Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
It all seemed so sweet; anybody can get their book published on Kobo or Amazon without having to endure a zillion rejections from picky publishers, and what’s more they can pocket the lion’s share of the sale. What could be more liberating? But like everything on the net, there is always a dark side. As Amazon and Barnes & Noble scramble to remove titles listed by the technology news site The Kernel, the books and magazine retailer W H Smiths in the UK has shut down their entire website to block access and their notice states they will not be displaying any self-published books when it returns until they can be entirely satisfied with the content. So what are the implications of this sudden turn of events and why has it suddenly arisen?
This is a tough moment for online retailers of content because by removing books from sale they clearly admit that this content is unsuitable or breaks laws. Unlike the agency model pioneered by Apple and shot down by the US Justice department, the sales contract lies between the consumer and the seller and therefore there is a real prospect that retailers have liability, but this is for a lawyer to argue.
Questions will be asked again about what controls existed to prevent these books getting into their catalogue. Designing sites with a freedom to publish comes with a responsibility to design in as many safeguards as possible. However, it is simply not practicable for every self-published text to be read before publication without massively slowing down growth and adding to cost. Events suggest that the balance has gone awry and moreover it may not be so simple to fix.
Age verification is very difficult to police and particularly on large aggregator sites such as Amazon or Kobo with millions of books available in all genres. These identified poisonous writings can turn up in search results made by children and are not secured behind a gated area as they have not been identified by the systems as harmful. This is site architecture and safeguards and not a simple patch, and so it seems that W H Smith saw the only responsible option was to shut down.
No sane person wants to act as a censor to free speech so are we now expecting Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and others to become censors and judge what is acceptable? These are international sites that cross cultural, legal and religious borders where sensitivities are all different. Of course publishers conducted this work before books reached the retailers, but there is no one to do this with self-publishers, and we now see the result.
I wrestled with these issues in 2008 when I launched a free-to-publish, user-generated content site, YUDU Free which today publishes about 800 publications a day that include books, magazines and many other types of publications. All the problems that have emerged today were hot topics of debate during the site design and rule setting. Our goal was to create a family and school friendly site but at the same time allow freedom to publish. Our solution was to set three clear rules that were very prominent at all stages of publishing: No incitement to violence, no adult content and no copyright abuse. We set out the rules and gave folksy guidance on each. For example the adult content states “The content must be suitable for viewing with your friends and family. The content must be suitable for viewing at work with the knowledge of your boss & colleagues. The material used must be suitable for open sale in high street retailers or shopping malls.”
In addition, all published material had a report abuse button on the opening page, and we added a powerful search engine to search the site of over 400,000 books in seconds for an abusive words to conduct proactive searches. Coupled with an immediate quarantine of reported publications, we have piloted this difficult area successfully to date but constant vigilance is essential. Surprisingly, well over 95% of self-publishers follow the rules, so it would be most unfortunate if this new vibrant self-publishing movement suffers at the hands of a few rogue writers. This was a content trap that was will primed and foreseeable and I suspect sadly this is the start of a change in the perilous balance between freedom of expression and lawyer enforced censorship.
Richard Stephenson 14th Oct.