The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Dissecting the Self-Pubbed Erotica E-Book Scandal

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

I have to admit, I’m still trying to wrap my head about the scandal that gripped the self-publishing community regarding erotic e-books in the past few weeks.  I’ve been digging around, and this is what I’ve been able to find:

It all started on October 9, when the Kernal online magazine published an article documenting how Amazon was selling rape, incest, and bestiality-themed e-books for the Kindle.  Later that week, they published a follow-up article that also implicated Barnes & Noble and British bookseller WH Smith, among others.  Amazon and Barnes & Noble responded to the story by removing many self-published erotica titles from its online stores.  WH Smith went as far as to shut down its entire website.  Kobo, which supplies WH Smith with its e-book titles, has removed all of the self-published titles from its UK platform, as well as “titles in question” from its global platform, pending review.

Self-published authors are, not surprisingly, up in arms over this.  A petition to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo has gathered over 14,000 signatures asking the companies to leave self-published erotica up on their sites.  Some commenters are even going so far as to say that Amazon and co. should leave up all the offensive material.

Here’s the thing: the books cited in the Kernal’s articles are really, really horrible.  They include titles such as Daddy Rapes Virgin Daughter in the Pool; Daddy, It’s Too Big; Big Brother Gangbang; and Daddy and Brother Sharing Me.  (Honestly, I feel more than a little squicky even typing those titles.)  On the other hand, where do we draw the line?  Targeting self-published erotica wholesale seems short-sighted (especially given the success of 50 Shades of Gray and other self-published erotica).

Amazon’s content guidelines for its Kindle Direct Publishing, the largest e-book self-publishing service, are, in my opinion, vague.  It does not accept “pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.”  The guidelines later state that “[w]hat [Amazon] deem[s] offensive is probably about what you would expect.”  But what’s offensive to me may not be offensive to someone else, and vice-versa.  Are rape scenes offensive?  What if both characters are legal adults?  What if it’s a book about the horrors of rape, rather than a book placing a rape in an erotic context?  

I also have to wonder what counts as “pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts” in a text-based medium.  If you’re not actually seeing something, can it really be considered porn?

Meanwhile, Amazon doesn’t seem to have a problem selling pornographic magazines or adult toys.  Why the focus on self-published books?

Smashwords, another e-book self-publishing service that posts to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and Sony, has content guidelines that are a little more specific, saying that, “…neither the book cover nor the book interior may contain graphic images of nudity (either photographic or illustrated) or persons involved in sex acts, and does not include children or underage minors engaged in sexual acts or situations, witnessing such situations, considering sexual acts, or thinking about sexual acts.”  Smashwords also has a policy of vetting the material it publishes by human beings.

So what’s the solution?  On the one hand, I hesitate to advocate that any of these companies should restrict (or further restrict) the material they publish, because I think it’s a slippery slope.  Labeling something “offensive” is a very subjective term, and using legality (as in, would this act be legal in real life) is incredibly problematic.  If we use legality as a standard, why should that only be applied to erotica?  What about books depicting graphic violence?  Why should Dexter and Hannibal Lecter have a home at Amazon and Barnes & Noble when taboo-pushing erotica doesn’t?

On the other hand, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if books like those cited above didn’t have a home on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  But erotica is a thriving genre, much of it self-published, and I would hate to see its wings clipped.

I’ve heard this being debated over the last several days as a free speech argument.  It’s not.  America’s freedom of speech law guarantees the authors of these books the right to write them.  It does not compel Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or any other company to sell them.  Period.

Given that, here’s what I’m proposing:

–Amazon needs to clarify the standards of what’s acceptable for its Kindle Direct Publishing program, and tighten up the vetting process.  It’s not enough to say to writers, “This is offensive, because we said so.”  Amazon Direct Publishing, as the biggest player in the game right now, needs to have clear, specific standards.  If graphic sex featuring minors, incest, and bestiality are not okay, SAY SO.  Those standards will likely have to be revisited from time to time.  Furthermore, the books published through KDP will need to be vetted by human beings.  That means reviewing the tags and metadata associated with each book and, if the content is questionable at all, having someone actually sit down and read it.  When a book is deemed not acceptable, specific reasons why should be given to the author.

–Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other retailers should, if they choose, set clear, specific standards for the books they sell—and then apply those standards to both self-published and traditionally published books.  They then need to do a better job policing their sites.  One of the aspects of this case I find most troubling is that the retailers in question are specifically targeting self-published books.  But the publishing landscape right now is allowing more and more niche publishers to have a presence on the online marketplace—and their content standards are not necessarily known.  Furthermore, just because a book is published by HarperCollins or Penguin Random House doesn’t mean that its content will necessarily be acceptable for a specific retailer.  The advantage that these bigger publishers have—besides money—is that they are well-known companies, and the content standards for each of their imprints are well-known and publicly available.  But that doesn’t mean their books shouldn’t be subjected to the same level of scrutiny.

–Online retails should have an ‘Adult’ filter.  This is pretty self-explanatory.  I kind of feel like this should work similar to the V-chip in television sets: users could enable the filter, or leave it off.  Books with certain tags will automatically be set behind the filter.  I also think that users should have the option to customize the filter.  Maybe I want all Chuck Palahniuk and Henry Miller books filtered from my kids.  I should be able to do that.

–Each book page should have a “Report Abuse” button or something similar.  In other words, if a customer thinks that a book does not adhere to the content guidelines set forth by the retailer, there should be a method by which he/she can report it from the book’s page.  I’m thinking it should be accessible, but not a one-click kind of thing—in other words, some way of trying to ensure people don’t click the “Report Abuse” button just for laughs.  Maybe clicking the button will take you to a form where you will be required to answer certain questions as to why this content is inappropriate.

In conclusion…I read the original Kernal article, and the follow-ups several times, and I’m struck by the fact that a) the writing is incredibly inflammatory, and b) the author seemed to pick the most offensive books he could to make his point.  Not many people WOULDN’T be offended by the books cited in the articles, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he purposely looked for the most egregious examples and used them to provoke exactly the reaction they got.

But in spite of how personally offensive I may find this material, I would still be inclined to recommend less content restriction to Amazon et al, not more—provided that such content is restricted by some kind of filtering/age verification system so that kids won’t accidentally stumble upon or purchase such material—because I can’t help but wonder where this will end otherwise.  Retailers cannot, and should not, cater to everyone’s moral objections, and to try to do so would stifle the freedom of expression necessary to a thriving literary community.