Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware  

If you're a self-published erotica author, you're probably aware of the crazy events of the past few days, including the wholesale deletion of erotica ebooks and the shutdown of entire retail operations. If you're not, here's how things went down.

An expose in The Kernel that found numerous self-published rape and incest porn ebooks for sale at major ebook retailers precipitated a media frenzy in the UK. Amazon and Barnes & Noble began pulling titles from their stores. Other ebook retailers went farther: WH Smith shut down its entire website, and Kobo, which initially just deleted selected titles, suspended the sale of all self-published ebooks on its UK website--a shutdown that has since spread to Australia and New Zealand--in order to inventory its catalog and purge ebooks that violate its content guidelines.

As the story unfolded, authors who don't write erotica saw their titles removed, as did authors whose erotica books don't appear to violate retailers' content guidelines. In response, readers and others have launched a petition asking retailers to "leave our self-published and/or indie authors alone."

Beyond all the other issues raised by this incident--free speech, censorship (though IMO this isn't censorship; these are businesses, which have the right to sell what they choose), where the lines for objectionable content should be drawn, the slippery slope of book banning--there's one that I'm not seeing much discussed: the degree to which the apparently free market of self-publishing is vulnerable to Big Brother control.

I've gotten some shit for my dislike of the term "independent author" (as a substitute for "self-publisher"). I get that it's supposed to denote an author's independence from the traditional publishing establishment--an entrepreneurial new world in which authors aren't subject to restrictive rights grants and can control both the process and the proceeds of publication.

But I think the term also encourages the inaccurate notion that today's DIY self-publishing empowers authors to become fully independent operators, in complete control of their own destinies. As the Great Erotica Panic of 2013 demonstrates, that's not entirely true.

Like it or not, your access to the tools of self-publishing--and, more crucially, to your published books--are controlled by your publishing platform's Terms and Conditions. These typically allow the platform to yank books, close accounts, and enforce content policies at will, often without notification or explanation. When the platforms choose to exercise this power--appropriately or inappropriately--authors often have little recourse. A common theme of such situations is the difficulty of getting removed books restored, or of penetrating the bureaucracy and finding someone who can provide real answers and/or real help.

Fortunately events like this are rare. But if you're going to self-publish, it's absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use (a step that authors often gloss over), so you'll know right from the start the degree to which you're subject to your platform's power to make you disappear. It's also a good reason to avoid exclusivity and publish to as many platforms as possible, so that if one decides to torpedo your account, your books won't completely disappear.

Some have speculated that increased screening and enforcement of content guidelines mark a sea-change for the self-publishing industry and will exert a chilling effect that could end self-publishing as we know it today. I don't think so. This incident should, however, be a reality check for self-publishers who think they're launching their work into a sphere of unlimited freedom. You're only as independent as your publishing platform will let you be.

6 comments to Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013

  • [...] Author-Publishers need a representative body with teeth.  ALLi's Watchdog Advisor, Victoria Strauss, has written of how author-publishing contracts “typically allow the platform to yank books, [...]

  • Great points Victoria, and this controversy raises many concerns. On a side note around terminology, at the Alliance of Independent Authors, we like the confidence that the word “independent” encourages in writers — but we now use the term Author-Publishing instead of “self” or “indie” publishing, as nobody who does this well does it by his-or herself (and “indie”, to our minds, should be preserved for books that have an experimental, beyond the mainstream, content). Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Victoria Strauss

    Janrae,

    I think it is possible. I’ve seen reports and gotten comments elsewhere from non-erotica and non-self-published authors who say ttheir titles have been removed.

  • The operative concept here is “the publishing platform”… because, whatever Amazon, B&N, Kobo and all the other publishing platforms decide to sell or not sell, the fact is that independent authors can always sell whatever they want on their own websites (as I do).

    The major platforms only have as much power as authors and publishers give them. Sure, they are handy central repositories for ebooks, but the public is always free to go to the source for their ebooks, and damn whatever the major publishers say. Independent authors should keep that in mind, and strive for the day when customers come straight to them for their products, instead of through a controlling middleman.

  • If you think the noise on this one was loud, wait till the platforms decide it’s time to charge the authors $10 per upload.

  • How is this likely to affect the micropresses like my own? And my own novels as well? I written of a single case of incest in a murderous family and, far more often, invading armies using rape as a way of both genocide and reducing the will of a kingdom to fight back. Is there a possibility of books like mine getting swept up in the erotica backlash even though they are not labeled as erotica?

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