Amazon

Abigail Shrier, Substack, March 3, 2021

If you wanted to eliminate disfavored ideas from a society, you’d begin by aggregating most of the world’s books onto a single platform. You’d hope to create a global network of gargantuan warehouses, automated to allow next-day fulfillment of customer desires. If you were wildly successful, your company might one day control five sixths of U.S. book sales and generate a market capitalization that rivals the GDP of Canada.

{snip} Customers spoiled by the miracle of having milk and toilet paper delivered same-day to their door would be disinclined to protest as you began eliminating books, especially if it was just a few at a time. {snip}

Writers themselves might object. But their agents would fall silent; they’d have other clients to think of. Publishers—whose continued viability depends on this central pipeline—would be loath to offer more than token resistance. A momentary stifling of conscience would seem small sacrifice to ensure their other books were spared.  Forget the “firemen” from Fahrenheit 451: You needn’t burn forbidden books if people can’t buy them in the first place.

Last week, Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, vanished from “the world’s largest bookstore.” The hardbacks, the paperbacks—even the used copies of When Harry Became Sally sold by third-party sellers through Amazon—poof, gone. When questioned by Anderson’s publisher, Amazon lamely pointed to a new policy that permits it to bar “inappropriate and offensive” works and also “hate speech.” It never bothered to offer proof or explain how Anderson’s book ran afoul of these guidelines; it apparently didn’t think it needed to.

The New York Post’s editorial board attempted to explain why Amazon targeted this particular three-year old book: Anderson’s “scholarly analysis of transgenderism . . . questions politically correct sacred cows.” But there are plenty of other politically-incorrect volumes sold on Amazon, including Anderson’s 2012 book, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense—a conservative objection to gay marriage. I suspect What is Marriage’s home on will remain undisturbed—not for lack of controversy, but for lack of relevance.


Some will argue it is Amazon’s right to drop a book. Though it possesses many of the frightful powers of government and few of the limitations—Amazon is not the government. As a private company, many argue, it retains the right to stock its shelves with whatever it chooses. {snip}

This is the “Colorado Bakeshop” argument, which the Supreme Court considered in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: Private businesses might have the right not to sell certain things customers want. It’s my cakeshop, damn it, runs the argument. If the proprietor doesn’t want to create a cake celebrating a gay wedding, or anything else that violates his conscience—maybe he shouldn’t have to.

But the argument is inapt: Amazon isn’t a neighborhood bakery. {snip}


Nor is it honest to argue that we can impose no restraints on private companies. Businesses are already thoroughly regulated—in terms of whom they may refuse to serve, the minimum pay, and maximum hours and workplace conditions owed to employees. {snip}

But most importantly, the Colorado Bakeshop comparison fails because when a small bookshop refuses to carry a specific title, that act carries no significant market consequences. A reader could march into another bookstore and order Anderson’s book. Not so with the pipeline through which five-sixths of America’s books flow.

As a direct result of Amazon’s action, many outstanding books will now go unwritten; they will not be commissioned whenever Amazon’s distribution is the slightest bit in doubt. {snip}


Had the government banned Anderson’s book, Anderson would now be headed to federal court, where he would prevail. When Amazon acts, the independent writer has nowhere to go. Anderson’s recourse? He can complain about it on Twitter, which hosts any of us only as long as it feels like it.