On December 9, 2010, I was contacted by CreateSpace (Amazon’s Print on Demand service) who publishes my print books. They informed me that my title, Back to the Garden, had been removed for violating their “content guidelines.” When I consulted their guidelines I found them so vague as to be useless—were they saying my content was illegal? Public domain? Stolen? Offensive? (All of these were on the list). When I inquired as to the specifics of the violation, they were not forthcoming, and sent a form letter response stating that Amazon “may, in its sole discretion, at any time, refuse to list or distribute any content that it deems inappropriate.”
On Sunday, December 12, the print title that had been removed had now disappeared from the Kindle store, as well as two of my other titles, Naughty Bits and Under Mr. Nolan’s Bed. I have over fifty titles selling on Amazon, all of them in erotic fiction categories. The only thing these three singled-out titles had in common, besides being written by me—they were all erotic incest fantasy fiction.
About this time, I heard that two other authors, Jess C. Scott and Esmerelda Green, both had erotic incest-related titles removed from Amazon's site. After some research, I discovered one of Frances Gaines Bennett’s incest-related books had also been removed. As the night wore on, and public outcry about censorship and banned books began on Twitter at #amazonfail and #amazoncensors and on their own Kindle Boards, more and more incest-related erotica titles began to disappear from the Amazon site, so that the “Kindle Incest” search page began to look like swiss cheese. Teleread covered the story soon after.
When some of my readers began checking their Kindle archives for books of mine they’d purchased on Amazon, they found them missing from their archives. When one reader called to get a refund for the book she no longer had access to, she was chastised by the Amazon customer service representative about the “severity” of the book she’d chosen to purchase.
As of this writing, Amazon has refused to respond to my emails or phone calls in regards to this matter and has refused to further clarify what, if any, content guidelines the books in question violate. If Amazon had clear guidelines that were applied to all publishers across every platform and enforced them consistently, this would be a moot issue. By not clearly stating their position and choosing books either arbitrarily or based on searches of top-rated titles which are the most visible titles in the genre, they seem to be deliberately hiding a clear case of discrimination and what amounts to censorship (albeit ipso facto) because of their lack of transparency.
I want to be clear that while the subject of incest may not appeal to some, there is no underage contact in any of my work, and I make that either explicitly clear in all my stories or I state it up front in the book's disclaimer. I don't condone or support actual incest, just as someone who writes mysteries about serial killers wouldn't condone killing. What I write is fiction. It's fantasy, not reality. And I'm not saying what I write isn't controversial, but it's not illegal (at least in some states) or a threat to national security, and seems as undeserving of censorship as... well...
As fellow author, Will Belegon, noted, if Amazon is going to start pulling books with incest in them: "I just re-read Genesis 19: 30-38 and realized that Lot's daughters got him drunk, had sex with him and bore sons. I demand you follow your clear precedent and remove The Bible from Kindle."
Or perhaps Amazon should create a new television ad after they follow their clear precedent and ban the book the woman is reading in the advertisement on her Kindle ("Sleepwalking" by Amy Bloom) which tells the story of a 19-year-old boy who has a sexual encounter with his stepmother, which, in some states, is legally incest.
While it can be said that, for an author or celebrity, any press (including bad press) is good press, for a bookseller and publisher, that does not necessarily hold true. Can Amazon afford the bad press about book removal which may spark outcries from many corners, including self-publishing authors, the fastest-growing segment of their Kindle ebook distribution?
In speculating on the motivations of Amazon’s actions, as they have not been forthcoming with any statement or explanation, I am concerned that they may be acting out of reactionary fear. This may be based on pressure from a small number of vocal and complaining conservative and/or religious right extremists who object to and are afraid of sexual fantasies and erotic printed material (including incest fantasies). It may also be based on threatening governmental pressure related to the recently removed WikiLeaks. More speculation may point to overzealous lawyering as Amazon moves from just-distributor and bookseller to publisher.
While I am not a lawyer, constitutional scholar or legal expert on free speech and intellectual freedom, I am an author and publisher and know that, regardless of the technical legalities of Amazon's actions, buckling to this pressure and the removal of books will hurt their bottom line. It will damage relationships with readers, authors, publishers and organizations such as the American Library Association and the ACLU, among others, who are interested in supporting free speech. I should also note that I am a professional psychologist and, while no longer licensed or working in the field, it’s clear that when individuals and organizations fail to recognize the difference between fantasy and reality, problems such as this result.