Engaging CultureStrategy & Marketing

Why I’ve Stopped Ordering Books on Amazon

For a time, I had a great deal of admiration for Jeff Bezos. After all, anyone who could start a business on a folding table in a spare bedroom and become the largest and most influential retailer in America has accomplished something significant. I went all-in, and over the years have ordered everything from books to BBQ grill covers, to cameras and iPads off the site. And their size is really astonishing. Today, Amazon has a market capitalization that rivals the GDP of Canada. And speaking of books, it completely dominates that market commanding 72% of all adult new book sales online and 80% of ebook sales. So it goes without saying that whatever decision Amazon makes to censor books has enormous consequences for our culture.

Which is a big reason my admiration for Amazon started to diminish – a lot.

It started when it was alleged that Amazon was tracking other company’s successful products and then virtually copying them and releasing them at a lower price under a different brand name. Then, with their control of the website, they can recommend, boost, and feature those products at the expense of the original idea someone else produced.

Their ability to tweak the market always concerned me, but now, the censorship of books they don’t approve of has been the last straw. Because of their sheer size in the marketplace, they now have the ability to shape the culture by their decisions on which books to sell and which not to sell.

Recently, (and interestingly enough during the debate over the Equality Act) books arguing against sex-reassignment surgery for children—including double mastectomies for 13-year-olds—have been banned from the site. It’s streaming service Amazon Prime is also blocking films about positions it doesn’t approve. Filmmaker Eli Steele said last year Amazon blocked his film about the death of Michael Brown from appearing on its platform and is convinced the reason is simply because his story “is not the politically correct narrative.” A recent film on Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas was refused as well.

It’s interesting to note that Amazon still sells the bomb-making manual known as The Anarchist’s Cookbook, the Unabomber’s Manifesto, and justifications of terrorism by Al-Qaida, Osama Bin Laden, and Hezbollah. For the record, you can also order multiple editions of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.

But a conservative argument against having underage children submit to sex re-assignment surgery? Nope.

Perhaps an even bigger concern is how much of the Christian book market publishers have turned over to Amazon. As writer Tim Challies puts it:

The great problem here is that we Christians have given Amazon immense power over us. As Amazon has grown in its retail domination, first across America and then across the rest of the world, it has become the go-to bookstore — and, really, the go-to everything store — for Christians and non-Christians alike. If we look back just 10 or 15 years, we can see there was a much more diverse Christian marketplace for books. But as Amazon surged and other stores shuttered, we inadvertently handed Amazon a near-monopoly over the sale of Christian books.

So what happens if and when Amazon starts pulling Christian books? That industry, and the ability to share Christian ideas with the greater culture will be decimated.

And for those who say Amazon is a private company and can sell what it wants, there are scores of examples of government regulation of private business. What if Apple decided to sell iPhones to only white people? Or Walmart decided not to sell to people of the Muslim faith? Antitrust laws prohibit practices that would unduly limit competition. The government also exerts control over private companies to achieve social goals regarding health and safety. Regulation bans harmful drugs and impacts what companies can do regarding pollution. The ways government intervenes into private companies makes up a very long list.

So when you own the market share and have the impact on the culture that Amazon does, there’s plenty of reasons that censoring books is a problem. Ryan T. Anderson, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

State attorneys general have the authority to investigate Amazon’s conduct to learn whether the company is abusing its vast market power, doing so in a patently dishonest and deceptive way, or otherwise violating state consumer-protection and antitrust laws. Amazon’s actions potentially run afoul of both. Authorities in both the U.S. and Europe have raised serious questions about the company’s dominant position in online retail. No bookseller can deny the critical importance of placing its products on Amazon’s platform. For an author, to be banished from the site is akin to being silenced.

Returning specifically Christian books I go back to Tim Challies:

The upshot is that as Christians we have given a great deal of power over Christian publishing to the distinctly non-Christian Amazon. What can we do about it? To be honest, I’m not too sure. It may be too late. Obviously we can and should choose to support good Christian booksellers, and be willing to pay at least a small premium to buy from them. This premium isn’t just being nice Christians, but is a means of showing that we want them to continue to have some influence over the writing, publishing, and distribution of valuable, Bible-based resources. Beyond this, I think we need to collectively think and pray about ways of taking back at least a good measure of power from a company that doesn’t deserve to have it.

As for me, I’m buying my books elsewhere, and actively looking for other sites for everything else. I’d love your suggestions…..

Photo by Bryan Angelo on Unsplash

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  1. I’ve had an uneasiness with buying from Amazon for quite awhile also Phil but what is the alternative. I ordered books 3 weeks ahead of Christmas from another retailer and they never arrived. I had to make about 3 phone calls to finally get them shipped…again. Not once but twice it happened. But the censorship bothers me as does the sheer power of Amazon. Sort of like the other big tech companies. Please, if you get a list of places, publish it. I would love to take my business there.

    1. The truth is, Amazon’s infrastructure is fantastic. It’s easy to use, and the service is amazing. But I’m looking for other book sources and those recommended so far have been: powells.com, bookshop.org, BarnesandNoble.com, and booksamillion.com. I’m also using a local bookstore near us in LA for a lot. The advantage of Barnes and Noble or Books a Million is they have a discount membership program where you can get book discounts as well as free shipping.

  2. Can you mention a specific title that is not available on Amazon but is otherwise widely available? Abigail Shrier’s interesting book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” is readily available in several formats. You’re right about Amazon’s hegemony. I use strandbooks.com, powells.com, bookshop.org and of course, BarnesandNoble.com

    1. It’s interesting that Wired Magazine reported in March of last year that “In its early days, Amazon defended its right to sell any book, no matter its content. When the company was criticized for carrying the title “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure” in 2010, Amazon said it believed it was “censorship to not sell certain books.” Since then, the company has been reluctant to disclose what titles it’s unwilling to sell and under what circumstances.” Now things have dramatically changed. It answer your specific question, the most protested title they’ve dropped has been Ryan T. Anderson’s “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.” It was a well researched book, on the site for 3 years, a bestseller, and then quietly dropped. Abigail Shrier’s book “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” was indeed pulled for months, and as you say, has been mysteriously reinstated by Amazon. I’ve tried, but can’t find any reference to why they put it back on.

    1. Good idea. Most Christian book distributors made massive investments into physical stores and have gone bankrupt as a result. But it would be interesting to see a new company give it a shot.

      1. Some organizations, like Focus on the Family, allow customers to purchase materials directly on their website.

        For a larger selection of books, often Christian, but also “clean” non-Christian literature, we’ve used https://www.christianbook.com/ for years now. Excellent service, great selection and regular discounts. Hope this helps someone!

  3. Phil, thank you so much for sharing. As a pastor and working on my doctorate I buy books, and I must say that my default place to go is Amazon. Wow, did you open my eyes which I really never contemplated. It also came to my mind that I am blessed to have a Barns and Noble in my area and I really should be supporting them. All the Christian stores are gone for a lot of reasons but as I look back in order to save a few bucks I got into the habit of buying online (mostly Amazon) which they could not compete with. If at all possible, I am looking elsewhere and spread the wealth especially now when the little guys is be consumed by the big guy, I love to buy used books without markings. Phil, you are a blessing. May the Lord richly bless you as you spread a Christian ethic, so puts a smile on my face. 1 Corinthians 15:58

  4. SHOPtheWORD.com is your new online Christian shopping destination. Books, Bibles, music, video, gifts, church supplies,… all at discount prices.

  5. Thank you for this information and for inciting these great comments. My only concern about leaving Amazon altogether is for Christians who are writing books specifically for a secular mainstream audience–leaving the ninety-nine to go after the one, so to speak. In these cases, it may be better to stay with Amazon and consider it a mission field for reaching the world with the light of Christ. This is along similar lines of Christians leaving Facebook, which is an enormous mission field. Maybe leaving these platforms altogether is not the answer, but rather creating and supporting Christ-centered platforms while still maintaining a presence within these existing cancel culture platforms. That said, I completely disagree with what they’re doing. It sickens and saddens me. I’m just considering how God can use us “strategically” in the midst. It might not be a case of either/or but rather yes/and.

    This is just an observation. I welcome opposing viewpoints and suggestions.

  6. You have convinced me but it will be hard. I love my kindle and it will be hard for these old eyes to get used to smaller print again. Even so, come Lord Jesus! Thank you for this.

  7. The challenge with going to other bookseller sites is many are powered by Amazon. It’s just a “branded skin” the consumer sees, but behind it, it’s all Amazon’s infrastructure. It’s another way they have access to so much data. Amazon is so much more than the retail online shopping we all see.

    1. Absolutely true – to a certain extent. It is tough to know who all are using amazon servers. A little research will often reveal the connections, and truly independent bookstores or a competitors like Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million seem to be relatively safe bets. But you’re exactly right – Amazon’s reach is remarkable.

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