March 4, 2008 -- Using a clever strategy that has pit Christian readers against anti-censorship intellectuals, a new online bookstore has impressed some marketing experts with its enlightened approach.
Abunga.com -- a kind of Facebook meets prayer book -- touts itself as a "family friendly" Web site that allows its buyers to ban saucy books from their accounts. What's more, if enough customers block a certain book, the company removes it from the site altogether.
Just this month, the Knoxville, Tenn., site banned "The Golden Compass," a children's fantasy novel that has been targeted by religious groups as being anti-Christian since the release of the film version of the book in December.
The site launched in the fall and initially blocked 65,000 titles; since then, another 100 to 200 books have been dropped.
Abunga donates 5 percent of its revenues to charity, which are also chosen by customers. The nonprofits include Christian churches, anti-abortion rights groups and mainstream groups such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Critics have compared Abunga's methods to Nazi book burning, but its founders say the site is more about participation than censorship -- a cross between social networking and cost-friendly online retailing.
Abunga Chairman Lee Martin told ABCNEWS.com that censorship charges were unfounded.
"It is truly a free country, and I'm not the public library or the forced education system," he said. "I believe in free enterprise, and I think people care what we are about."
Last month, Martin sent out an e-mail to supporters, saying, "The battle has now begun."
The holy war started when a biology professor -- who runs a left-of-center blog about science and politics -- was tipped off by his readers about the site, accusing Abunga of pushing a religious agenda.
According to P.Z. Myers, who is a biologist at the University of Minnesota and runs scienceblogs.com/pharyngula, Abunga readers have targeted science books on evolution and climate change.
"Anything that irritates the right, they want off," Myers told ABCNEWS.com "They can have a limited selection of books and select whatever political perspective they want. But [Abunga] is cloaking itself in democracy, and instead of being open-minded, they are being narrow-minded. It's hypocrisy."
In response, Myers' readers mass e-mailed the company and logged on to Abunga.com to ban a number of religious books themselves, including the Bible.
"What they didn't realize is that we control inventory from our members, and it's pretty easy to see the difference of customers who are blocking 'The Golden Compass' and the Bible," Martin said.
Martin insists his company has no agenda. "If you look at the books, we have a complete rainbow range of books, and we give to non-Christian ministries."
"We rely on the community to create a warehouse full of books they want," he said. "Frankly, I know personally I am viscerally angry about the spread of pornography."
The fledgling site may be worthy of a Puritan prayer meeting, but a quick glance shows many titles that would raise the hairs of any church-going granny.
Two of the "dirtiest" books on the 2002 New York Times best-seller list are available on Abunga: "The Sexual Life of Catherine M," a French art critic's 2002 memoir of her infinite sexual encounters.
Out of stock, but presumably also available is, "100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed," a fictionalized erotic memoir by a 7-year-old Sicilian girl.
Salacious Titles Available
Did we forget Candace Bushnell's "Sex and the City" and even one by the Oscar-winning screenplay writer of "Juno" -- "Candy Girl: Year in the Life of an Unknown Stripper" by Diablo Cody?
Martin said the company could not possibly read all of its 1.5 million books and is not surprised some salacious titles are still available. He leaves that up to his readers.
Still, Abunga does do some initial screening, refusing books from distributors that fall into several broad categories, such as nudity or topics about witchcraft and the occult.
Martin, as one of the co-founders of the real estate tool iPIX., has a technology background. His partner, Steve Slack, runs a warehouse of Christian books.
"If you look at the trends, brick and mortar is going away and online is skyrocketing," Martin said. "[Slack] wanted to get his feet wet in the online world."
At the urging of programmers, the company's name was taken from "cowabunga" -- a term that originated on the 1950s children's program, "The Howdy Doody Show." In the 1980s, surfers picked up the expression from television's "Mutant Ninja Turtles."
Later, the founders were told the name was an Aborigine term for a medicinal plant, "tree of life," which Martin finds apt. In the past 90 days, Abunga has logged 1,000 active members in eastern Tennessee and is launching a plan to go national.
Not all intellectuals are offended by Abunga's concept. John Mark Ockerbloom, editor of the Web site "Banned Books Online" at the University of Pennsylvania, said "voluntary" censorship is quite different from an outright ban.
"People should be free to choose what books they want to buy, or consider buying, and choose how to treat the books they buy," he said. "It's not what I would want to do myself, but it's a free country."
Several books on "Banned Books Online" are available on Abunga, including "Peyton Place," Henry Miller's "Tropic of Capricorn" and D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which was the subject of obscenity trials up to the 1960s in the United States and Britain.
'Wisdom of Crowds'
Some marketing experts have applauded Abunga's strategy as ahead of the curve, saying it reflects the growing popularity of the "wisdom of the crowds."
"It's the ultimate wiki," Tom Collinger, chairman of the integrated communication and marketing department at Northwestern University, told ABCNEWS.com.
Collinger said Abunga used another successful strategy, such as customization and personalization, to "increase relevance."
"It is a great brand because it differentiates based upon a fundamental truth of what the company stands for," he said. "This is what a great brand does, whether it's a running shoe or a book or a bookstore…This is not tantamount to banning books…this is commerce."
The controversy has also gained Abunga some press attention, according to Collinger.
Still, the University of Minnesota's Myers said he believes that Abunga is on a slippery moral slope.
"There are a lot of books that I deplore, and the way I cope with them is that I don't buy them," Myers told the Knoxville News. "I don't go to the manager and tell them that no one else should be allowed to buy them."
"That Abunga.com will only succeed with the support of the Lord as its business model makes no earthly sense," he added. "These are not the business practices taught at Harvard."