Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware  

If you're a self-published erotica author, you're probably aware of the crazy events of the past few days, including the wholesale deletion of erotica ebooks and the shutdown of entire retail operations. If you're not, here's how things went down.

An expose in The Kernel that found numerous self-published rape and incest porn ebooks for sale at major ebook retailers precipitated a media frenzy in the UK. Amazon and Barnes & Noble began pulling titles from their stores. Other ebook retailers went farther: WH Smith shut down its entire website, and Kobo, which initially just deleted selected titles, suspended the sale of all self-published ebooks on its UK website--a shutdown that has since spread to Australia and New Zealand--in order to inventory its catalog and purge ebooks that violate its content guidelines.

As the story unfolded, authors who don't write erotica saw their titles removed, as did authors whose erotica books don't appear to violate retailers' content guidelines. In response, readers and others have launched a petition asking retailers to "leave our self-published and/or indie authors alone."

Beyond all the other issues raised by this incident--free speech, censorship (though IMO this isn't censorship; these are businesses, which have the right to sell what they choose), where the lines for objectionable content should be drawn, the slippery slope of book banning--there's one that I'm not seeing much discussed: the degree to which the apparently free market of self-publishing is vulnerable to Big Brother control.

I've gotten some shit for my dislike of the term "independent author" (as a substitute for "self-publisher"). I get that it's supposed to denote an author's independence from the traditional publishing establishment--an entrepreneurial new world in which authors aren't subject to restrictive rights grants and can control both the process and the proceeds of publication.

But I think the term also encourages the inaccurate notion that today's DIY self-publishing empowers authors to become fully independent operators, in complete control of their own destinies. As the Great Erotica Panic of 2013 demonstrates, that's not entirely true.

Like it or not, your access to the tools of self-publishing--and, more crucially, to your published books--are controlled by your publishing platform's Terms and Conditions. These typically allow the platform to yank books, close accounts, and enforce content policies at will, often without notification or explanation. When the platforms choose to exercise this power--appropriately or inappropriately--authors often have little recourse. A common theme of such situations is the difficulty of getting removed books restored, or of penetrating the bureaucracy and finding someone who can provide real answers and/or real help.

Fortunately events like this are rare. But if you're going to self-publish, it's absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use (a step that authors often gloss over), so you'll know right from the start the degree to which you're subject to your platform's power to make you disappear. It's also a good reason to avoid exclusivity and publish to as many platforms as possible, so that if one decides to torpedo your account, your books won't completely disappear.

Some have speculated that increased screening and enforcement of content guidelines mark a sea-change for the self-publishing industry and will exert a chilling effect that could end self-publishing as we know it today. I don't think so. This incident should, however, be a reality check for self-publishers who think they're launching their work into a sphere of unlimited freedom. You're only as independent as your publishing platform will let you be.

27 comments:

Unknown said...

It's awful, but it's not a free speech issue. It's only free speech if the Government is the actor chilling/ impeding the speech.

Dalia Daudelin said...

"But if you're going to self-publish, it's absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use (a step that authors often gloss over), so you'll know right from the start the degree to which you're subject to your platform's power to make you disappear."

The issue is that Amazon's guidelines is exactly this:
"What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect."

How am I supposed to work with that?

Patsy said...

In theory it's great that absolutely anyone can publish absolutely anything - then we see some of the books out there and a few restrictions don't seem such a bad idea.

btw, it's not just self published books that have been pulled. Some small publishers have had their books withdrawn too. The publisher of my short story collection is one that's suffered. Seems especially unfair as they don't publish any erotica.

Anonymous said...

At the end of the day, if it spreads to all retailers, I'm pretty certain every indie author will take their books and readers to their own websites and sell their books there.

There will be protests and indie supporters boycotting anti-indie stores.

You can't close the door on an ocean of authors. They'll spill through and keep going.

This whole drama seems like a retaliation to the success of indie publishing. I bet it was the brain-child of a marketing executive.

Standback said...

Like it or not, your access to the tools of self-publishing--and, more crucially, to your published books--are controlled by your publishing platform's Terms and Conditions. These typically allow the platform to yank books, close accounts, and enforce content policies at will, often without notification or explanation.

But if you're going to self-publish, it's absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use (a step that authors often gloss over), so you'll know right from the start the degree to which you're subject to your platform's power to make you disappear.

Ummm. I've got my fair share of doubts about self-publishing, but the exact same points apply to regular publishing. Both the platform and and the publisher have immense control of your work (and, hey, if you're selling ebooks with a regular publisher, they can be pulled just as easily).

Platform is power; there's no question of that. We knew it with Barnes and Noble; we knew it with Amazon; this is just another friendly reminder.

Victoria Strauss said...

Dalia,

I completely agree, the Amazon statement is ridiculous (although, I think, typical of the way Amazon spins everything to its advantage--that kind of vagueness gives it total freedom to define the terms and to change those definitions whenever it wants). But its TOS is clear about its power to unilaterally delete content and suspend accounts, and I think that's what often takes people by surprise.

Victoria Strauss said...

Standback,

You're totally right about the control claimed by trad publishers. But for a lot of self-publishers, the whole point is that they think they're escaping that kind of control.

Katharine Swan said...

Anonymous has a point -- authors could sell their books from their own sites. But Anonymous is also forgetting that your own website is STILL under someone else's thumb -- in this case, your hosting provider. If they decide your site violates their terms, they can take the whole thing down, so that's not foolproof either.

I agree that self-published authors are never in TOTAL control. There are always workarounds that will increase your control, but they also reduce your audience (as is the case with your own website, which won't reach as many readers as selling on the big-name retailers sites).

Frances Grimble said...

If you publish through Kindle or CreateSpace you are not self-publishing. Amazon is your publisher. Likewise with all other e-book and POD "publishing platforms." You can set up your own business, print your own books by offset or POD, and format your own e-books in ePub format and possibly others *without ever using a platform.* I don't and I wouldn't. I don't trust anyone who reserves the right to substantially change the terms of a contract without even notifying m.

Esmeralda Greene said...

"But if you're going to self-publish, it's absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use..."

It's a good idea, but I wouldn't say that doing so makes a whole lot of difference. As this kerfuffle has made clear, one can be in violation of an outlet's terms and still be distributed by them for years on end, and contrarily, one can be completely in accord with their terms and still get booted out of their store -- at least temporarily.

And as Dalia Daudelin pointed out, in the case of Amazon, there are no meaningful Terms and Conditions regarding erotica; their rules are quite deliberately kept secret.

Esmeralda Greene said...

BTW, the link to the Change.org petition in the article doesn't work. There's the correct one:

http://www.change.org/petitions/amazon-barnes-and-noble-kobo-leave-our-self-published-and-or-indie-authors-alone

Dennis Latham said...

This should have been expected at some point because no matter what, some people will screw things up for everyone else.

Tasha Turner said...

The more places you are published, including your own website, the better control you have. Making sure you understand each retailers TOS may not keep your book up but if it's pulled at least you won't be surprised if you know that at any time for any reason a retailer might pull your book and remember it has pulled books in the past.

Better guidelines from retailers would be great. Retailers making sure that they know & list each countries guidelines, with individual country opt-out buttons would be fantastic, if unrealistic.

I suspect better filters, over 18 areas, parental controls, and if you don't properly label your stuff you will be booted is coming to marketplaces near you. I've been surprised for years that Amazon and B&N haven't implemented these.

Amanda said...

Kind of defeats the point of self-publishing with restrictions like these. Upon reading the headline I was sure this was going to be a government crackdown; was surprised to learn that was not the case. Just goes to show you have to diversify your options.

Dawn Pisturino said...

There have to be some gatekeepers in the publishing industry to prevent abuses. There has been a proliferation of erotica and pornography being published, with books like "Fifty Shades of Gray" bringing it into the mainstream. There will always be crooks and immoral people who take advantage of lax laws and new technology. As adults, we have a responsibility to protect our young people.

Dawn Pisturino said...

I'm glad to see someone cracking down. Erotica and porn are becoming more and more mainstream. As adults, we have a responsibility to protect our young people. It's not all about making money or getting published.

Victoria Strauss said...

I think the problem with "cracking down" is where and how to draw the line in a rational way that can be umambiguously explained (so authors aren't in doubt of where they stand) and consistently enforced. That's really hard to do. There's also the question of whether more stringent guidelines would work. One of the problems identified by Kobo and others is the sneaky methods some authors have been using to get around the existing guidelines.

For me, a better solution would be to establish a "mature" section for erotica and explicit material, set up in such a way that search terms used in other parts of the retailer's website wouldn't bring up books from the mature section. Readers would know what they were getting, authors would know where they stood, and retailers wouldn't have to play Big Brother. It wouldn't be perfect, but I think it's better than book banning.

Sean McLachlan said...

KOBO UK deleted all three of my indie books. They were fantasy and horror, NOT erotica. They didn't even have any sex scenes!
Fifty Shades of Gray is still up though.

Brian Rush said...

Regarding the statement that this "isn't censorship" because it's not being done by the government: Of course it's censorship. Censorship is the suppression of undesired speech, artwork, or written material. It doesn't matter who is doing it. That it isn't being done by the government means it isn't illegal. It doesn't mean it isn't wrong. Many things that we don't choose to make illegal because the cure would be worse than the disease are still wrong: cheating on one's spouse, browbeating and discouragthating a child, and of course a great many aspects of corporate and business behavior.

Regarding the powerlessness of indie authors before the major platforms: that's only true of indie authors as individuals. It's not true of all of us collectively. I would observe that this action was taken in response to bad press and public concern, expressed most likely by petitions and messages from customers; it was not a self-generated thing. The same pressure can be generated by authors if they are willing to band together for the purpose.

As far as marketing books on one's own website, while that can be done it might be worth considering the creation of a cooperative for the purpose. A single site where customers can go to browse books makes more sense and would be much more efficient and effective than a lot of sites each with only one author's works.

Victoria Strauss said...

Sean--that's the ultimate irony, isn't it?

Brian--I don't agree that it's censorship. Would it be censorship if a coffee shop decided to remove all Tazo brand teas? Or to sell only coffee, no tea at all? There's an intersection here between retail policy and free speech, but as outrageous as you may find Kobo's actions, it's a commercial retailer and has the right to sell what it wants.

I think a lot of people are making the mistake of thinking this is about publishing. It's not, at least for Kobo. For everyone except authors, self-pub platforms are about retailing.



Katharine Swan said...

I think it is censorship, in the same way that not letting your children watch rated R movies is censorship. It's a private decision, even for a major retailer, because yes, a business is allowed to make their own decision on what they sell. It is still censorship by definition, but it is not the big bad kind, if you know what I mean. They are not trying to suppress people's work, they are trying to make good business decisions that will lead to profit and longevity for their companies. Self-published authors are making the mistake of thinking that they are entitled to be able to sell their books anywhere they want, simply because they've written them.

J Greely said...

Victoria, Amazon Japan has exactly that sort of mature section. Until you click yes on the "are you 18?" page in a browser session, you won't see the covers or descriptions of erotic books/videos, and most of it won't appear in search results at all. Even items in your wish-lists or recommendation pages won't include pictures in a fresh browser session.

Once you pass the 18+ test, you'll see a wide variety of pretty raw porn, including a significant number of novels that prominently feature bondage, rape, incest, and/or clearly-underage girls on the cover. Quite a bit of it has been released for the Kindle as well, now that the Paperwhite has full support for vertical Japanese text.

They use the same search filtering on the US site, as the 2009 AmazonFail event showed; they just don't display an "adult" category for you to search in. Then again, Amazon Japan doesn't have a "gay and lesbian" category for books...

(and yes, at Amazon Japan, I often feel the need to start a fresh browser session just to exclude the porn from my searches; it gets creepy fast)

-j

Victoria E.A.L. Jarman said...

Thinking it is censorship doesn't make it so. Censorship is not someone refusing to sell your book, it is someone forcing someone else to not sell your book.

Retailers are not censoring erotica. They can't, unless they somehow pressure others not to sell it also. While this is unfortunate, it is 100% not censorship.

Hector Himeros said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hector Himeros said...

From what I read, porn-ebooks purge is done in the name of children. My question, which STUPID parents who let their underage kids run amok in online stores with credit cards??? Buying is the only way for them to read such ebooks!

I write about my opinion in my blog: http://hectorhimeros.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-ordeal-of-porn-ebooks.html

Regarding "offensive" content, it depends who you ask. A Christian ebook is offensive to an atheist. A satanic ebook (and porn) is offensive to a religious person.

Porn ebooks are deemed "dangerous" and violent". So are fairy tales!!!
* Red's grandma gets EATEN by a wolf!
* Cinderella gets enslaved by her stepmom.
* Snow White gets POISONED!
* Hansel & Gretel are about to get EATEN by a witch!
So much VIOLENCE for KIDS!!!

It's better to create a restrictive area for adult ebooks, rather than erasing them without investigating.

Anonymous said...

As onerous as these challenges may be, more teeth gnashing and wailing is not really helping. Perhaps it would be more constructive to develop a business solution? A new 'Amazon' for indies that write material that is not quite ready for 'prime time'. This is an opportunity begging for a profitable solution.

Anonymous said...

someone said...
"I'm glad to see someone cracking down. Erotica and porn are becoming more and more mainstream. As adults, we have a responsibility to protect our young people"

None of them are cracking down except on powerless independent writers. Want to buy a Debbie Does Dallas video? It's available at Amazon. So are Caligula and lots of other porn videos. You can buy adult sex toys through them too, including whips and handcuffs. Want to read the original Lolita, or the porn written by the Marquis de Sade? It's available too. This is just a PR stunt to please the bluenoses who have made a squawk over finding a few incest and pseudo incest ebooks. And because independant writers have no real voice they're easy to bully.