Monday 14 October 2013

An Indie Ebook Watershed?

A couple of days ago, UK high-street retailer WH Smith took the unprecedented step of switching off its entire online store and replacing it with a “holding page” explaining the reasons for this action. This was apparently due to customer complaints after a number of ‘inappropriate’ books were retrieved by the website search engine while customers were looking for children’s books.  More information and examples can be found at a variety of online news sites, such as the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Mirror. Even the Guardian is getting in on the act.

For those readers unfamiliar with the store, WH Smith has a branch on most UK high streets and sells books, stationery items and magazines; the bigger stores also sell CDs and gifts. It has a generally wholesome image, promotes Richard & Judy book titles and is considered family-friendly. Not the place you’d expect to find hardcode pornography then – even the lads’ mags are doubtless regulated to the top-shelf where small fingers can’t innocently pick them up with a comic. I say doubtless because in all honestly, I’ve never looked …

So why do they exist in the online store? Because WH Smith – like many other retailers – takes a data feed from Kobo, an ebook retailer that publishes books from anybody and everybody with little or no vetting of the contents. Kobo itself takes data feeds from other ‘ebook aggregators’ – websites that distribute a book to multiple online retail sites on behalf of the author or publisher (and either charge a per-title flat-fee or take a cut of the profit in return for the service). Kobo is slightly different however in that it also allows authors to upload direct to the site.

This isn’t uncommon in the online retailing business. But as the sale of ebooks and ebook readers has taken the market by storm, ebook aggregators and retail sites have never really invested time or money in content-filtering – ensuring that not all books get published, and those that do are regulated and tagged appropriately to ensure that they do not fall into the wrong hands. Many of the books that have caused this furore have apparently violated the t&c of the sites in question and may even been illegal. WH Smith is potentially liable for prosecution - hence the reaction to pull the entire website.

And with the explosion in ebook sales comes the realisation that anything can be published. By anybody. Whether there is a market for it or not. Since Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s been a race to the bottom, even from the big publishers to produce ever more explicit erotica. Who can blame the independent authors for wanting a slice of a very lucrative pie? But with no gatekeepers, no content-filtering and little quality control from the online publishing/retail sites that Amazon’s KDP, Kobo Writing Life, Smashwords etc, there is nobody to police the increasingly smelly cess-pit of internet pornography. And some of the stuff out there is horrific. Just the other night I glanced through some new titles available via Smashwords. One in particular stood out with tags that would make your eyes water, a blurb that was offensive in the extreme and certainly not something any self-respecting author would want to be connected with. Does nobody at Smashwords even take a cursory glance at the titles uploaded?

Rape-fantasy and incest are not topics I would personally want to read about. I don’t believe in censorship, but if authors cannot or will not self-police or self-regulate, do we really have a choice? There is a world of difference between pornography written for titillation and memoirs about child-abuse. Or a textbook on healing or psychology, or the description of a rape in a crime novel. Do we deny victims of abuse a voice? It’s the glorification of it that is the issue – therefore simply searching for keywords or titles will never been a means of identifying books which should maybe be in a category all of their own, and invisible to store search engines unless explicitly invoked. But then who is to say that Fifty Shades or even titles like Lolita should be banned? Even Lady Chatterley's
Lover was considered indecent in its time. 

So what will happen now? I sense a watershed moment for ebooks. WH Smith has said it will remove 'all self-published books' before it re-opens its site. So that will leave Fifty Shades and other ‘legitimate’ erotica titles, and readers will lose the ability to buy some amazingly good books of all genres from writers who for a variety of reasons do not always publish with a publishing company. Kobo has already deactivated possibly all titles it considers to be self-published, regardless of genre or content - none of my titles are currently available to buy. Other ebook sites like Barnes & Noble, Apple and Sony are doubtless considering their own actions. Even the mighty Amazon has pulled several books recently. And how do you define self-published anyway? Anybody can set themselves up as a publisher. Anybody can buy ISBNs. We are in danger of throwing out the entire bathroom as well as the baby with the bathwater.

For the record, I think that WH Smith has made the right move in the short term. It remains to be seen how the company will deal with this crisis in the medium-to-long-term and how companies like Kobo react. Now you may say that children should not be surfing the net unsupervised and I agree with that. But even with supervision, do you really want your five-year-old seeing book covers and blurbs that are at best distasteful and at worst illegal? And imagine the online revenue that WH Smith is losing by pulling the entire online store while they work out what to do next. That shows you just how seriously they are taking these allegations and their concerns may not be unfounded if some of the offending titles are found to be illegally obscene and not just morally obscene.

Maybe sites like Amazon and Smashwords should be charging independent authors to upload a book for sale? Perhaps that would generate sufficient revenue to employ staff to vet books offered for publication. At the very least the retail sites should be employing better filters on their search engines. It's not rocket science these days.

I predict that October 2013 will be a turning point in self-publishing and ebook retailing and I hope we go forwards in the right direction.


SM Johnson said...

Very eloquent, well-thought-out post, Debbie. I will say, in Smashwords' defense, their search feature offers an adult filter, and it seems to work fairly well.

One of my books was pulled from Amazon this weekend. Your post will have me booking over to Kobo to see what's going on there. This frustrates me and makes me angry because Amazon's content guidelines are vague and allow them to drop books arbitrarily. My book, for instance, is no more explicit than Fifty Shades of Gray, nor does it contain content any more questionable. The only difference I see is my book has gay characters and Fifty Shades has heterosexual characters. The pull of my book, then, feels homophobic and discriminatory.

The distinction between erotica and pornography, in my mind, at least, has always been written materiel versus visual materiel. Yes, there are offensive books out there, but there always have been, one way or another.

Chris Longmuir said...

As I recall Smashwords did try to put into effect a policy to remove books containing pornographic themes and material about a year ago. It caused a violent backlash and I'm not sure what decision was finally made. I have a feeling they may have backtracked. While I agree that it is appropriate that pornographic books should be removed from sale, I do not agree with the wholesale removal of all indie books from the Kobo ebook store. And I think Kobo and W H Smith should bear in mind that writers are also avid readers, and if we all throw our Kobo ereaders in the bin it may have some effect on their sales and profits.

Giles English said...

I wonder whether we are being targeted by people with a pro-censorship agenda?

Debbie Bennett said...

Possibly, Giles. That'd be a whole new game though, given the amount of pornography you can find online in a variety of media. As I said, I don't agree with censorship but I do agree with the need to find a way to avoid displaying x-rated material next to bedtime stories - I have no answers! I do remember reading a fascinating blog post or article online a while back talking about the impossibility of online censorship, given the billions of webpages available - and that doesn't even include the deep web stuff.

Giles English said...

An alternative is that Amazon want to be able to say that they have a program for reviewing and removing offensive material and that we are victims of a quota.

Debbie Bennett said...

A scary thought. It does worry me as I write dark stuff that may well trigger on keyword searches, but I don't write erotica (nothing wrong with appropriately-labelled erotica) and I certainly don't write nasty stuff for titillation. My dark scenes are there to be true to my characters in the context of crime - nothing more.

Debbie Bennett said...

My titles a now listed on kobo again and are available to buy. Not WH Smith yet, though. Interesting developments...