After I finished writing my book Walking the Bridgeless Canyon in 2014, I wanted to be productive beyond giving seminars and speaking at conferences. Originally I had planned on doing a chapter in the book diving into the dangers of Christian ministries that expect LGBTQ Christians to “fix” their orientation and perhaps even marry heterosexually, or live a life of celibacy. I had read the most popular books in this Christian genre of “fix the gays” while working on that first book.
With a greater understanding of how the conservative Christian church had arrived at policing the spiritual and sexual lives of LGBTQ Christians, I thought I could use my research to review the books that were frequently offered as “solutions” to LGBTQ people and their families. So, I began putting purposeful efforts into reading and reviewing the more popular or newest books in that genre. At first, I thought I was obsessing over this new project. Two books a week, then three, then every new book in the genre that had the potential of causing damage to LGBTQ people and their families. I knew the work was benefiting others; I received significant mail from those who read the reviews.
I bought all the books on Amazon so I could maintain status as a “Verified Purchaser,” then I read, highlighted, wrote notes in the margin, dictated the notes into a document, and began to work on the review. By the time my loyal review editor David had corrected the reviews for spelling, grammar, and tone, and I submitted it to Amazon, I had invested an average of three days’ work for the effort.
About three years ago, there seemed to be a notable lag time between submitting my reviews and seeing them post. One-half hour had become a day, then three days, then six days. What was going on?
My friend, reporter Brody Levesque, was able to contact Amazon public relations directly and ask why posting of my work seemed to be stifled. He found out, at that time, there were almost thirty “official” complaints from Christian authors and publishers about my reviews. In the conversation with Amazon, Brody praised my work and assured his Amazon contacts I was qualified and not the person many of the non-fans claimed I was. The pipeline unclogged and I was back to reviews posting quickly again.
Then, in November 2019, I hit another blockade. I read and reviewed Christopher Yuan’s “Holy Sexuality and the Gospel.” Yuan is a major player in the “gay” conversation in the Evangelical and conservative church worlds. He is a gifted speaker who often appears with his parents on stage sharing their stories to eager audiences. He is popular. Per the usual, I submitted the review and waited for it to post so I could share it across my social media platforms. One, two, five days passed. Finally, it posted one night at 11 pm, but by 8 am, it was gone.
Brody to the rescue again. Baldock reviews saga episode two exploded. We found that Yuan and his publisher had engaged Amazon directly to remove my review. Two days, one fired employee, and a long conversation with a VP of the book’s parent publishing company later, the review was restored.
“Well, that will never happen again,” I thought.
Until Christmas morning. I received an email from the Amazon Community Guidelines division. It informed me that I had violated standards and that all my reviews had been removed along with my ability to review any further products.
“Not this again; haven’t we done this already?” I was frustrated.
Brody tried his magic but his Amazon contacts were no longer there, and, being a reporter, there was a lot of news going on in need of reporting over the following few weeks. You know, finally getting a national COVID plan, the “stolen elections,” the Senate seats in Georgia, the insurrection, and the inauguration. (What a list!)
I sent many emails to the contact address at Amazon from my “violations” note, I posted and linked my Amazon complaints on my social media accounts, and I even made a meme of my dear elderly mother Buttercup showing her disapproval of the decision to wipe my review history clear.
I got no responses.
I waited until there was a bit more oxygen in the room with the inauguration behind us, and launched a public campaign with a video asking supporters to help pressure Amazon into restoring my work.
Knowing the history of high-level complaints against my review causing the slow down of them posting, followed by the Yuan incident, understandably, I speculated it was more of the same—direct intervention by my non-fans to silence my work.
Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist (who, yes is friendly) with over seven hundred thousand followers, contacted me and told me he was trying to get answers directly from Amazon public relations.
People who have benefited from my work enmasse sent emails to the Amazon PR department and to the owner, Jeff Bezos, directly. I was copied on several dozen kind, compelling, and honestly, quite humbling letters written by parents, therapists and counselors, and LGBTQ people who found my review work valuable and life-saving.
Hemant let me know that Amazon was indeed paying attention. They had received hundreds of emails.
Still, no reinstatement of the reviews.
Enter, Frank Mullen, another journalist. Frank was one of the most effective investigative journalists in the history of my local newspaper, the Reno Gazette-Journal. He has broken many significant stories and helped countless people in this area. I met Frank several years ago at a backyard barbeque. Admiring him from afar, I thought it a great opportunity to chat with this reporter, historian, author, journalism professor, and generally, really interesting person. Since then, we’ve bumped into one another at common interest events and lectures. Frank saw Hemant’s posts and contacted me to see if he could also help.
And that became the magic that was needed.
Frank contacted Amazon and began conversations with Craig X in the PR department. Indeed, there were eyes on my complaint. Frank told Craig he was running the story which he was sure had “legs” and would find a national audience. Craig asked Frank to wait and not run the story immediately. There was a team looking into the matter and it was likely that my reviews would be restored with an apology forthcoming.
Praise-a-lu-yah, that evening all my reviews were reposted and the next morning I got a nebulous “Oops, your reviews are back up, thanks for your patience, have a nice day” email.
I responded “WAIT! NOT SO FAST!” I wanted to know why I had been banned and what community guidelines I had violated.
Frank called Craig again asking him why the email I received had not been as honest as the conversation the two of them had had.
I had received a generic computer-generated oops-email, not the one the team had decided on and was still forthcoming. Craig asked Frank for my phone number. He wanted to call me directly and explain the situation fully.
Then the second day of big snow storms hit Reno. I was digging out of four feet of snow and my car was in a ditch off my driveway. Craig called from his eastern time zone. “I understand from Frank that you are digging out of snow. You can call me back until 7:30 tonight your time.”
Wow. A personal call and outside normal business hours. I was impressed.
Craig began, “I want to apologize to you and to tell you exactly what happened. But first, I want to tell you how unusual your situation is and why you are getting this level of response. It was Frank. Frank was so easy and reasonable to deal with.” Craig had had a career in PR and crisis management in the healthcare field before Amazon. He had dealt with lots of reporters and found Frank exceptional. Frank assured Craig I too was reasonable and just wanted honesty.
I found out quickly that Craig knew nothing of my past struggles with opposition to my reviews. Of course, therefore, it would make sense that I believed my reviews were again being specifically targeted.
The story unfolded. It was a perfect storm of problems that would be solved by a perfect storm of collaborators that would remedy it.
When Bezos first began selling books on Amazon, he developed the system of book reviews. He believed that even “problematic” titles could be balanced in the marketplace by allowing for free exchange of comment on the books. There are, of course, shifting categories of books that attract higher scrutiny at different times. For instance, a category of such books currently might include conspiracy theories and politics. Unsurprisingly, the Bible as it intersects homosexuality is also in that category. Lots of people disagree and disagree fiercely. So Amazon, or rather, the algorithms they created, watch those reviews with higher scrutiny.
Amazon once had a different system of voting on reviews—readers could give the review an “upvote” or a “downvote.” That was replaced in recent years by “Helpful” and “Report Abuse.”
Well, I read and review excessive numbers of books in the Bible and homosexuality category. Though I cannot see registered the mounting “Report Abuse” votes, apparently I have an extremely high number of such “complaints” against my reviews.
The complaints just keep racking up with my almost five dozen reviews in that category. I had not written a new review in this category since May because to review each book, as described, it takes about three days’ time investment for me and I am working on my next co-authored book.
But then the final grain of sand in the “Kathy’s ding bucket” tipped the scale. I was stunned to hear what it was.
I read Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough” about her uncle Donald Trump. While I am very conscious about not attacking people or authors in my primary field of focus, I am less careful when it comes to my thoughts on Donald Trump. I am his non-fan.
In that submitted review I wrote:
The use of “conman” was the grain of sand that tipped my scale to “banned.”
Though I had submitted that review during the summer and it did not post, I didn’t worry about it. It was not essential to my work.
I knew that at times, high numbers of reviews can also trigger higher scrutiny to combat “packing the reviews.” I thought I got sorted into that bucket. Eventually, the computer crawl caught up with that submitted and unposted review. By then, I had received so many “Report Abuses” against my account, and the final grain fell in the bucket.; it was “conman” Trump.
I was astonished that after all the work I had done on anti-LGBTQ books, it was comments about Trump that wiped my account clean.
“Are you telling me,” I asked Craig, “that in the over ninety-thousand reviews on Mary Trump’s book that no one else called Trump a conman, or worse? And, by the way, that is not an attack, it’s the truth.”
“Well, Kathy,” Craig agreed in disbelief knowing this was the final trigger, “no one else had apparently accumulated all the dings you had. It was a perfect storm that never should have happened, but it did. I am sorry.”
I asked if I would have ever gotten my reviews back without mounting a public campaign. Craig told me, “No, you could not have made it happen. But, there were so many letters written on your behalf and then Frank pushed it to the next level.” Amazon had assigned a team of people from three cities to work on my account in response to the incoming messages.
I asked what I needed to do to ensure that this would not happen to my account again. “Nothing,” he said, “several of us read many of your reviews and we agree that you are exactly the type of reviewer that Bezos originally imagined. One who could take controversial books in the marketplace and assesses them with quotes, insights, and research. You just keep doing what you are doing. But, if you call someone a ‘conman’ again, make sure it is part of the book quote.”
Craig told me to keep his number and let him know if I had a problem again. There is now a notation on my account that says I will likely accumulate excessively high numbers of “Report Abuse” complaints. But, hopefully, all of you will continue to read those reviews and mark them as “Helpful” as a buffer.
The next day, I did get a personalized letter from the Amazon team about the situation, but more importantly, I had had an almost one hour conversation with an Amazon representative who wanted to make things right.
A perfect storm got me erased from Amazon reviews, but a more perfect storm of letters written on my behalf, the work of two excellent reporters, and a willing team of PR people at Amazon have cleared the way to smooth sailing for my reviews once again.
Thank you all. I could not have done it without you.