Amazon Pulls Incest Book: Can Jeff Bezos Find a Way Out of This Mess? [Update]

Last Updated Dec 17, 2010 8:06 PM EST

Amazon (AMZN), fresh off the WikiLeaks service denial scandal is caught in yet another controversy over the books it sells. This time, the topic is "erotic incest fantasy fiction," according to author Selena Kitt.

In a blog post Kitt wrote, Amazon last week recently removed both print and Kindle versions of three of her books and similar titles from at least two other authors. In addition, the company actually erased the ebook versions from the Kindles of people who had purchased copies. (In the past, Amazon has provided refunds to customers when it removed ebooks.) It's just another day for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his management team ... without a clear path to safety. And others may soon find themselves wandering in the same maze.

[Update: Amazon claims that the removal of purchased titles from Kindles was due to a "technical issue," and that the company fixed the problem on hearing about it. However, it turns out that Amazon not only still sells incest-themed erotica, but that it still sells erotic material with pedophile themes.]

Given Amazon's history with removing categories of books and videos -- or not -- there is no way the company can win. However, this isn't a concern only for major book sellers. Modern business increasingly combines electronic media with other activity to form new services. As distributed groups of independent small businesses, solo practitioners, and even consumers create the material -- and as companies unintentionally get caught up in questions of mores and politics â€" companies will find themselves wondering what stance to take as material suddenly hits the headlines.

Over the last year or so, Amazon has managed to put its foot into piles of business excrement time and again as it tried to negotiation its relationship to the material it sells:
  • In the spring of 2009, many consumers were outraged when the company took out the sales ranks of many books with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered themes. Amazon apologized for the "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error."
  • Just last month, consumers dope-slapped Amazon time and again for carrying books that had a pro-pedophilia theme. The company had to go through all its listings as it found more books as well as videos with questionable content.
  • Earlier this month, Amazon got caught up in the WikiLeaks maelstrom when it kicked the organization off its hosting service.
Now Amazon has decided to grapple with incest. Perhaps it wanted to quietly head off a controversy that it assumed could brew. And yet, it is even more thoroughly in a quagmire. On one hand, if the content involves adult characters, it doesn't seem to raise the same degree of popular anger as pedophilia. And yet, it does seem to raise an "ick" factor for many. Does it stay? Does it go? Can Amazon come up with a strategy going forward that doesn't make it an automatic loser?

Probably not, and the WikiLeaks incident shows just one example of how broadly issues of content have gone and how easily a company can find itself pressured between two opposing groups. In this case, Amazon didn't act as a retailer. It acted as a cloud-based Web host. How does that potentially differ from a Google (GOOG), Rackspace Hosting (RAX), IBM (IBM), or Microsoft (MSFT)?

What if a company runs discussion boards? There is a generally accepted understanding that it might remove abusive content, but when it takes down content that it thinks will be overly controversial, it starts to crack the safe harbor protections against being sued itself for the content as it no longer acts as a pure channel, but edits what is there.

Boycotts are an old weapon of the politically motivated and have traditionally targeted companies for something significant, like doing business in South Africa during the days of apartheid. But when even associations with controversial content and opinions -- perhaps a company once sponsored an event that, at the time, seemed benign -- come to light and spread virally, staying off someone's list of miscreants is virtually impossible. Executives will need to create entirely new approaches to content, public perception, and how to respond -- with no guarantee that they can find a good answer.

Related: Image: RGBStock.com user jonfletch, site standard license.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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