Amazon have removed from their catalogue several self-published ebooks that depict violent acts of rape and incest, and today Kobo Writing Life authors will have received an email from KWL director Mark Lefebvre indicating that Kobo are following suit.
The current offensive is the result of an article on the British technology website The Kernel that found for sale on Amazon pornographic titles such as Naughty Daughter Abducted And Pounded By Daddy’s Cock: Anal Sex And BDSM With My Step Father (taboo daddy daughter erotica) by Shannon Leigh. It cited further titles by Leigh with similarly themed and equally offensive content.
The response, however, has been disproportionate and draconian. The British retailer WH Smith, who link to an automated feed from Kobo, have shut down their website until ALL SELF-PUBLISHED TITLES HAVE BEEN REMOVED, whether pornographic, erotic, or neither.
Other sites, such as B&N, are doing a sweep of their self-published erotica titles looking for offenders, and authors are reporting books suddenly being banned that they insist do not violate anyone’s guidelines.
More importantly, it is only self-published titles being banned, not those from traditional publishing houses. So while I don’t have any issue with the aforementioned titles being removed — they clearly cross the line — banning all self-published titles as WH Smith have done is beyond reactionary; it is prejudicial: these same retailers don’t seem to have a problem with continuing to sell the Fifty Shades of Grey series, which graphically depicts the sexual degradation of its “heroine,” likely because that series has been “legitimized” by its publication by Random House and is making the retailers millions.
The prejudice is obvious: there is an assumption that the process of publication by a traditional publisher naturally vets and rejects offensive material, or that the potentially offensive material it does publish will automatically pass the sniff test of the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court in Miller v. California, which established a three-tiered test to determine what could be considered obscene as opposed to merely erotic:
(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
This assumption is behind The Kernel‘s claim that the authors are able to bypass Amazon’s guidelines forbidding “pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts” merely by “setting up fake publishing houses for themselves, which can be as simple as paying $200 for a set of ISBN prefixes.” The unspoken declaration is that self-publishing suffers from a lack of the natural vetting process, is incapable of policing itself, and must be singled out for attack.
Not be outdone, the BBC then jumped on the bandwagon; and while The Kernel indicates these titles are only found on secure pages not available to minors, the BBC article on The Kernal story claims that the BBC’s own investigators “found that on Amazon’s store, the search function automatically suggested explicit topics to users typing seemingly innocuous keywords – without age verification taking place.” However, the BBC do not reveal which titles came up in the search and whether they were traditionally or self-published; instead, the article merely allows the reader to assume it is the latter.
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might wonder if the traditional publishers were behind the story, but even if true that would be too easy a way out.
The truth is that the explosion of self-publishing has meant a filtering process is essentially non-existent — Amazon’s KDP and Kobo’s KWL simply do not have enough bums in the seats to vet every submission — and the failure of KDP’s system to flag Naughty Daughter Abducted And Pounded By Daddy’s Cock for immediate removal reveals a callous profits-before-common-sense approach. Unfortunately, it is not Amazon that will suffer for their oversight but the self-published authors whose legitimate books are being thrown out with the truly offensive ones. But seeing as that power imbalance is not going to go away any time soon, then perhaps we in the self-publishing community need to step up to the plate — to question our often blind defence of free speech and our failure to speak out against clearly offensive publications such as Naughty Daughter — instead of the just criticizing the fallout. If we want to save our industry before it gets buried by selective censorship, we have to practice our own common sense.