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How can Amazon tame controversy over book on pedophilia?

Amazon has responded to customer pressure by removing a book on pedophilia from its site – but the controversy lives on.

By / November 12, 2010

E-readers offer great variety to customers – perhaps too much for some.

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It took a day of customer outrage and threats of boycott before Amazon.com removed a how-to guide for pedophiles from its Kindle store late yesterday. Today, the book may be gone – but the controversy lingers on.

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It all started two days ago when TechCrunch's MG Siegler posted a blog asking why Amazon would allow sales of “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure" by Philip R. Greaves on its online bookstore. Amazon's first response was a statement declaring that, "Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions."

A handful of readers responded by agreeing that Amazon was right to resist censorship. Thousands of others, however, expressed outrage that Amazon would allow such a title in its online bookstore. Quickly, two Facebook pages and a Twitter campaign were launched, all calling for a boycott of Amazon. A number of readers stressed that they were in the middle of their holiday shopping – none of which would be done on Amazon as long as the book remained available on its site.

By late yesterday, the book was removed from Amazon's site.

But the controversy is not over. Now there are calls to remove other books deemed offensive including additional titles by Greaves.

For those who follow book news, there's a strange feel of reverse déjà vu to all of this. Last year, Amazon was caught in a publicity nightmare when it was accused of removing books with gay and lesbian themes from its site or causing them to lose their sales ranking. Boycotts were threatened until the company calmed the waters by blaming “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error” for the omissions.

Not all of its customers were convinced, however, that there had not been an attempt to censor works some readers would find offensive. Some indignant observers, like author Larry Kramer, vowed "to keep a more diligent eye on Amazon and how they handle the world’s cultural heritage.”

All of which creates for online booksellers an almost impossible dilemma: Do you provide absolutely unfettered access to "the world's cultural heritage" or do you steer away from controversy? There doesn't seem to be any way of doing both.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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