Censorship. Remind you of anything? When I hear the word censorship, my mind conjures up images of China, who still insist that Tibet never existed as a separate entity from China. In the (non totalitarian, democratic) West, we tend to think that censorship does not affect us. Sadly, it does, and it’s not necessarily governments wielding all the power either.
Last week, it was pointed out that there are some particularly seedy books out there being sold on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, among others. We’re talking rape porn, (pseudo)incest and other such things which any reasonable person might consider to be going a bit far.
I’m not saying that this makes removing such material acceptable, but OK. These themes go beyond than what you’d expect to see in the average Harlequin romance. It was said that these (self published) books are polluting what (“Oh think of the children!”) one might come across even when searching for fairly innocuous terms on Amazon. I think that is a fair observation, and one which probably everyone who buys or publishes ebooks, especially in the romance / erotica categories had already made for themselves.
But apparently, all this was news to the UK bookshop WHSmith, who had a panic attack and shut down their entire ebook website, leaving up a disclaimer proudly explaining they would root out the evil that is self published books and return only once their catalogue would be squeaky clean and innocent. Note that they didn’t say they would remove all these unacceptable books which technically already weren’t allowed as per the terms of their partner, Kobo, which feeds ebooks to the WHSmith website.
They state they would remove self published books, because clearly, all self published books are vile pornography.
Meanwhile, Amazon and Barnes & Noble haven’t been standing by idle. They also have started to do a bit of knee jerking and grandstanding to demonstrate how awesome they are when it comes to protecting their sometimes younger customers (although why the hell would you have younger customers when it’s necessary to own a credit card before being able to purchase books?) from inappropriate content. I have yet to hear about traditionally published, sometimes classic works of literature being censored for containing some of the themes which are off limits. Apparently all these things are perfectly alright when it comes to “proper” books. But self publishers are fair game, because self publishers do not have the might of a large publishing house’s legal team behind them.
But you might say, fair enough. We don’t want to live in a world where one can buy rape porn for Kindle! OK, fine. This was anyway already against the rules and authors publishing such things knew they were on thin ice. The trouble is that nobody has the manpower to go in and actually check what they’re removing. Instead Amazon et al are relying on automated software going through book listings and deleting things based on unknown parameters. I’ve heard of loads of books being removed which contained nothing unacceptable.
Last time I checked, erotica in itself wasn’t considered wrong, was it?
While personally none of my stuff has been removed from Amazon or B&N (yet), the same cannot be said for Kobo. All my books, except for Just Another Day at the Office (the full novel version) have become unavailable on Kobo. For anyone who’s read my work, you already know that I’m not even that hardcore. Not even controversial. That’s not all though, there are reports online from numerous self published authors who have seen their work in other genres disappear; fantasy, sci fi, mystery, anything really. Things that don’t even mention the word “sex”.
(Understandably), this pissed me off, so I decided to email them to express my concerns. Since I don’t believe in writing anything in an email to a faceless customer service department what I wouldn’t say to someone’s face, I’m publishing my email below for everyone’s benefit. When (if!) I get a response, I’ll share it here as well.
Kobo, you disappoint us. We expected to be stabbed in the back by Amazon who continue to change their rules without bothering to tell their authors. We did not expect this from Kobo who had consistently presented itself as an ebook retailer who actually cares about authors. Well done.
After a weekend away from the PC I woke up to some controversy surrounding censorship of certain particularly taboo Erotica books, especially self published ones. This led me to check my listings on Kobo and I found to my surprise I found that a significant proportion of them have vanished, even though they’re still showing as live in the back end. The point is, I do NOT write about any unacceptable types of sex or relationships; it’s mostly steamy romance between ordinary people, not step-siblings or anything else weird. There’s not a horse in sight either and nobody is doing their teenage babysitter. The best part is, one of the books you seem to have censored does not even contain any actual sex.
I’d appreciate an explanation and expect to see my books back on sale shortly after you realise that this was all just a big mistake.
15 October 2013, 6:39am BST
I woke up this morning to an email from Kobo’s Mark Lefebre (Director of Self Publishing / Author Relations which I presume everyone who uses Kobo’s WritingLife platform should have received as well. While it smells of shooting first and asking questions later, at least they are now trying to explain themselves and what they’ve done.
To our Kobo Writing Life and self-publishing partners:
As you may be aware, there has been a significant amount of negative media attention in the UK regarding offensive material that became available across a number of eBook platforms. Kobo was included in the reports from media and we are taking immediate action to resolve an issue that is the direct result of a select few authors and publishers violating Kobo’s content policies.
In order to address the situation Kobo is taking the following steps:
1. We are removing titles in question from the Kobo platform.
2. We are quarantining and reviewing titles to ensure that compliance to our policies is met by all authors and publishers. We will ensure that content meeting the policy is made available online as soon as possible.
3. We are reviewing our policies and procedures to implement safeguards that will ensure this situation does not happen in the future.
We are working hard to get back to business as usual, as quickly as possible. We appreciate your patience and understanding in this matter.
Our goal at Kobo is not to censor material; we support freedom of expression. Further, we want to protect the reputation of self-publishing as a whole. You have our promise that we will do all we can to ensure the exceptions that have caused this current situation will not have a lasting effect on what is an exciting new channel that connects Readers to a wealth of books.
Director, Kobo Writing Life
Mark, if you had no idea before about the sort of material which “a select few authors and publishers” have been publishing on your platform, and it takes a news article to act on it, you’re quite naive indeed. Meanwhile, all my books, except one are still offline.
25 October 2013
I’ve received an email from Kobo, with further information about what’s going on and the promising underlying tone that everything is either sorted or getting close to being sorted.
A Kobo Writing Life Update
I’d like to give our authors a quick update on Kobo Writing Life in the UK and elsewhere.
As you may be aware, in the face of some fairly intense media scrutiny, we launched a major review of the books we offer for sale to make sure they comply with our content policy on offensive material. We cast a wide net across our catalogue that included genres and books coming from self-published authors, aggregators, and publishers, and we quarantined many of these while we conducted the review which made them unavailable in the UK during that time. The review had to happen fast, and we didn’t enjoy it, but with our esteemed 300-year-old retail partner on the front page of major newspapers and some content clearly in violation of our posted standards, we needed to move quickly. Almost everyone on the Kobo Content Team, spread across a dozen countries and time zones, was involved at one point or another. The urgency was driven by our desire to make sure we were running a store that met our own expectations and equally by the need to get our authors back up and available for sale again in the UK as fast as possible.
The good news is that the vast majority of self-published Kobo Writing Life titles are once again available on Kobo.com in the UK, with most authors experiencing a gap of only a few days before their books were once again in the catalogue. As well, we have been working closely with our self-publishing aggregation partners. Most of their titles are once again available in the UK or will be in the coming hours. If your book is still unavailable and you think it shouldn’t be, send a message to email@example.com and the team will get on it.
For those few titles that remain unavailable, some feel that we chose a path of censorship. All I can say is that if your dream is to publish “barely legal” erotica or exploitative rape fantasies, distribution is probably going to be a struggle for you. We aren’t saying you can’t write them. But we don’t feel compelled to sell them. And yes, many titles live in a grey zone with far more shades than the fifty that sold so well in the past year, but that is what makes this all so challenging and so interesting. Many of our readers have no problem with an erotic title in their library next to their romance, literary fiction, investing or high-energy physics books. And we are here for the readers, so erotica stays, a small but interesting part of a multi-million-title catalogue, in all of its grey-shaded glory. My thanks go out to Mark Lefebvre and the whole Kobo Writing Life team and to all of our authors who have been so supportive and understanding in the past two weeks. We will continue to work on reviewing processes and author education about what we can take and what we can’t. It will never be perfect, but our belief continues to be that if we focus on readers and growing our business around them, we will get it right much more often than not.
Chief Content Officer
Perhaps mine aren’t a big priority, but they were offline at the time I received that email. And today, on October 29 while I’m updating this blog post, that situation hasn’t changed. Time to send them a little email…