by Michelle Fox
It’s been a wild ride in indie publishing the last few days. A media attack on erotica quickly spun out of control, shutting down book stores and wiping some indie authors off the face of the internet. Below, we recount the sequence of events wreaking havoc across the publishing industry.
How the Book Banning Started
On Wednesday October 9th, an article in UK ‘news publication’ Kernel Mag triggered a widespread banning and blocking of self-pubbed books. Action was taken across multiple booksellers, and, while the initial focus was on erotica, the problem soon spread to other genres.
Authors quickly discovered that the Kernel Mag piece misrepresented several individual authors, as well as the erotica genre as a whole. However, it was too late to stop other media outlets from spreading the misinformation, which caused Amazon, Kobo and WH Smith (who carries Kobo’s catalog of books) to react without a full understanding of the situation.
Internet Marketers Use Erotica as a Cash Machine
The first flaw in Kernel Mag’s anti-porn campaign? The article portrayed the problem as (mostly self-pubbed) erotica and then featured books published primarily by internet marketers, not authors. Authors can easily spot these ‘marketeers’ because they study the erotica book listings in the course of their market research, an expertise that no media outlet has developed.
Internet marketers routinely outsource story production to third world countries and are known to publish hundreds of stories at a time. The quality is low, the covers are in-your-face graphic and the titles are keyword stuffed to the point that even Google gags on all the search terms. It’s not an issue of genre, but a business model used by some marketers to extract profit with no concern for quality.
This isn’t the first time internet marketers have caused problems for booksellers and indie authors. Before they hit erotica, they slammed the non-fiction category. In 2011, Amazon struck back by deleting the mass produced non-fiction. Now that erotica is under attack, the profiteers will either move on to another genre or become more savvy about how to stay under the radar.
Media Accuses Legitimate Authors of Illegal ‘Fiction’
Other indie books originally targeted by Kernel Mag, ones written by actual authors, were wrongfully accused of bestiality and rape. Two examples:
Dog Gone It by Chelsea Fox was singled out because of a dog on the book cover, not because ‘journalists’ read the content to verify their assumptions. When asked for a quote, Miss Fox said, “This is crazy. There is barely any sex at all in Dog Gone It. It’s amazing how they’re trying to destroy and control what we read or write. Pretty scary if you ask me.”
One of Tawny Black’s books was cited as “rape porn” by Kernel Mag. Miss Black spoke with Indiereader exclusively, and said of the situation, “Imagine my surprise, as the woman in the story is of legal age and participated in consensual relations with three men she is not related to in any way. To single out this story was not only irresponsible journalism, it amounts to libel since it is in no way “rape porn”.”
Clearly, the Kernel did not fact check the titles they publicly defamed, but that did not prevent Amazon from banning all the books in question. Apparently, Amazon doesn’t fact check either.
Amazon Ramps Up Book Banning, Authors Scramble to Respond
Amazon didn’t stop with the Kernel Mag’s list of books, either. They went on to ban other indie books, almost without logic. One author’s book was banned because the cover was deemed offensive. Where did they get the cover? From Amazon.com’s own graphic design program, which is made available to authors free of charge and consists of images that Amazon selects and supplies.
Multiple self-pubbed authors had books blocked because of the word ‘virgin’ in the blurb or title. Books that were unblocked on appeal were immediately blocked again. Covers featuring only faces were deemed to be offensive and blocked. Fully clothed people on covers, alone, not touching anyone, were blocked. Author Alexx Andria resorted to creating ‘brown paper wrapping’ covers for her books, which were eventually reinstated.
Other Booksellers Shut Down, Books Removed in All Genres
UK news outlet BBC then picked up Kernel Mag’s rallying cry. They called out Amazon’s failure to filter content as well as examined some of the potential legal ramifications of not properly shielding the public from erotica. British law is such that Amazon’s lack of an adult filter may cause them legal problems in the future.
By Sunday October 13th, bookseller WH Smith, also in the UK, shut down their website, leaving up a notice that they would return once all “self-published” books had been removed from their site. This action was criticized by econsultancy.com, which took WH Smith to task for not anticipating the problem. Adult Filters and search engine coding can eliminate any shock factor of books available for sale. However, to date, the only online book retailer in the world with a functioning adult filter is Smashwords.com.
The chain reaction continued to Kobo, who supplies WH Smith with ebooks. On Monday morning (October 14th) Kobo began wiping indie published books off their website. Not just erotica, but all indie ebooks, including David Gaughan, who is well known for his how-to guides Let’s Get Visible and Let’s Get Digital.
The UK Legal Climate Facilitates Book Banning
It’s important to note that this latest round of self-pubbed book banning (there have been two previous large scale attempts to control fiction in the past three years) stems from the United Kingdom, which has some very controversial anti-porn and criminal laws up for vote. Police now have expanded powers to arrest anyone suspected of the potential of being a sex offender–no crime necessary.
The government also plans to block access to what they deem pornographic material from ever reaching individual internet connections. Essentially, the UK’s current paranoia about the evils of sex is traveling across the pond and forcing US and Canadian companies to conform to their agenda without any due process.
Some Books Remain Despite Questionable Content
Meanwhile, traditionally published fiction continues to be freely available without constraint or criticism. Consider these books:
Fifty Shades of Grey, which has titillated audiences worldwide with the submission of the virginal Anastasia to the dominant Christian Grey.
Tampa, a novel that covers, in explicit detail, sexual relations between a teacher and their minor student.
Flowers in the Attic, the incest classic, which was recently re-launched and categorized as Romance on Amazon.com.
Lolita which celebrates an older man’s sexual interest in a young girl.
The Virgin Suicides also flourishes across bookseller platforms despite using the word “virgin”, the same word that causes indie authors to have books blocked and removed from sale.
The intent is not to cause any bookseller to ban the books listed above, but rather to illustrate the double standard and hypocrisy at play when it comes to indies. While it’s easy to say graphic covers and salacious descriptions or titles should be banned, it’s impossible to explain why books such as Chelsea Fox’s Dog Gone It are run off bookseller sites. There is no incest, taboo, or in-your-face erotic content. Also, when did the word virgin and the topics of incest and BDSM become the sole provenance of traditional publishing?
Further, Amazon.com still sells a wide variety of sex toys with no inhibitions. It seems, the only thing they won’t sell are books that the media–particularly British media–tells them not to.
Where Things Stand Now
Kobo sent an email out to indie authors on Monday night explaining they were quarantining and going through content on their website. They stated, “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.”
Some authors report their books have been reinstated, but many are still unable to find their work for sale on Kobo. The “I Read Fantasy” Facebook page tracked fantasy authors whose accounts were suspended most of the day Monday and urged readers to contact Kobo to encourage them to reinstate those accounts.
WH Smith’s website remains closed for business with no information as to when they may reopen.
Amazon continues to erratically ban self-pubbed books, put them back up for sale only to ban them again, and generally act without any coherence.
By late Monday afternoon, Change.org had a petition up urging Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Kobo to stop removing erotica. Over 7000 readers signed within hours.
Selena Kitt, owner of Excessica Publishing (which published Miss Fox’s book), and renowned erotica writer with over a million books sold said, “I’d just like to point out that erotica writers aren’t perverts. What we are writing is fantasy. Words, not actions. This is fiction, folks. It doesn’t hurt anyone. And the “but it might make someone DO those horrible things!” argument has been debunked again and again.
Books about serial killers don’t make people become serial killers. Books about rapists don’t make people become rapists. Books about incest (or pseudo-incest) don’t make people go have sex with family members. In fact, research shows that most people who do read incest erotica don’t, in fact, fantasize about actual family members. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. But telling other people they can’t write or read it crosses the line of personal and intellectual freedom. And that’s not okay.”
This is a fast moving story, with news breaking almost hourly, and this article represents what we know as of 7pm EST on October 14th 2013.
Important Note: Kernel Mag has changed the books on their site and their website no longer reflects the content published on 10/9/13. Some of the books originally targeted are still showing on the Daily Mail site.
A former preacher’s kid (which is code for ‘wild child’) Michelle Fox enjoys exploring the erotic in her fiction. Fantasy also carries a special place in her heart and she likes to blend the best of both genres in her work.
Most of Fox’s books have been Top 100 bestsellers in the erotica, romance and fantasy categories and she was once #1 in Germany (right up there with David Hasslehoff–it’s like six degrees of Baywatch). Readers can find her on Facebook.