Since I posted yesterday about the brouhaha over The Book That Shall Not Be NamedTM, Amazon has seen fit to stop selling the book despite early, vigorous claims that it would not do so. My personal feeling is that Amazon pulled it not so much because of the barrage of complaints and more because, when the book climbed to 80 on the Kindle bestseller list, it was pretty much impossible for Amazon to dissociate itself from the book’s content because it was prominently displayed on the website. Moreover, because the book was self-published direct to Kindle, Amazon was not merely offering for sale a book that was provided to it by another publisher or seller (as is the case with some of the other rather eye-opening titles I’ve come across on Amazon in the past couple of days1) but in fact the entity that made the book available in the first place. Those facts, more than the threatened boycott and media firestorm, were likely what compelled Amazon to make its move.
What interests me here, though, isn’t whether or not Amazon did the right or wrong thing by pulling the book (personally, I think the execrable grammar and spelling were reason enough for deciding not to sell it, quite independent of the objectionable subject matter), but whether or not in doing so, Amazon committed an act of censorship. I’ve seen people arguing both sides of this since yesterday, and I’ve yet to entirely make up my mind which side is right.
For the sake of a touchpoint, the Wikipedia entry on censorship defines the word as follows:
Censorship is suppression of speech or other communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.
The two arguments go something like this:
1) Amazon’s refusal to sell the book is censorship because it is making the book unavailable and therefore suppressing it based upon its content.
2) Amazon is not guilty of censorship because, as a retailer, it has complete authority to decide what it sells. Brick and mortar book stores are not guilty of censorship because they don’t stock every single book ever published on their shelves, Amazon likewise cannot be guilty of censorshop for refusing to sell this (or any other) book.
On its surface, at least, I think argument 2 is pretty compelling. Retailers are not government entities and they would seem to have an absolute right to control their inventory to their own liking. Amazon can choose whether to sell this book or not sell it, but in choosing not to sell it, they are not committing censorship or book banning since the author has other avenues for publishing the “forbidden” content regardless of whether it’s available on Amazon (hello, a website/blog!).
And yet, I’m not 100% satisifed with that as my final answer. Part of the reason I’m not is because Amazon has muddled its role as a retailer with a new role as a distribution channel (or “media outlet”, to quote that Wikipedia definition). By opening up the Kindle platform as a vehicle by which writers can publish and sell their work, Amazon has stepped beyond the boundaries of simple retailing and made itself a kind of public soapbox. Granted, Amazon provides “guidelines” and claims it won’t allow you to publish anything that’s deemed offensive, but boy, that’s a tough call. Offensive is very much in the eye of the beholder. The Book That Shall Not Be Named1 appears to be pretty universally offensive (but not so universally sensitive that it didn’t sell enough copies to land in the top 100 on Kindle…/boggle with me now please), but there are plenty of other books that might be just as nearly universally offensive that Amazon hasn’t chosen to stop selling.
Beyond this, has everyone forgotten the original #amazonfail when, back in April of 2009, books with GLBT content and books labeled with metatags such as “Erotica” or “Sex” mysteriously disappeared from Amazon’s search results? This led to quite a brouhaha, with Amazon ultimately claiming it was a programming glitch and restoring all the items to full visibility a few days later. I bring this up because, while Amazon’s “programming error” led to the books not displaying in search results, they were still available for purchase and it was possible to find them if you knew what you were looking for. And yet, there was a huge hue and cry that, in hiding the books from view, Amazon was guilty of censorship. I myself said as much and, at the time, I felt it was true. (My outrage was probably magnified by the fact that my name and my Kensington book, then due out in June 2009, was one of the books that mysteriously disappeared from search results.)
Looking back on that incident with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I have to say that if Amazon’s removing That Book from its catalogs is not censorship, a deliberate decision to hide certain books from appearing in search results can’t be censorship, either. If a retailer has an absolute right to determine what products it will sell or not sell, it has an equally absolute right to determine how easy or difficult it will make it for customers to find and buy those products. It may be counterintuitive to stock a product and then make it practically impossible to find, but then, every time I go to the grocery store, there’s SOMETHING I need that I can find because I can’t figure out which “category” aisle it logically belongs to (and even within the same store chain, things are sometimes shelved in different categories). So, you know, it’s not like it’s anything PARTICULAR to booksellers.
Anyway, I still haven’t entirely made up my mind as to whether I think Amazon is guilty of censorship or not. I’d love to hear what you think, so if you’ve got an opinion, go ahead and vote in the poll and, if you’d like to elaborate on your vote, feel free to leave a comment.
1In addition to the classic handbook for bomb-builders, The Anarchist Cookbook, Amazon also sells such doozies as Killing Without Joy: The Complete How to Kill Book and Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture: Including Recipes for Mda, Ecstasy, and Other Psychedelic Amphetamines. I’ve also heard there are some pretty vile books and videos on dogfighting available through Amazon.