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Coroners Linked Books on Amazon to Multiple Deaths. A Decade Later, They’re Still For Sale.

The availability of these books has been highlighted in at least two deaths in the past year, both taking place after the passage of the 2023 Online Safety Bill.


June 13 2024, 09.57am

Content warning: Mentions of suicide.

Several books containing detailed instructions on ending one’s life are available on Amazon’s UK site, despite repeated warnings from coroners over more than a decade, The Lead can reveal. Purchasing the books requires no age verification, and some are available through expedited delivery and instant download. Although the books’ product pages display a banner for suicide prevention charity, the Samaritans, a “free preview” function means users can access material from some books online without logging in and without directions to crisis support.

The availability of these books on Amazon has been highlighted in at least two deaths in the past year, both taking place after the passage of the Online Safety Bill. 

“I remember him running out into the middle of this meadow and gazing at the sun. It’s something that’s just burned into my memory because I could see such pure joy and energy. It felt really nice to see him at peace in that place.”  

It was a sunny day in Italy in June 2011 and a family from the Wirral was enjoying a summer holiday. This memory of Luke Goodwin, soaking up the warm sunlight, has taken on a special meaning for his younger brother, Simeon, who spoke to The Lead in May.

Luke tragically took his own life eleven years ago after researching death by suicide on the internet. After his death, it emerged the 21-year-old university student had accessed self-harm material, including a “manual,” online.

As coroner Mary Burke noted in a report following his death, the book wasn’t just found in the darker corners of the web — the forums where suicide is discussed and facilitated. It was also for sale via the UK arm of the world’s largest retailer, Amazon.

Death by suicide is preventable, and coroners frequently issue warnings when they think an organisation can take steps to stop more people from taking their lives in similar circumstances.

The Lead can reveal four coroners have warned about deaths linked to books available on since 2013. Three have written to Amazon UK with their concerns. At least twice, the firm has said it will keep selling the content.

At the time of writing, the UK store contains several books that appear to explain how to end one’s own life. No apparent attempts are made to restrict access to them, such as age verification. Some are available for expedited Prime delivery. Others can be downloaded for free as part of a Kindle subscription. One is even listed with a reading age of “12 and above” and ranked in a popularity chart for teen and young adult books. 

Amazon UK has taken steps to flag this content. A banner with a message and a phone number for the Samaritans appears at the top of the results page for specific searches. But it disappears after the first page of the results. Listings for the books themselves feature another Samaritans banner — but sometimes this seems to be erroneously replaced with other warnings, such as a banner for information about Covid-19, which The Lead encountered in early June.

In April, Amazon UK lawyers told coroners the firm is “committed to taking measures not to surprise customers” with sensitive content. But with the right “free preview” URL, a user can enter one of these books, bypassing the Samaritans banner.

The retail giant is not the only firm selling this material. Two further coroners reports describe similar books accessed via unspecified websites. The Lead has found — albeit with more difficulty — print copies of some of the books on eBay and smaller online booksellers. But The Lead has been unable to find coronial warnings directed towards any other companies regarding the sale of self-harm books. 

Amazon’s large e-book store sets it aside from most other online sellers, with digital material available more rapidly and often at a lower cost than in print. That being said, The Lead has been unable to find any self-harm manuals on three rival e-book stores using similar searches.

When contacted for a comment by The Lead, Amazon did not respond before the time of publication.

“On the internet, you expect to find everything and anything. But to know that it’s available on Amazon and other marketplaces like that is, I think, contemptible.”

– Simeon Goodwin

The passing of his brother altered Simeon’s life forever. Two years apart and a decade behind two older sisters, the boys were close growing up. “He helped me through school and going to university and things like that. He was always so warm and supportive of you,” he tells The Lead. Sometimes shy, “he was always someone who put other people’s happiness first.” 

Although his family was concerned about Luke’s own happiness, they had no idea about the things he had been looking up online. Simeon said it was a “complete surprise” to learn the material even existed and “that anyone would be so morally bankrupt” as to produce it or sell it.

“On the internet, you expect to find everything and anything. But to know that it’s available on Amazon and other marketplaces like that is, I think, contemptible.”  

He wonders if things would have turned out differently if it hadn’t been for the book Luke had read. “There are people like my brother who are out there today, lovely, kind people. Who deserve everything in life. But who may be going through a difficult time.”

He added that it was baffling that this material was so readily available to the vulnerable, “while supportive solutions like therapy and doctors” can be hard to access.  

Since Luke’s death, Simeon’s life has been altered forever. “Once a month, once a week, he’ll pop up in my dreams. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about him.”

"This kind of inaction is so frustrating for me, having lived through something so traumatic and knowing that others are likely to go through the same"

– Simeon Goodwin

Some things have moved on since Luke died in 2013. Last year saw the introduction of the Online Safety Act, which is designed to protect internet users from everything from drug sales to self-harm material. 

Digital communications were once at risk of falling through a legislative gap. Now, individuals actively encouraging others to harm themselves online could be breaking the law. 

Last year, the Act was a key part of a response to another coronial warning, written after the death of another man thought to have bought a self-harm book online.

Michelle Donelan, then Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, said tech companies hosting user-generated content and forums would have to “take more responsibility” for their users under the Act.

That could mean moderating social media platforms or online forums where people discuss and potentially facilitate self-harm. But it's unlikely to extend to retailers selling self-harm books, even if they’re bought online and downloaded in digital form.

If the books had been banned by law, It would have been illegal for the firm to sell them. Some countries, like Australia, have outlawed certain self-harm books altogether. But the UK hasn't.

In their response to two coronial warnings in April, Amazon UK's lawyers wrote: “As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to written speech and a variety of viewpoints is important, including books that some may find objectionable."

Whatever the law, it’s still deeply troubling for bereaved families to see these books on sale at stores like Amazon UK. “This kind of inaction is so frustrating for me, having lived through something so traumatic and knowing that others are likely to go through the same,” Simeon said. “It’s just so awfully sad.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. Youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or email [email protected].

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