You have, I am sure, heard at least a portion of the story: Amazon.com allowed an e-book that instructed pedophiles on how to be better pedophiles (I’m guessing) to go on sale through their vast retail empire.  When the book was discovered– and I’m sort of interested in figuring out what search parameters led to it– the Internet, and specifically Twitter, lost its collective mind.

Amazon defended the decision.  The outrage got more pronounced.  A boycott was declared.  Amazon pulled the book.  The crowd went wild.  End of story.

And I should probably let it go there.  Except I can’t; I think Amazon was right.

Take a step back

I think it’s inarguable that a pro-pedophilia book should be condemned as an evil and immoral thing, and I have no problem with declaring it to be so loudly and frequently.  What I do have a problem with is blaming Amazon for it.

It’s true that the company vets everything it sells beforehand, but the vetting is for defense against litigation, i.e., improper use.  For instance, if someone decided to publish one of my books without my permission, that would be improper use, and Amazon could get sued for it.  They aren’t making moral choices; they’re making legal ones.

But, the crowd shouted, they should be.

Please take a step back and think about that for a minute.  “I would like the world’s largest online retailer to make decisions of morality for me.”  That is what you, large shouting crowd, just said.  And it’s an easy thing to say when the book in question is about molesting children.  What happens when it isn’t?  This would be a very different argument if Amazon decided not to publish Lolita, a novel widely acknowledged as one of the best English language books of the twentieth century, but one which happens to be about a pedophile.

Now, I’m not equating the pedophile guide with Nabokov.  I’m saying if you demand that a company make moral judgment calls, you can’t guarantee you’re going to agree with their decisions.

Common sense

Ah, the crowd counters: but this was a simple common-sense decision.

Beware, please.  Common sense is subjective.  I grant that you will be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks a pedophile guide is acceptable.  But there are a large number of people in this country who would agree with this statement: “of course man didn’t descend from an ape; it’s only common sense.”

Asking anyone– a large company or a person– to make common-sense decisions is no less dangerous than asking them to make a moral decision.

Not enough outrage to go around

The pedophile guide might not even be the most evil thing to be offered for sale by Amazon.  Go ahead and look up the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  This is a hoax that is supposed to be the minutes of a meeting between a secret Jewish cabal planning on taking over the world by starting wars, crashing economies, and so on.  It’s nearly a century old, and was definitively debunked at least eighty years ago. Despite that, it was a primary source for Hitler and a key justification for the Holocaust, meaning this little book was indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions.  And it’s still taken seriously today by many people (especially in certain Middle Eastern countries) as justification for continued violence against Jews.  It is probably the most evil and dangerous thing ever published.  And it is on sale at Amazon right now.  So are the books inspired by it, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Henry Ford‘s The International Jew.

If you want to be angry, vast hive mind, be angry that THIS book is on sale at Amazon.  But while you’re at it, be just as angry at the 22 other online retailers also selling it.

This is not to say I am happy with Amazon

Right now I would love nothing more than to be able to say “Immortal is now on sale at major online retailer X instead of Amazon”.  The percentage they keep from books sold by way of their Advantage Program is criminal, they are not at all kind to smaller publishers in general, and their customer service is horrifically bad.  I don’t like them, in other words, and would rather not deal with them, much less defend them.

But, and this is an important point: they are currently the only place to buy Immortal.  And when the Kindle version comes out that will be doubly so.  This is true because right now, they’re just about the only game in town.  And there are hundreds of thousands of writers out there in the exact same position.

Boycotting Amazon because they chose not to take a moral stance in circumstances in which they should not have been expected to doesn’t hurt them nearly as much as it hurts someone like me.  And all I’m trying to do is sell a harmless fantasy/sci-fi/adventure book through an online retailer.

My point: if you find a book for sale there that you don’t like, punish the author and the retailer by not buying the book.  That’s how commerce works.