This week, amid all the furor over the removal of self-published erotic e-books by the larger book retailers, I was one of the babies thrown out with the proverbial bath water. My self-published title, Zombie Erotoclypse, was removed from Kobo and Amazon. It has throughout this time remained available on Barnes & Noble.
Plenty of my friends and acquaintances expressed outrage on my behalf – for which I thank them heartily – and as you can imagine, I’ve been following the action and the debate quite closely.
And here are my conclusions, from the heart of it, so to speak.
Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, WH Smith – they’re just bookshops!
They’re not the guardians of our children’s morals. They’re not the protectors of our rights to free speech and artistic expression. They’re not your parent or your friend. They’re just businesses – and to me that explains their behavior precisely and makes their future behavior easy to predict.
So to kick off, this argument has stormed around censorship. The big e-retailers have been accused of unjustifiably censoring our right to write what we like. Let’s just take a look at what censorship is exactly. According to the online Oxford Dictionaries, censorship is ‘the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts’.
Did that happen here?
No – there was no examination (more on that later) and it wasn’t official. Amazon (and the rest) are just shops. Not official entities. As a book shop Amazon can choose to stock whatever books it likes and it if it doesn’t like extreme taboo erotica, fair enough, it’s quite within its rights to decline to stock it. If I owned a bookshop, I wouldn’t stock celebrity autobiographies. That would be my choice.
So, if Amazon (et al) choose not to stock your book, this isn’t censorship and in no way at all does it threaten your right to free expression. You are still free to sell you book anywhere else or you could disseminate it for free from you own site – it’s up to you. Perhaps your book might be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act in the UK – but that’s between you and the judiciary and has nothing to with Amazon (apart from the fact that they would also be breaking the law if they stocked it). But assuming your book skims in on the right side of the law, that doesn’t mean Amazon (et al) are under any obligation to stock it. No more so than you are under any obligation to provide them with a book to stock.
The relationship between Amazon and its authors is a business deal and it has to work for both sides for it to continue. This is about money – on both sides – and if you’re surprised at that, well, I don’t know what to say! Amazon makes money out of the books it sells. Authors submit books to Amazon to gain access to the world’s biggest market place. We put our books up there to sell them, not to assert our rights to freedom of expression. Those rights remain largely the same as they were before Amazon or the Internet existed – now it’s just easier to access global markets through sites like Amazon. And easier over the Internet to find and link up with like-minded people who share the same minority interest, be that in taboo erotica or any other arcane subject area.
So what happened this week? The retailers were called out for stocking what is for most people unacceptable taboo fiction. As businesses, they acted out of self interest (as they would – that’s their business model. And the alternatives to capitalism? Well, their track records on freedom of expression leave plenty to be desired…). For large companies, nothing has as much value as their corporate reputation – and that’s real financial value, not just goodwill. They will do anything to protect their reputations and this week, that meant a knee jerk reaction to get the offensive material off their sites.
I’m not defending the way they did it – but I perfectly understand why.
This caused an explosion of comment on the internet and one thing that stands out for me is how many people criticize these sites for not having read the books they stock! If they’d read them, said one side, they never would have stocked them. If they’d read them, said writers like me who’ve had quite innocent content removed, they would have realized how harmless my book is. Hello! I haven’t read half the books on my kindle that I’ve paid for. At least a third of the books in the bookshelf by my bed haven’t been read. Amazon stocks millions of books. Who do people think is going to read them all? Amazon (et al) would have to hire thousands of people to read the endless stream of self-published books coming onto the site – and then to make a value judgment over the acceptability of the content. Would you do that job? I wouldn’t, in a million years, no matter what it paid, which wouldn’t be much. The problem with most self-published books is not the dubious content but the dodgy quality. And even if it were practical, who would pay for a scheme like that? Not Amazon, no, it would be charged to the authors. No thanks. Pay to load my book up and wait weeks or months while it’s in a queue behind a million other books to be vetted by a human reader whose mind is going numb? No thanks.
So what’s the way forward? As I suggested earlier, look at this from a commercial viewpoint and you can start to see where the retailers are likely to go. “Erotica makes money and the majority of it is deemed acceptable for adults to read – so we want to keep stocking it,” they’ll think. “We don’t want to upset our paying customers who would like to protect their children from not only taboo erotica but from any erotica. Hence it will be in the best interests of all to introduce parental controls, filtered searches or adult only areas of the site.” It’s up to them to work out how exactly they want to do this. But there, that wasn’t so hard, not so bad for all concerned.
I have absolute faith this will happen. Why? Because I have faith in their common sense? No, not at all – we’ve seen this week from their knee-jerk reactions that common sense is in short supply. I have faith in their commercial imperative. Erotica makes money. Erotica pays their bills. So once they’ve finished polishing their nice shiny reputations at the front of the store, they’ll invite us all in again by the back door!
And what’s the situation currently with Zombie Erotoclypse, which for the record doesn’t stray into any taboo areas (unless you count sex with the undead as necrophilia, and if you do, you’re consigning tens of thousands of vampire books into the taboo desert!)? Amazon removed it because the description was ‘in violation of their content guidelines’. I looked at their content guidelines – and this is what they say about offensive content, their guideline for working out whether your book will be acceptable to them or not – What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect. I laughed out loud at this. Because if you’re writing taboo erotica in the first place, what you expect to be offensive might be a little more liberal than what Amazon views as offensive!
I took a look at my description and I worked out why they found it offensive. It contained the word ‘teenage’. I assume this had been flagged up in a search for suspect terms – and, yes, an electronic search is okay because there aren’t enough people with enough time to search through all these books manually. (My book features a story called I Was A Teenage Zombie Virgin – but it’s okay because he’s over 18 by the time he has sex.) So I changed the description, removed the word ‘teenage’ and resubmitted the book. Less than 12 hours later it was back on sale. Thank you, Amazon. Obviously, if my zombie in the book happened to be under 18, he’d be back sale as well – I don’t think they checked the content at all.
I would suggest to Amazon in light of this that they need to be more explicit in their guidelines over what is and isn’t acceptable – spell it out for us. Yes, this means people will argue over the call and find ways to just slip in at the very edge – but it’s never going to be easy, is it? And, okay, it’s fine to use the blunt instrument of the search engine to initially identify content that could be problematic, but then you need to use humans to look more closely and make the decision if it’s content you want to carry. And if you don’t want to stock my book? Fine. That’s not curtailing my freedom in any way. After all, do we go to M&S or Target expecting to buy bondage gear and then accuse them of oppressing our sexual freedom because they don’t stock it? I thought not. We just go home and find a site on the Internet that does. Easy.
Am I upset by the way Amazon treated my book? Compared to the other retailers, hell, no. I’m actually rather impressed. They got potentially offensive content off their site fast and they reinstated okay content just as quickly – in my experience, and I do realize that for some people this hasn’t been the case. Barnes & Noble, fine – but I don’t know if it’s still up on their site because they deem it to be acceptable or because they just haven’t got around to pulling it yet. WH Smith and Kobo – well, their actions have genuinely affected the livelihoods of indie writers that don’t even write erotica. So I’d say to them, grow up and sort yourselves out and let us writers get back to business.