Saturday, 19 October 2013

A chaotic week for erotic/self-published books

A few days ago I had a brief twitter conversation regarding the recent furore over certain self-published titles which have been removed from various online eBook outlets such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Online technology news portal The Kernel reported that hidden within the depths of the virtual bookshelves there could be found independent publications such as: 'Daddy Rapes the Virgin Daughter in the Attic', 'Taboo Acts, Volume II: Loving the Horse' and 'Doggy, Daddy, Daughter Rape: Virgin Teen Girl Deflowered By Father And His Dog' amongst other stories detailing graphic rape, incest, bestiality and supposed paedophilia. What ensued was a chaotic attempt for the 'booksellers' to rid themselves of any responsibility in a cathartic attempt not to be seen to be endorsing such 'offensive' material. W. H. Smith pulled their entire online store for a period of time and promised not to publish any further independent titles before their content could be checked to ensure it wasn't pornographic. Amazon and Barnes & Noble have (to my knowledge) been a little less knee-jerk and simply removed the offensive books.
However, this is an incredibly contentious issue and there are some really nervous conversations flying around the self-published community about what might become of this development. My personal opinion is that I'm not too worried at this stage, the books which were removed from sale were quite clearly touching illegal and very sensitive issues, whether or not that makes the publication itself illegal isn't for me to say and I think anybody who does make that call would be treading very thin ice. Documenting a crime in literature is not an offence, but writing it in a glorifying manner may well fall foul of the rather outdated Obscene Publications Act, which famously ensnared the magnificent Lady Chatterley's Lover. There is a wider conversation to be had about the boundaries between erotic fiction and literary pornography, not to mention the threat from Kobo to moderate all self-published books, not just the adult themed ones.  
So, as the writer of the rather explicitly titled Dirty Little Fuck Doll, why am I not excessively concerned? For several reasons, firstly all my characters are consenting adults of an appropriate age, you could find them doing what they're doing on any number of free-access porn sites, also because I believe readers won't stand for this, let us not forget that when an eBook gets removed from the shop, it is also erased from your kindle or other reading device and there is a massive market for 'erotica'. The main reason is that Amazon in particular won't bow down, they make money from self-published authors and I doubt they will give it up. Amazon are big, bold and bolshie enough to make sure they aren't breaking the law, then stick a single finger up to any further criticism. The very most I feel they would do is put an age verification wall in front of any 'adult' products, and I'd support that fully.

I'd really like your opinions about this, as either a reader or writer, how do you feel about the issue of banning or removing these books? Do you feel they should take more down? Impose restrictions on self-published titles? What about age verification, would it work? Are you a writer and afraid of having your work deleted from their stores? As a reader, are you concerned you might not be able to buy books from self-published writers anymore? Is this an overreaction or a genuine point? 

8 comments:

  1. I have for some time thought that this particular issue would eventually raise its ugly head and put the whole Independent Publishing industry in doubt. Companies like Amazon will bow to customer pressure and stop accepting all Independent Authors, others will then follow their lead. To fill the gap left by Amazon smaller companies will start up offering a service to authors, but probably charging a small fee for listing your book.

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  2. Gary, thanks for your input on this issue, but I really couldn't disagree with you more. This week's developments have nothing to do with self-published or independent writers and everything to do with vile, despicable texts. To suggest that Amazon would ban independent publishing because of that is akin to recommending the removal of all pictures online because some are found to be offensive.
    It's worth noting that Amazon of all companies make an incredible amount of money through their KDP platform, they have spent time and money to install the infrastructure for self-published writers, and I cannot imagine for one second they would wish to alter that. If there is any 'customer pressure' out there, it is from the highly disgruntled Kobo authors and readers who have lost their books. I can see this playing nicely into the hands of Amazon, who will sit back with their 'fuck you' attitude they have perfected so well when answering questions regarding their tax conduct and watch as they pick up the sales abandoned by the likes of Kobo.
    Readers have a right to read what they wish and leave what they don't, Jeff Bezos is smart enough to recognise that.
    In terms of the smaller companies, there are already dozens of different sites that will 'represent' your work to the major distributors and they do take their percentage, but self-publishing is big business these days and will only get stronger. I read articles all the time about how conventionally published writers are rejecting offers for their new works and going the way of self-publishing, I cannot name any publisher which would offer anywhere near the rate of royalties as you can get through self-publishing.
    However, I do accept that there is an issue relating to pornographic literature (my own included) which is currently unrestricted on Amazon/Barnes & Noble et al; the worst I would expect to see from the major retailers is an age verification wall before being able to view such books.
    Your comment was gratefully received and, I hope you didn't find my response too aggressive, but this is a very sensitive subject for many people, I was talking to one writer today who has had 11 titles deleted from Kobo. For a lot of us, this is not just a hobby, but either a way of earning or potentially earning a living.

    Thanks
    Ellie x

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  3. I choose not to read erotic fiction. But I support other adults' right to read it if they choose. And I don't like Kobo's attitude that all indie authors are guilty until proven innocent.
    Rayne Hall

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  4. If Kobo had set their guidelines from the outset, this would never have happened. Punishing all for the offenses of a few is not only bad business, it's causing permanent damage to Kobo's relationship with all indie writers.

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  5. Rayne and A.J, I agree, Kobo's attitude will only harm them as a brand in the long term. I'd like to bet sales of their hardware are down this week, I know I wouldn't buy an e reader from a company who dictated what could and could not be read on their devices. Amazon must be rubbing their hands together with pure joy!
    One thing is for certain though, I do believe there should be better regulation regarding what gets published and what doesn't. When I submit a book to kindle it is 'in review' for about twelve hours, what that review entails I have no idea. Whilst I'm sure nobody checks my work for spelling, grammatical and typographical errors, I'd like to think that somebody is checking for its adherence to their terms and conditions.
    Self-publishing will only get bigger and more widespread, if Kobo wish to ignore that, then they have no place as a modern bookseller. Look what happened to Waterstone's (I still use the apostrophe), they only stayed in business because they got into bed with Amazon. We need smaller organisations such as Kobo to be challenging the might and monopoly of Amazon, not gifting them more customers and better business.

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  6. On Sunday, October 13th, all our titles published through the Kobo Writing Life (KWL) Program vanished mysteriously with no explanation. Yet, the title we published on Smashwords that was distributed to Kobo remained.

    That title is part of the same series as KWL removed. It contains similar adult content, and in the description we provide enough topical detail for an adult reader to decide whether or not they might want to get the ebook. Nothing explicit, but definitely aimed at mature readers looking for specific erotica niches.

    On Sunday, October 20th, we shutdown and removed the majority of our social media references to Kobo titles. We received boiler plate emails and one more direct email from Kobo that provided no timeframe nor rational explanation for what they had done.

    The direct email was triggered by comments we made on the Kobo Writing Life blog http://kobowritinglife.com/2013/10/15/a-letter-to-our-kwl-authors-and-self-publishing-partners/ In short, Jodi White sent us a short email saying that Kobo had no intention to censor books and titles complying with their policies would be returned to the store.

    Jodi White | Operations Manager, KWL
    Kobo Inc | 135 Liberty St., Suite 101 Toronto, ON M6K 1A7
    jwhite@kobo.com

    At this point it's too late and far too little though. Because the entire time our KWL titles have been vanished, the Smashwords title is still available on Kobo. Why would we bother ever investing in KWL when distributing through Smashwords protects our titles from mass deletion? And does Kobo just see KWL as a throwaway liability? They haven't updated their documentation in two years despite many authors noting conversion issues from Word to ePub. The revenue and royalty amounts on my author's dashboard don't even add up properly. It seems like Kobo threw Writing Life together as a competitive checkbox and then walked away from it. The sudden massive kneejerk purge suggests Kobo management didn't care what was happening as long as it contributed financially and ran on its own.

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  7. Having said all that, I'm much more worried about how WH Smith and Kobo have treated independent authors in the press. Somehow, in a land with fifty foot by twenty foot "50 Shades of Grey" billboards in most rail stations and cities, an anonymous user being able to search book titles on a book store web site is the source of moral outrage. The fact the same things would come up in Bing, Yahoo, and Google is apparently not relevant. Somehow online book stores are the source of an assault on the morals of children searching for "daddy" without supervision!

    Which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. If an adult allows an eight year old to go on to WH Smith's website and submit an anonymous search for "daddy" then they should reasonably expect that they've failed as a parent. Based on English legal requirements, WH Smith should have restricted anonymous searches to exclude erotica and romance categories anyway (as well as medicine, anatomy, biology, livestock, husbandry, feminism, and a whole pile of other apparently offensive topics).

    WH Smith should have acknowledged their search engine needed fixing. Bring the site down, fix the search engine, remove titles with "rape" in the name or description, and move on. But instead they blamed Kobo, and together WH Smith and Kobo blamed the sexually degenerate self published authors of the world. And thus began the purge of so many ebooks as Kobo effectively dismantled their KWL program without a whisper to anyone until the deed was well underway.

    *shrugs* My gut take is that Kobo has seriously damaged themselves. Without some kind of assurances around how they will maintain, police, and monitor titles in the future, KWL is no longer a viable platform for any adult or romance content. Furthermore, given the preferential treatment Kobo is giving Smashwords, there is no need to use KWL.

    I prefer direct distribution because I need feedback on how titles are received in the marketplace, and I prefer getting paid more frequently. But Smashwords has a proven platform, sticks up for its authors, and apparently has access to markets even after those markets purge their own authors.

    We'll be looking at that option in the coming months while also encouraging our Canadian Kobo loving friends to either embrace Amazon or consider Smashwords direct. Given how our Canadian sales are higher than they have ever been this month, I'm guessing that Kobo has indeed given away marketshare to Amazon with this heavyhanded fiasco.

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  8. Max,

    Thanks so much for your input, it's interesting that Kobo aren't taking down books in their store listed through Smashwords; perhaps it's not as simple a process for them? Either way, this whole episode has harmed them as a company and brand, I doubt anybody can challenge the mighty market domination of Amazon!
    I also think the comparisons people use to Fifty Shades of Grey aren't really that valid, on the whole I found those books to be very lame and hardly explicit! The very theme of BDSM didn't sit that well in the book, it certainly didn't suit the characters and there was nothing hotter in those than you couldn't find in a Jilly Cooper novel! Fifty Shades of Grey and the diatribe that followed don't fit into my genre of 'erotica', the books that me and a lot of other writers produce is of a lot more explicit nature.
    You are also very right about the unrestricted search engines on sites like W H Smith, it seems like the buck passing went wrong for those and Kobo. If you get any more information, please do share it with us.

    Thanks again for your detailed comments

    Ellie x

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