The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and I have been quoted and, yes, even misquoted, about the removal of author-published books from online book retailers in the recent erotica row — on BBC Radio 4's PM, in The Guardian and The Bookseller, among many others. This blog post is to put the record straight about our thoughts on the ongoing Kobo situation and its wider implications.
For those of you who do not publish on Kobo Writing Life (KWL) or who are too busy writing to have noticed: A feature in the UK magazine, The Kernel, on October 11th, which was subsequently found to have misrepresented several author-publishers, formed the basis of a widespread media attack on the erotica genre that quickly spun out of control.
Action was taken across multiple booksellers. Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers removed and continued to remove “offending” books title by title but while the initial focus was on erotica, the reaction spread. In the UK and New Zealand WH Smith and Whitcoulls closed their websites for a time and led Kobo, their ebook distributor, to take down all “self”-published titles, not just erotica.
Here are our thoughts and we are interested in feedback, particularly from members of ALLi, which we will pass on.
1. No warning and poor communication. Approximately ten percent of Kobo’s unit sales come through KWL: most of those writers, the vast majority of whom do not publish in the erotica genre, have had their publishing schedules and livelihoods damaged while they wait for retailers to solve a problem that was not of their making. The authors were not informed that their books were going to be removed and given no timeframe as to when they would be returned to the virtual shelves.
2. Moral Panics Should Not Drive Policy. ALLi has great admiration for Kobo devices, staff, and the KWL platform and is pleased to have Kobo as a Partner Member. Their platform received a high ranking in our Choosing A Self-Publishing Service guide. Somebody over-reacted to media mongering and it’s our guess that it wasn’t Kobo. As the only (to our knowledge) dedicated eReading company that works with local partners around the globe, Kobo were caught between the rock of WH Smith and the hard place they delivered to their authors.
We understand they must work with their retailing partners and that they are working hard to return the books as soon as possible but author-publishers are their partners too and deserve better.
3. Both Author-publishers and Trade-publishers put out Pornography/erotica. However we, as individuals, may feel about such material — and opinions run the gamut on this — a widespread dropping and blocking of all self-published books is an inappropriate response to the challenge of monitoring illegal or undesirable material. If feel you have to tackle this issue by removing an entire category of books from the virtual shelves while you sort out your systems (and we would argue that is not an appropriate reaction, as evidenced by other retailers taking a slower and more measured response), the category should not be self-published books but pornography/erotica across the trade- and author-published spectrum.
4. Much erotica/pornography is not author-published at all but put together by marketeers outsourcing content provision to writers-for-hire in Africa and Asia, to capitalize on a high demand for risqué material. Such marketeers will always game a system, if they can. Those bookstores/publishing platforms that trade in pornography/erotica have a responsibility to ensure they have effective systems to filter such content for illegal material and to protect minors.
5. Filtering is not difficult but requires investment.This illegal porn problem could have been sorted in a measured way, over time, without victimising authors of legal erotica, and authors who do not write in this genre at all. Filtering for porn and any genre/subject/keyword is a technology and systems challenge that is not difficult in these days of advanced metadata and search.
ALLi would like to see online stores carrying as eclectic and inclusive a range of books as possible, with good systems to support their trade, and urges companies that trade in author-published work to set up the necessary systems to support that trade so that something like this never has to happen again.
6. Author-Publishers need multiple outlets. This event emphasises the need for author-publishers to distribute their books widely, across multiple platforms so they are not dependent on any one outlet to reach readers.
7. Author-Publishers need a representative body with muscle. ALLi's Watchdog Advisor, Victoria Strauss, has written of how author-publishing contracts “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.”
ALLi would like to change this and believes the most effective way to do this is for authors to band together into a meaningful force.
Kobo has been in touch with ALLi throughout the controversy and we appreciate the communication and support their efforts to get books back on sale as soon as possible. The most recent information is: “The KWL team has already gone through thousands of publisher/author accounts and restored tens of thousands of titles to the UK – we are continuing on in these efforts. Authors who found themselves caught in the wide net inadvertently can help us by emailing [email protected] so we can ensure they are in the restoration queue.”
Please let us know your thoughts on this and any of the other issues raised in this post. You can leave a comment below or contact ALLi directly HERE. We will convey your ideas/suggestions/feedback to Kobo and other retailers.
Join The Alliance of Independent Authors: Author-publishers who want to support each other and have a voice to campaign on questions of interest to them are invited to join our alliance. Every member makes us stronger.
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I’m with Eliza on this one. I had all the Sandal Press books removed from Kobo UK, including a non-fiction travel book on Poland, with some restaurant recommendations! There is no way that one could even remotely be labelled as “porn” and yet, away it went, together with all my space opera books.
Surely there can be some vetting done on upload? This would seem to be the sanest strategy moving forward. On a related note, if Kobo did not have an adequate filter in place, how is that *our* fault? Secondly, will traditionally-published books uploaded to Kobo also have to be filtered in similar fashion? Surely what’s sauce for the goose….
I was one of the authors that got caught up in Kobo’s knee jerk reaction to remove all self published books from the UK store. When I emailed them, they restored it in a few days. I appreciated that, but not the email that told me it was being removed in the first place. While I accept a need to vet books, why can’t that be done at the time of publishing? Why can a legitimate book be removed so easily without a thought (or discussion) as to how it affects the author?
I hope they learn from this and put in place a better system whereby they can stand over their material for sale.
Kobo’s abrupt removal of all author-published titles, while those published by trade publishers were still allowed to make money for both the publishers and Kobo, just reeks of hypocrisy. I uploaded directly to Kobo Writing Life, rather than go through a third party such as Smashwords. The process took nearly two weeks for the book to be on sale, plenty of time, I would have thought, to check for dubious content. Yet because it was an author-published title, it was yanked from Kobo’s shelves along with all the others. This debacle has underscored to me how important it is not to rely on one source of distribution for our work. Because if it’s happened once, it could so easily happen again.
Hi Maggie, Thank you for your thoughtful response and we certainly don’t want to feed anger but to see this problem rectified and steps put in place to ensure nothing like this can happen again. I think Amazon & B&N are not being criticised in the same way because removing “offending” titles is a very different response to removing all self-published books. The Book Genome project is very interesting and what is good about it is that it removes the need to distinguish between/label titles as porn or erotica, a source of endless debate — its focus is whatever strings of words you choose to search for. Here’s the link for those who may be interested: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/the-literary-darknet-of-independent-publishing/
Do authors have to support other authors who write things that are frankly disgusting? Emotive word I know, but . . . . The root of the problem is the invisibility of e-books, they are not left on the family bookshelf for all the world to see. “Erotic” (hard porn) is 28% of self-published books and if action wasn’t taken, all self-publishing authors would soon be accused of writing porn. So the only thing to be done was to hide all self-published books for a while, especially when the retailers were making a lot of money too – Amazon could be accused of being a pimp. And there is a certain amount of hypocrisy here – many people think prostitutes selling sex are good for society, until the trade arrives on their doorstep.
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Hi Orna: The old cliche: “The Devil is in the details”. Surely applies to this debate… !st: Authors have a Right to write in whatever genre or sub-genre they wish. 2nd: Publishers, Distributors, and sales sources have the Right to reject whatever material they believe is contrary to their set of principles and submission guideleines. The reader-audience will find the sources for the books with stories based upon themes they prefer regardless of this debate. The industry cannot impress a scale of 1 – 10 on the defining of Erotica, soft-porn, hard,porn; where are the standards for each of these terms? Let’s get back to the business of writing and selling books that readers prefer to buy. Are we on a Mission, or are we in business to earn a profit?
Maybe I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that those works were removed not because they contained erotica, but because they contained a type of erotica that violated the established guidelines set by the Kobo, Amazon, et al. If the authors agreed NOT to self-publish stories that glorify rape, incest or child molestation, then the authors who violate those policies are indeed the ones in the wrong.
Hi Devil’s Advocate. No I’m afraid that’s wrong. The vast majority of authors whose books were removed did not write erotica at all. Of course we understand the need to ensure that illegal material would be removed — but books from every genre have been taken down while the problem is being sorted.
I cannot agree/feel uncomfortable with point number 4:
“Much erotica/pornography is not author-published at all but put together by marketeers outsourcing content provision to African and Asian writers-for-hire, to capitalize on what seems like an insatiable demand for risquÃ© material.”
Is there any evidence of this to be true? How do you know that African/Asian writers write risque porn (representing western lifestyles)? I would have thought that most of that stuff is written in the western hemisphere?
Hi Daniela, good point… and i have adjusted the writing to say, more accurately, “writers-for-hire in Africa or Asia”, which was what I actually meant, because of course the attraction of such writers is nothing to do with ethnic background but with having a lower cost-of-living and therefore being cheaper to hire. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, but it isn’t the same as being an author-publisher of your own work. It’s widely known in the erotica community and easy to recognise those titles that have been outsourced, when put beside the books of writers who care about their work and their readers. See this recent article on Indie Reader for more on this: http://indiereader.com/2013/10/banning-books/ And thanks for pointing up your discomfort.