Monday, December 22, 2014

Amazon’s 100-Hyphen Limit

Amazon hates hyphens. This was supposed to be a secret, but they let the cat out of the bag last week.

For its ebook platform, Amazon has an unstated policy of limiting any one book to a maximum of 100 hyphenated words. This turned out to be a problem for a novelist whose book refers to a “brown-furred monster” and other hyphenated creatures. Amazon pulled the novel and demanded that those frightening hyphens be removed. If you haven’t heard this saga, here is Alison Flood’s account at Guardian’s Books blog:

The novel High Moor 2: Moonstruck has since been reinstated at Amazon, but apparently only as a courtesy to one of Amazon’s more successful authors. It goes without saying that a major publishing house wouldn’t have been troubled with any such demand from Amazon that it rewrite one of its novels. Most of us, though, if we write a novel that has too many “brown-furred monsters” in it, may have little choice but to accede to Amazon’s demand that we rewrite the story to feature “brown furred monsters” instead (at least for the edition sold on Amazon).

Amazon’s ham-handed attempts to steer the literary world are hardly a threat to civilization, but it is troubling to some authors and readers that Amazon even has this kind of power, the power to permit some common, familiar styles of writing while blocking others based on nothing more than its own corporate literary preferences. It is the same suspicion that is routinely raised with any similar abuse of monopoly power. Amazon’s desire to change the way the world writes is probably most troubling to Amazon’s own lawyers, though. Amazon cannot afford to take the position that it is exercising any degree of editorial control over the products it sells. Legally, when you assume editorial control you take on a degree of responsibility for content. That is an expensive responsibility that even Amazon cannot afford. This is probably why Amazon 100-hyphen rule was a secret — to keep Amazon’s own lawyers from finding out about it. I assume now that the lawyers at Amazon will put a stop to this particular assertion of editorial control in the name of quality control. But just as certainly, in Amazon’s position of power, some kind of editorial control will crop up again. This will keep happening as long as Amazon has the kind of monopoly position that it currently occupies.