Amazon prioritizes ‘free’ books by white people

Posted March 16, 2021, 6:30 AM


Fight for the Future demands transparency on an algorithmic ad practice that appears to promote Kindle Unlimited novels from white authors above searched-for books by diverse authors up to 70% of the time.

Fight for the Future is demanding transparency on an algorithm that places free-with-subscription books by white authors—frequently white men—above searched-for books.

In escalating spats between Amazon and public libraries, it is becoming clear that Amazon is interested in "replacing the library card with a credit card" by curating a collection of over 1 million exclusive and free-with-subscription books for Amazon’s own Kindle Unlimited. By algorithmically promoting Kindle Unlimited books in top-line ads tailored to pique the interest of readers searching for a specific non-Kindle Unlimited title, the world’s largest bookstore frequently displays 3 or more works of white, often less-popular authors before showing the searched-for book.

"The largest bookseller in the world is undercutting the few diverse authors getting published in a disturbingly undiverse industry," said Lia Holland (she/they), Campaigns & Communications Director at digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. "By advertising titles in a similar genre free with subscription, Amazon is drawing customers searching for diverse authors away from them. They’re doing this because they want to capture and surveil readers in their Kindle or Audible systems, amassing data that will help them to continue to grow their monopoly power. Amazon isn’t a book company, after all. It’s a data company—it knows exactly what it’s doing here."

Fight for the Future searched every book in Parade’s 2020 list ‘20 Upcoming Books By Black Female Authors You Don’t Want to Miss’. Kindle Unlimited books by apparently white authors were promoted above the book that was actually searched for at least 70% of the time. 12 of the 14 Kindle Unlimited authors promoted appeared to be white men.

For example, in a search for debut author Yodassa Williams’ The Goddess Twins, Amazon first shows a selection of books by David Estes, then lists The Secret Princess by Melanie Cellier as the first search result with a discreet "sponsored" disclaimer. Both the Estes and Cellier books are Kindle Unlimited works with a $0.00 free-with-subscription price tag. Both Estes and Cellier appear to be white.

Latinx authors in Remezcla’s 15 Books by Latino & Latin American Authors to Add to Your 2020 Reading List fared slightly better. Of the 14 books available on Amazon, 9 had Kindle Unlimited or Amazon-sold textbooks promoted above them. In 7 instances, those books were by authors who appear to be white. One of the promoted Kindle Unlimited authors had no profile details on their Amazon author page and no information online. The other identified as Latinx.

For Harpers Baazar’s 14+ LGBT Books to Look For in 2020 list, 11 of the 14 titles had Kindle Unlimited or Amazon-sold textbooks promoted above them. Real Life: A Novel by Brandon Taylor, about growing up black and queer in the midwestern United States, had Kindle Unlimited M-M romance novels written by a white woman in Australia promoted on top of his debut novel. Four other authors on Harpers’ list also had the same ad for the same M-M romance books promoted over theirs.

"It’s already hard enough for queer youth to find books where their experiences are represented without Amazon algorithmically burying them to push their own ‘free’ content," said Evan Greer (she/her), deputy director of Fight for the Future and a transgender rights activist. "This is just one more example of Amazon abusing their data harvesting and monopoly power to silence and exploit marginalized people in pursuit of profit."

Libraries, public schools, and other booksellers are banned from offering at least 10,000 of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited titles. Amazon’s Audible platform boasts at least 40,000 exclusive titles.

Amazon’s algorithm is concerning for any author, book-lover, or publisher that does not directly support this walled-garden business model, as highlighted in an eLending position paper endorsed by the Canadian Urban Library Council: "In fact, because Amazon advertises on behalf of its own authors, it actively can impede discoverability. For example, an exact match author search on Amazon for Brandon Sanderson, an award-winning fantasy author for Tor, returns five products from two separate Kindle Direct Publishing authors. The first book written by Brandon Sanderson is 6th on the page."

Amazon is under increasing pressure for how it manages Kindle and Audible titles. In February, Fight for the Future launched to illustrate how most-vulnerable readers, libraries, and public schools are being left behind by marketing practices such as exclusives and embargoes that Amazon is popularizing. Amazon is also currently the subject of an ebook price-fixing lawsuit.