Over the past few weeks, a series of denouncements online and, more particularly, in a British tabloid that we don’t choose to link to have thrown many of the major online ebook outlets into a panic. Accused of being incapable of detecting and deleting all instances of their “vile trade” in child pornography, rape smut, and plagiarism (all rightly illegal in the UK, the US, and the rest of the world), several major ebook marketplaces have taken a variety of knee-jerk steps to give at least the appearance of doing something. British bookseller WHSmith has ditched its entire ebook store, while Kobo has apparently stopped distributing books uploaded through its Kobo Writing Life program, which served not only self-publishers but small publishing houses such as Stillpoint Digital Press as well. Amazon.com, the world’s largest online seller of books (and just about everything else), instituted a series of keyword-based filters to try to catch peddlers of obscene (as opposed to erotic) books. Mostly, Amazon seems to have targeted any book that contained the word “virgin” in the title or description or that featured a defloration — as well as any mention (or apparent mention) of incest, rape, or bestiality.
We know this because there has been much heated conversation about this in the publishing community, and because Amazon banned two K.D. West titles: “Bridget: Virgin Knot” (which — and we hate to spoil you — leaves the title character virgo intacta) and “Juliet Takes Off” (which does include a scene in which a young woman chooses to have sex for the first time with a man she loves and who loves her). All of the characters in question were adults and, when they participated in sex, fully consented to it. All of the partners were human. None of them were related to each other. So, to make it clear: there was no child porn, no incest porn, and no animal porn in either story. We wouldn’t publish those.
In banning those titles, not only did Amazon make them unavailable for purchase, but the megastore removed them from purchasers’ Kindles as well.
In no case was the reason for the banning made clear. Amazon, for example, merely pointed publishers of banned books to their content guidelines, in which the pertinent word, offensive, was defined unhelpfully as “about what you would expect.” Kobo gave no notice at all, except an email claiming that works by “select authors” had been removed for violating equally vague content guidelines, but failing to explain, for example, why other books (for instance Stillpoint’s lines of children’s books, memoirs, or academic books) had been removed. Publishers have been left to guess what caused the booksellers to drop the hammer, and
We fully support all of the companies’ right to choose not to sell certain books — certainly we approve of their desire to stamp out truly obscene works involving those “incapable of saying yes (children, animals, the mentally retarded, coma victims, sleepers, etc.) or who [have] said no” (as K.D. West put it). This isn’t, as some have tried to argue, a question of free speech: private companies may choose to sell (or not to sell) whatever they wish.
And we understand that it’s essentially impossible for these enormous corporations to vet their entire list of offerings by hand. Unfortunately, because of the size of each of these companies, which offers millions of titles — and thousands of new ones each day, that also means that it is virtually certain that obscene books (as well as many plagiarized ones) continue to be freely available on their stores.
Our stories, however, which don’t seem to violate the guidelines in any way that we can ascertain, are not.
What angers us and many other independent and self-publishers is the sudden, opaque, and absolutely arbitrary manner in which the delistings took place. No clear guidelines were ever issued beside “what you would expect.” No clear reason for any individual title’s banning has ever been given. WHSmith’s solution was at least completely even-handed if extreme. Amazon and Kobo — who every month make up a huge chunk of their income off of independently published books — and in particular independently published erotica — seem to be trying to protect themselves from both sides: from prosecution for selling illegal works and from lawsuits for applying their guidelines in a damaging or prejudiced manner. The problem with that, of course, is that they manage to do neither well. Take the time, and one is sure to find books in the banned categories even now.
Not our stories, however, which, to restate once more, don’t violate their guidelines in any way.
It isn’t clear how all of this will shake out. The internet markets have gone through growing pains before. We wish that they didn’t come at our expense, but for right now they do.
What answer do folks have who want to buy the kinds of legitimate books that have been swept up along with and instead of the trash? There are still a number of online outlets that don’t seem to have gone through the kind of panicked purge that we’ve seen among the largest retailers: Apple, Smashwords, and Sony, for example, continue to carry and distribute all of Stillpoint’s (and other independents’) titles without filtering or censoring.
And of course, you can always go to the publisher’s website. Google and Bing don’t seem to be participating in the virtual Bonfire of the Vanities just yet.
(By the way, “Bridget” is back up on Amazon — shorn of its subtitle and its suggestive cover art, which featured an upper torso removing a shirt. We’re glad to continue to sell there, but have no confidence that our license won’t be revoked without notice or cause at any moment.)
(By the way #2, Barnes and Noble does not seem to have seen fit to censor any of our titles at this point; however, they are supposed to be engaged in the same sort of fishing expedition as Amazon.)