The Fine Line Between Sense and Censorship

Why I had to remove every mention of COVID-19 from my new book before Amazon would publish it

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

On Monday I was finally able to publish my new e-book, The Gifts of Solitude, intended as a short, sweet, easy-to-read guide to surviving the lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m not a nurse, doctor, or epidemiologist, or even a delivery driver. But I realised I did have something useful I could offer to help people affected by COVID-19 — the lessons I’ve learned about how to become comfortable in my own company during a total of over five hundred days and nights alone at sea, rowing solo across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans to raise environmental awareness.

I wrote a short article for Better Humans, Surviving Self-Isolation, and the next day happened to listen to a podcast featuring Shane Parrish interviewing sci-fi author and self-publishing guru Hugh Howey.

Something clicked. Inspiration struck. I realised I had more than enough material for a book, and thanks to Amazon e-books I could publish it in time for it to be helpful to those struggling with aloneness.

For the next seventeen days my keyboard took a pounding. Since my ocean rowing years, I’ve made a living as a keynote speaker (or, rather, used to — all conferences now being cancelled for the foreseeable future), sharing my life lessons with audiences at corporate events, schools, universities, and non-profits, so I had my salty old sea stories, and what I’d learned from them, right at my fingertips. I’d also written two previous books, and was just finishing up my doctoral dissertation. Writing is something I love, and do a lot. The words poured out of me and onto the screen.

My five beta readers gave the book the thumbs-up, and we were all systems go. As I hit the “Publish” button on the Kindle Direct Publishing website, I was full of eager anticipation… keen to make my contribution to the war effort. I was going to help people, save lives. Violins soared, angels sang, etc etc etc. (Sounds worryingly like a Messiah complex, but maybe that’s an occupational hazard of self-help authors.)

All I had to do was pass the Amazon review, and surely, what’s not to love about a book trying to throw people a lifeline in their loneliness?

Twenty-four hours later, the violins screeched to a halt, and the angels were left with their mouths hanging open, wondering WTF?

An email from Amazon:

We’re contacting you regarding the following book(s):

The Gifts of Solitude: A Short Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Isolation by Roz Savage

Your book does not comply with our guidelines. As a result we are not offering your book for sale.

Due to the rapidly changing nature of information around the COVID-19 virus, we are referring customers to official sources for health information about the virus. Please consider removing references to COVID-19 for this book.

Amazon reserves the right to determine what content we offer according to our content guidelines.

You can find our content guidelines on the KDP website: https://kdp.amazon.com/help/topic/G200672390

I’d already looked at the guidelines once. I looked at them again. And again. And I still couldn’t see which one I’d fallen foul of.

And clearly, when Amazon say that you’ve contravened their “guidelines” (in the mandatory, compulsory, non-guideliney sense of “guidelines”), they have you over a barrel. If you want your book published, you have to do what they say.

So I sighed, rolled my eyes, did a find/replace, and added an Author’s Note:

Due to the “guidelines” (apparently mandatory rather than advisory) of the large corporation through which I am publishing this book, I am not allowed to mention by name the serious health situation affecting much of the world in the spring of 2020.

Any occurrences of that word have therefore been removed, and replaced with the phrase “current serious health situation”.

The Fine Line Between Sense and Censorship

I’m taking a not-very-wild guess that no human actually read my book, but that an Amazon algorithm was scanning for mentions of coronavirus or COVID-19. I respect that media platforms are doing what they can to halt, or at least slow, the spread of disinformation about the virus. I recognise that we are living in extraordinary times, which call for extraordinary measures, and everybody is scrambling to do their best.

And yet…

It seems to me that banning mentions of the coronavirus in an innocent self-help e-book is coming at the problem from the wrong angle.

I hope that this doesn’t come across as a personal whinge. The inconvenience to me was extremely minor, quickly fixed, and the book got published — slightly, but not fundamentally, altered.

I also respect that new information is emerging on a daily basis as scientists learn more about the virus that has brought the world to its knees, so it is wise and prudent to refer people to authoritative websites such as the World Health Organisation, the UK National Health Service (quick parenthetical applause and gratitude for the amazing staff of the NHS).

But why should authors be prevented from mentioning the most massive issue in a generation? That leaves a very large, coronavirus-shaped elephant in the room.

The Leadership Vacuum

I realise that disinformation and fake news have been a problem — in general, and especially in relation to the pandemic. It doesn’t help when the leader of the free world is the source of much of it, advocating possible cures that are snake oil at best, lethal at worst.

So, I ask myself, why are people willing to believe dubious conspiracy theories? Here in the UK there have been a significant number of arson attacks on 5G masts by people believing that they are to blame for the virus. Asian people have been attacked. Fingers have been pointed at biotech labs, Bill Gates, Democrats, the pharmaceutical industry, and China’s desire for world domination.

There’s a dangerous combination of a lack of credible global leadership, people in lockdown with too much time on their hands, and the human brain’s love of coherence and certainty in a situation that is still emergent, and therefore incoherent and uncertain.

Let me unpack that a bit.

The human response to the pandemic has been piecemeal, varying widely from country to country, from Sweden’s casual nonchalance to South Korea’s meticulous surveillance. Lockdowns have ranged from draconian and sudden (India, Jordan) to laggardly and lackadaisical. Even within one country (I’m thinking of the not-so-United States) the regimes have covered a wide spectrum.

In times of chaos and fear, people want reassurance. We’re looking for comforting, confident, firm-but-loving leadership to set out rules that feel proportionate to the perceived crisis so we know what to do. Some elected leaders have done better than others. I don’t want to name names, but we can probably all think of a leader we wish we had, and one we are glad we don’t (or wish we didn’t). Here in the UK, through no fault of his own, our leader is convalescing, and nobody is quite sure who is running the country. It’s the WHO’s job to coordinate the global response to pandemics, but they have no real power other than the power that national leaders choose to grant them, and they seem to have been on the back foot throughout.

So overall we have a power vacuum. It’s like we need a strong, principled head teacher, but instead we got the trainee, and the kids are running amok in the classroom. In the absence of clear science, we’re making up our own. We want the truth, but it’s not available yet, so we’re creating alternative truths that appeal to our brain’s yearning for a coherent narrative that tallies sufficiently with our partial knowledge of the facts for us to go, “Yup, that makes sense — let’s go with that story.”

The Amazon Algorithm Censorship Sledgehammer

So that brings me back to Amazon. I don’t blame them for censoring my book (although there are a lot of things I do blame them for). I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and take the view that they are trying to be a good global citizen by not disseminating fake news.

But I would argue that they are intervening at the wrong acupuncture point in the system. Instead of suppressing information at the last possible moment before it reaches the public, they should move their attention upstream. If they want to be the good guys here, how about following Jack Dorsey’s example, or helping make up the shortfall at the WHO created by Trump’s funding freeze, or in some other way using their enormous resources of wealth and power to make a substantial contribution? Focus on the big levers, not the little minnows like me. The censorship sledgehammer of the Amazon algorithm was a huge over-response to the little nut of my book.

This is part of a bigger issue, which stretches beyond the coronavirus. We may not see another pandemic, but it’s very likely there will be some other global crisis in the not-too-distant future. Shutting down commentary is not the solution. Strong guiding principles, critical thinking, and a mechanism to share best practice globally just might be.

The Gifts of Solitude is now available as an e-book and in paperback. I was inspired to write this book by the coronavirus crisis, and hearing that many people were struggling with feelings of fear, isolation, and loneliness. I spent up to five months completely alone when I was rowing solo across oceans, so I feel I am well qualified to offer some coping strategies.

The first half of the book is about surviving solitude, and is aimed at those who might feel they are drowning. The second half of the book is for those who have got their heads above water, and is about making the most of this opportunity to use solitude as a pathway to emotional maturity and self-reliance.

The Amazon link (valid across all Amazon sites worldwide) is http://mybook.to/TheGiftsofSolitude.

Written by

Former management consultant who stepped out of the ordinary to row oceans solo. Currently writing at https://www.thegiftsofsolitude.com/ and www.rozsavage.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store