The Great Purge of 2013

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.

Warm regards,

****** ********

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.


Mark Lefebvre

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 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 protected] 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.

Sincerely yours,
Michael Tamblyn
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…


Let’s ignore the Royal bloody Baby for just a moment

Disclaimer: I know I am breaking my own rule of not getting vocal about politics, but hey, I couldn’t help myself. It is also about politics in the UK. I promise I won’t feel bad if everyone ignores my little rant below…

Since yesterday I’ve been having a hard time keeping quiet. In between all the excitement about a baby being born which in no way affects any of us really, David Cameron made a confusing announcement which was covered by my radio station of choice in just one sentence: “David Cameron plans to block internet porn by means of an ‘opt-in’ system” or thereabouts. On my drive to and from work, I only half listen to the news bulletin usually, but this made me wake up; hang on, he’s doing what, now? This deserves further research…

In short, as far as I could gather, David Cameron is trying to save our children from being corrupted by the great evils of internet pornography. Oh and to make him look like a total hero, let’s toss around the terms rapists, paedophiles and child porn a few times so everyone will automatically agree with his plans. In fact this proposed measure is not (just) about blocking access to child porn or videos of abuse. He wants the entire internet to by default be the happy, fluffy, child-safe zone it has never been. But only with regards to sex. Violence and hate mongering is still fine even for children to see, apparently. He is conveniently failing to mention the occasional decapitation video which is probably quite a bit more traumatising to children than your average cumshot.

While I guess most people might agree that children should not accidentally be able to stumble across (child) porn, his plans of making ISPs implement a filter which is meant to block access to anything and everything adult in nature is ridiculous. Not only has he gone around calling his wonderful idea an “opt-in” system which if you don’t pay attention sounds great. Only if you listen carefully do you realise that you don’t “opt in” for the filter, you get the filter by default. You need to “opt in” to porn. Great. So you will need to contact your ISP, tell them you’re a pervert who likes to look at adult material, and ask for the filter to be turned off.

Dave, you cunt, that’s called opting OUT, not in!

Also, I like to think I’ve seen my fair share of the internet, starting from when I was young, impressionable and still in school. I can’t recall often finding myself in the situation where I’m looking for say a recipe or a book review, and accidentally encountering a video of someone getting it up the ass. If I want to see that sort of thing, I have to specifically search for it.

The first thing that crossed my mind was: wonderful, so every ISP will have a neat little record of all the deviants who asked for the filter to be turned off. How handy, since more than likely any potential rapists or child molesters are likely to be amongst those who would like their porn back, so those can perhaps more easily be monitored. The second thing I thought was, but filters don’t work, do they? As clever as technology has become, even Google can’t figure out how to eliminate false positives and adult content with seemingly innocent descriptions being misclassified by child safe filters. What hope do the mere humans at the ISPs have? (On a side note, would you like to see a wonderful example of filtering gone wrong in action? Open up Tumblr on your mobile and try searching for “gay” or “bisexual”. Yep. No results. Just why they would assume that all gay and bisexual content is unacceptable/pornographic in nature is beyond me.) Also, does anyone think it would take the average horny teenager more than 5 seconds to bypass the filter? I think not.

Of course mentioning the phrase “child porn” is getting especially Daily Mail readers very excitable. Why and how can anyone oppose such a thing when child porn is so very obviously evil? Listen up, dickheads, child porn is already illegal to watch, possess and distribute.

We do NOT need any more laws to ban it!

And remember when we hear those stories, of those shitty totalitarian regimes we’re so pleased we don’t have to live in, banning random things they don’t like online? How the internet in China for example only gives you the squeaky clean version of how Tibet isn’t actually Tibet but has always been part of China and the locals just love it that way? Remember how we feel relieved that we in fact have a free, uncensored internet which doesn’t just represent the assholes who happen to be in charge of the country?

Yeah. Not for long. The slippery slope argument gets dragged out for a lot of things nowadays, but is it really so far fetched to think that what our wonderful government stands for today might change a few elections from now? What if they’d like to filter out a little bit more then?

This whole situation is a big clusterfuck, and I’m not even going into the fact that while Cameron has been out congratulating himself for being our moral protector, his government is responsible for cuts to organisations which support victims of abuse.

Fucking Tories. Screw this, I’m going home.