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A discussion thread on Amazon’s Kindle Community forum notes that Amazon has begun removing some previously-published books or stories from its store, and from the Kindle archives. Readers who have previously downloaded them to their Kindles can keep them there, but cannot re-download them (and will be refunded the price of purchase assuming Amazon can still find the purchase record).

The story whose removal sparked the discussion was an erotica title called Wicked Lovely by author Jess C. Scott. The tale dealt with incest, and involved a love scene between a 17- and an 18-year-old. However, Amazon would not tell Scott specifically what caused the removal of her novel. The only response she has received, after repeatedly trying to contact Amazon for more information, is a form letter:

Dear Publisher,

As stated in our content guidelines, we reserve the right to determine what content we consider to be appropriate. This content includes both the cover art image and the content within the book.

Best regards,

Amazon Customer Service
http://www.amazon.com

Further down the thread, author Selena Kitt notes that Jess is not the only author to have had works removed.

Incest books (and they seem to be currently targeting incest – whether characters are eighteen or not in the book in question – all of my characters are eighteen or older and there is an explicit warning at the beginning of each book making that clear) are being pulled from Amazon as we speak. I’ve had three removed. Esmerelda Greene has had at least one pulled. There are several others that have disappeared as well.

A number of participants in the discussion compare this to the pedophilia how-to guide removal of last month, in which Amazon first said it would not be removing a book due to its commitment to principles of free speech—and then abruptly yanked it after all a couple of hours later.

On the other hand, I wonder how much this might have to do with the big news story that broke recently of a Columbia University professor being arrested for a three-year “consensual” sexual relationship with his 24-year-old daughter. If incest is a hot topic in the news right now, it might be that Amazon is trying to preempt complaints from people who might search for “incest” on Amazon and then be offended when they find it—or it could be reacting to such complaints from people who already have.

Amazon has done this sort of thing before, of course. The example everyone remembers is the improperly-sold George Orwell titles that were actually removed from Kindles as well as from the store, leading Jeff Bezos to apologize and promise not to do that again. But if you web-search “amazonfail”, the top results point to a more apt example: Amazon’s 2009 self-admittedly “embarrassing and ham-fisted” removal of 57,000 gay-and-lesbian-themed books from its sales rankings and search algorithms.

Jess C. Scott points out:

The content guidelines on Amazon do not have clear guidelines as to what is considered as "acceptable" in the erotica genre. I see other similarly-themed books still available for purchase, and see books with the subjects of rape, bestiality, etc, available for purchase (books that have not been deleted from Amazon’s catalog). If underage sex is illegal, why is Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita" still available for purchase?

Whatever your feelings are concerning incest, or its portrayal in fiction, every book in the entire “erotica” genre probably contains something that will be offensive to someone. And yet it is also one of the best-selling genres in electronic literature.

And Amazon’s failure to define clear categories or to provide an explanation of where the bright lines are could have a chilling effect on writers similar to that of Apple’s often-arbitrary app store rejections of the last few years on developers. How can you know whether any given story dealing with risqué issues will be considered acceptable?

Of course, Amazon is under no obligation to carry any title it deems offensive—it’s only a violation of the First Amendment if the government or a government-connected body acts to prohibit speech—but hopefully it will provide some further explanation of what the grounds for rejection are.

 
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