An Instagram DM notification lighting up my phone screen is a common occurrence. It’s usually spam, or a nice message from a follower, or an occasional insult from a troll. So when my phone lit up on a Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think much of it. I was not at all prepared for what I would see or the chain of events it would set into motion.
The message was from someone who had recently bought my book, “Feminist Cross-Stitch.” It read, “I just ordered your book from Amazon and it was delivered this morning. ‘Trump 2020 MAGA’ was written inside with a sharpie. I’m assuming this isn’t supposed to be there??” She then sent a picture of the defaced book, and sure enough, there it was, scrawled on the inside cover.
I was shocked. So much so that my usual customer service skills went out the window and I initially responded with “what the fuck.” (I’m nothing if not on-brand.) Shock quickly morphed into anger on behalf of this customer. I gathered my thoughts and encouraged her to report this to Amazon (she already had). I apologized sincerely to her and asked for her address so I could personally send her a signed replacement. Then I sat staring into space wondering what to do next. (This is how I spend much of my time as a solo business owner, btw.)
I suddenly remembered a wonderful Facebook group I am in. It is a private group for women/non-binary people who work as writers, journalists, agents, editors, and anything else in the publishing industry. This group had quite literally helped me get my book published. Surely someone there would know what to do. I made a post about my book’s defacement and included the images from the customer. I asked, “has this happened to anyone else?” It had not, but people still had a lot to say about it. I was advised to contact Amazon myself and let my agent and publisher know. I did, and both my agent and my publisher said they had never experienced or heard of a book being vandalized before reaching the hands of a customer. I believed them. I believe that this incident is a product of the unique time we’re living in.
More on that later.
I had asked the customer if she would let me know if/when Amazon responded to her and what they said. Later that afternoon they did. (But only after she quite shrewdly posted on Amazon’s public Facebook page). The reply was a form response that Amazon would send regarding any damaged/defective product, offering a refund or a replacement. The customer chose the refund, knowing that a new copy was on its way. But things still didn’t feel right to me. This was not just a dent, tear, or errant marking on a new book—it was someone making a clear statement. Writing “Trump 2020 MAGA” into a book that is about feminism, inclusivity, and empowerment and is blatantly against everything 45 stands for is a vicious, hateful, immature act. It is meant to undermine what I have done as an author and an artist. It is meant to hurt, offend, and violate the recipient of such a book. And it did.
The customer, who wished to remain anonymous, is a mom and crafter who recently moved with her family to a smaller town in Wisconsin from a larger, much more liberal West Coast city. She was new to stitching, had started it as a nice hobby to help her unwind and deal with anxiety, and she appreciated the message of “Feminist Cross-Stitch.” She ordered it with an Amazon gift card that she had received for her birthday. She was especially excited to make some empowering projects to decorate her young daughter’s new room. (Things like “Though She be But Little She Is Fierce” and “Beauty is Not a Number.”) She said that opening her new book and seeing that message inside turned what was supposed to be an exciting, happy moment into a sad, “disheartening” one. It was like a punch in the gut to her.
Because she hadn’t gotten any real answers from Amazon, I was determined to. After all, I’m a published author selling thousands of books on Amazon’s platform. I have access to “Author Central,” where there is a form to get in touch with them. Surely I will get a quick response!
Spoiler alert: I did not.
It was time, however, for the writers group to come to my rescue again. I got a message from a freelance journalist who writes for Forbes. She asked if I would grant her an interview for an article about what happened to my book. You can read the piece here . The article was released on Monday evening, and I quickly shared it across all my social media outlets. It started to make its way around craft groups on the internet, and it was shared by friends with much more clout than me, such as Shannon Downey of Badass Cross-Stitch. It went about as viral as a niche craft news item can go. And wouldn’t you know it, Amazon finally got back to me. They wanted to set up a call, and I was more than happy to. I had a lot of questions.
The only response to the incident I had seen from Amazon so far was their statement in the Forbes article. They claimed that “the individual responsible is no longer working at Amazon.” I had very mixed feelings about that statement. On the one hand, if a warehouse worker had indeed defaced my book on purpose, I would want that person to face consequences. Many of the comments online regarding this situation were metaphorically calling for blood. On the other hand, I am acutely aware of the conditions under which these people work. They barely have time to use the bathroom. They have insane quotas that force them to find and pack items extremely fast. How on earth would someone working there have the time to even inspect the book beyond a cursory glance, let alone register its meaning, have the idea to deface it, and then do so, knowing it would probably be a fireable offense, presumably under the watchful eye of supervisors, cameras, and a tracking system that shows Amazon who handled an item and when they handled it down to the second? Not to mention that the thought of an exploited worker who thinks our current president gives a single shit about them is enough to make me want to die of some combination of extreme irony and despair. My greatest fear was that someone was wrongfully fired so that Amazon would be able to say “we took care of it” and brush the whole situation under the rug.
I communicated this to the (admittedly very nice) customer service rep I eventually spoke with. He was from “Amazon Author Central Executive Customer Relations.” (I know: so fancy, right?) I really felt special as I sat sweating in my living room trying to speak truth to a multibillion-dollar corporation. (That’s the saying, right?) This man with the pleasant voice was great at his job, which was to try placating me while offering no real information. His phrases set off “liability” alarm bells in my head. “Of course I can only pass on what I’ve been told…” “Of course we can’t 100% guarantee…” “The information I have been given is…” He told me that they were able to pinpoint the exact person responsible with “overwhelming evidence” and that it was “an isolated incident.” I asked if the person was caught on camera and he “wasn’t able” to give me that information. My other big concern was that this person may have defaced a number of books and that other people would receive similar nasty surprises. I asked what they planned to do to assure me that there weren’t more defaced books floating around and I was dismissed with the repetition of “this was an isolated incident.” Time will tell.
So those are the facts of what I have dubbed the “MAGA saga.” What I find more interesting, however, are the variety of reactions this incident prompted. Despite what Amazon claims (and especially before they made any statement), this was a good old-fashioned mystery. How did that message get into what was ostensibly a “new” book ordered through Prime? Was it a 45-supporter working in a fulfillment center, so put off by feminist crafts that they wanted to ruin someone’s day and lose their job in the process? This was the simplest explanation and is now the official line. Many comment sections were full of people debating this possibility, with sentiments ranging from “fuck that guy” to “how dare you accuse a worker” and everything in-between.
Another popular theory was that this book wasn’t in fact new. It may have been a part of Amazon’s practice of using third-party sellers, even when a Prime customer believes they are buying a new product directly from Amazon. You can read more about this practice here. All that the customer was able to see about this book’s journey was that it began in the Kenosha, WI distribution center. How it got there, however, remains a mystery. Could it have been vandalized before then? Books that are on the shelves in brick-and-mortar stores are often returned to the publisher if they don’t sell. A random shopper could have defaced it and put it back on a shelf before it was returned to distribution. Other people suggested that someone could have bought it with the purpose of defacing it and returning it. It seemed far-fetched to me at first, but in that case at least nobody was risking their job to make a pro-45 statement.
Another theory put forward was that the customer wrote this herself and faked the whole thing. This one is particularly hilarious. I’ll admit that even I had the fleeting thought, “is this legit?” run though my cynical brain when I first saw the photo. Then I shut my cynical brain up and used my smart brain to discern that that fleeting thought was a stupid one. This woman had literally nothing to gain by doing this. Her social media is private, and she remained anonymous even in the Forbes article. She is not selling anything, nor trying to be an influencer, nor any other such social media nonsense. She didn’t even ask me for a new book, and she seemed quite surprised when I offered her one. Once we connected on social media, I was able to see that she made a video of herself opening the book and shared it on a private feed. (This puts to rest any “that looks photoshopped on!” comments. Yes. There were some of those.) She was just a customer who was genuinely upset by this incident, and she was thoughtful enough to inform me so I could take steps to ensure that this wouldn’t happen to anyone else. It was also just decent of her to let me know. I was very appreciative. Some people online found it “hard to believe” that I really have that kind of relationship with my followers and customers. Those people obviously aren’t familiar with the awesomeness that is the online cross-stitch community.
I had a large, engaged following on Instagram long before I had a book. I would actually cite it as one of the reasons I have a book. The online crafting community really lives up to the meaning of that word. Artists, designers, and authors are not inaccessible figures on pedestals. We love this craft, we believe in the craftivism it has sparked, and we believe it is something to be shared and talked about. Though I am just now approaching a following that would make some consider me an “influencer,” I have never aspired to that. I share my bad reviews, my mistakes, my disaster of a craft room. I want to be relatable and real, not curated and aspirational. There is frankly too much of that, especially on social media. Cross-stitch is about fun, creativity, and stress relief—not making people feel bad because they don’t work in some pristine, perfectly organized, minimalist craft space with impossible amounts of natural light. (If your life does look like that, congrats. I don’t understand you, but I give you props.) People love cross-stitch because it is a nice escape from a life that doesn’t look like that. It’s for the woman who bought my book, living in a new and more conservative town, needing a break from taking care of her three kids, needing something to calm her anxiety in the evenings. It’s for someone who doesn’t get to use their hands in their job, who stares at screens all day and wants something tactile and analog in their lives. It’s for someone who can’t afford expensive gifts for the holidays but has time to lovingly hand-stitch funny, inspirational art for their friends and family. For many people it is their “happy place,” their “safe space.” That’s what was violated, and that’s why I am upset.
The Silver Lining
Happily, there were many lovely consequences of this incident (that I’m sure were unintended on the part of the vandal). My book got a lot of publicity, both from the Forbes article and the viral sharing of this story on social media. I was able to redirect buyers to independent bookshops, as well as to the signed copies on this very site. And I sold a lot of books—many of them still through Amazon. The Forbes article mentions that my book was #3 on Amazon’s cross-stitch bestsellers list; shortly after, it shot to #1 and stayed there for several days. I also received an outpouring of support from my followers, from customers, and from strangers. This far exceeded the handful of MAGA trolls that were directed to my accounts due to the article. I am very adept at instantly deleting and blocking these. (I’ve had years of practice.)
And perhaps best of all, I had the confirmation of what every artist wants deep down: My art made people feel things. My art had a visceral effect on someone. And if I’m pissing off the right people, I know I’m doing something right.
So they can keep defacing books, spitting on craftivist art, making immature jabs. I will keep doing what I’m doing, and I hope you will too. Stitch faster, fight harder.