But you already know this. Since I assume you’re a stakeholder situated somewhere above my marginal niche in the larger world of book culture, I’d wager that your fingerprints are probably on some books that many people – perhaps I? – will find offensive. And when the would-be censors rattle, I’m guessing you know just where you stand. You might write the occasional check to the ACLU, or maybe you attend the annual “Banned Books Week” events at the local library. Or, if you’re of a certain age, you may even have been a signatory when the Association of American Publishers and other groups protested the decision of a once-ubiquitous bookstore chain not to sell copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I thought that was a good move, by the way. A proud moment for the AAP.
And I sincerely believe that those of us who devote our lives to books have had quite a few good moments over the centuries. Whatever our differences, we belong to a tradition that has from the beginning stood for the liberal advancement of knowledge and human understanding. As publishers and as readers, we’re guided by an ethos that runs from the broadsides of Martin Luther to the trials of Henry Miller. If there’s anything to the notion of being on the “right side of history,” publishers have set the odds.
Thus I am addressing this “open letter” to you, my fellow publishers and book mavens. And now that I’ve done my worst to butter you up, I mean to draw your attention to a recent event that has received little above-ground media coverage but that I think should be of profound concern to all publishers, not just naughty pipsqueaks like me.
Specifically, I am referring to the decision of Amazon.com, which is now the world’s largest book retailer, to discontinue the sale of dozens of books that promote, or are said to promote, Holocaust denial. This policy seems to have taken full effect on March 8, 2017, and a bit of Googling convinces me that it was in large part a capitulation to mounting pressure from presumably well-intentioned people who vocally objected to the content – if not the mere the existence – of such literature. In a communication to Castle Hill Publishers, the primary target of the delisting (or ban), Amazon justified its decision with a vague reference to a “content guidelines” violation.