It’s a battle we never expected — and a surprisingly exciting story. There’s an author facing accidental censorship at the hands of robot runs amok, and a giant corporation confronting an internet-empowered artist. And what’s at stake is the quality of the words we read every day — or at least, the words that we’re reading on our Kindles.
But it all starts with a humble horror novel by author Graeme Reynolds…
Sunday Reynolds told another story on his web site — that Amazon had removed his ebook from their site. It was a full year and a half after he’d published it, but apparently Amazon had just now noticed something that they really didn’t like. (They probably didn’t fully review his book — and in fact, probably aren’t reviewing any ebooks that authors are submitting.) But this time, one of their customers had complained.
The complaint? There were too many hyphens in his ebook.
“[W]hen they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript,” Reynolds explains on his blog, “they found that over 100 words in the 90,000 word novel contained that dreaded little line. This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.'” The author shares some colorful thoughts about the originator of the complaint, but followed up with an e-mail to Amazon pointing out that the use of a hyphen was 100% proper English.
It must’ve been particular galling, because (according to his post) he’d spent nearly $2,000 to have his ebook edited by a professional editor. But it was even more galling when he received a follow-up response from “Melania G” at Amazon which refused to resolve the situation! Melania’s e-mail said “quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience,” and reiterated Amazon’s position, that “we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected.”
It was fun to read the reactions at a technology site like Hacker News. (“Amazon is probably trying to correct publishers who copy-and-paste their hardcopy texts…taking with them artifacts from the print designer, like forced hyphenation.”) And another commenter pointed out this wasn’t really war on the hyphen, then. “So really the title of the post should be ‘Collateral damage when Amazon went to war against bad punctuation,’ which casts Amazon’s motives in a different light.”
The novel’s author was still upset, judging by his blog post, where he explored the ramifications of Amazon’s decision. (“Is J.K Rowling going to have to take down Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince until she sorts out the blatant hyphenation in the title?”) But it looks like an honest mistake, since his post now ends with a happy update from the author. “The book is now back on sale.
“Common sense seems to have prevailed….”