3 Simple Censorship Rules Can Safeguard Self-Published Ebooks

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.

14 thoughts on “3 Simple Censorship Rules Can Safeguard Self-Published Ebooks

  1. Pingback: Publishing Opinions | 3 Simple Censorship Rules Can Safeguard Self-Published Ebooks

  2. Sveinung

    Out of curiosity: how would your site react to the novel “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov if it was published today?

  3. Michael W. Perry

    Keep in mind what a censor is:

    \an official who examines material that is about to be released, such as books, movies, news, and art, and suppresses any parts that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.\

    Amazon, B&N, and your local bookstore can never be censors because they’re not government officials. And despite the silly rhetoric that surrounds annual ‘banned books’ celebrations, libraries, schools, and particularly parents can never be censors. All are simply determining what books are purchased or read. They’re not dictating what’s published.

    Finally, because of what censorship means, it’s impossible to self-censor, despite all fuss around that idea. If I yank a paragraph out of one of my books for whatever reason, I’m not censoring myself, I’m simply making a decision. If I think the government will prosecute me (or more likely in the Obama administration, send the IRS after me), I may be being a coward, but I’m not a censor. And if I leave something out that I know will lead authorities to repress my book in order to include other material that will slip by, I’m simply engaging in careful calculation, giving up A to get away with B.

    Finally, keep in mind what might be called the Weimar Syndrome. It’s displayed by those who think that the way to prevent something like Nazism is to create a society modeled on the ‘anything goes’ climate of Weimar Germany. That’s, of course, bizarre, since it was the too-loose atmosphere of Weimar that led to the regimentation of the Nazis. One extreme creates the other.

    If a democracy doesn’t seem to work, some will be drawn to any form of government that does work. That’s why it’ll be good in online retailers manage to drive the writers of these rape and incest novels into the dark and smell corners where they belong and where we can hope they can shrive and die.

  4. Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Self-Publishing: Episode #1 - The OutRamp

  5. Ian

    Your three rules work for you, and you are to be applauded for declaring them so clearly and policing them consistently. They are right, and they work, for the sort of website you want to run.

    But some of us want to read, and write, adult material, there should be platforms that cater to us. Amazon, Kobo, WH Smith and the rest could set up their own versions of Google’s Safe Search- if you don’t want to see adult stuff in your listings, turn the content restrictions on. Authors or publishers would be required to flag their content as part of the process of uploading it. There would still be some irresponsible types who flouted the rule, but catching and deleting them would be a lot easier, and far less damaging, than the panic inspired mass deletions currently being done.

    Smashwords have an adult flag, and they’re not as big or as rich as Amazon. You’d think the market leader would be able to set something like this up quite easily and quickly.

  6. LS

    I’m not sure of the laws in the UK, but in most of North America none of the adult content in question breaks any laws. It is not illegal to write fiction about rape, or other crime, it’s only illegal to commit the crime. Murder mystery writers would be in a lot of trouble if it was illegal to depict a crime in a work of fiction.

    Preventing books that contain the martial in question from showing up in stores would also be a problem, since at least half of popular fiction sold by major publishing companies also contains similar material. Books like Lolita, the VC Andrews series, and Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty are some of the older examples. Most serial killer novels also have graphic depictions, but nobody ever mentions them.

    Age verification can also be done. Most stores require a credit card to be saved in order to have an account, and you usually have to be 18 to get credit. Why don’t the ebook stores just require you to sign in to your account to search adult titles? The ARe online store works somewhat like that.

  7. Randym Jones

    “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.”

    In the case of Amazon, you are incorrect. Amazon *has been* looking over the ebooks before allowing them to be published to the Kindle store. Books that were too “edgy” would be segregated so that you *had* to be in the Kindle store area of the Amazon website before they would appear; searching for these particular books in the regular search box would not reveal them to you. Back in late 2010, Amazon cracked down on self-published ebooks containing themes of incest, bestiality,pedophilia and forced sex; self-published books with those themes were removed. (However, books with these same themes from “reputable publishers” were not.) The books until recently behind their “adult filter” were ones with themes of pseudo-incest (sex between non-related family members, such as step-fathers), pseudo-bestiality (sex with, say, werewolves), pseudo-pedophilia (sex with teenagers who were nevertheless clearly depicted as “over 18”) and “dubious consent”: in other words, books who skirted those themes but otherwise depicted *legal* acts. This new puritanism has now swept *even those* into the dustbin; it’s no surprise that the literary community is up in arms over this synchronized corporate Bowdlerism and virtual-book burning that seeks to purify the ebook community.

    Amazon certainly hasn’t *helped* the situation by declaring “objectionable content is about what you’d expect”. This weaselly copout puts the power in Amazon’s hands by not enabling authors to know what constitutes “objectionable”; furthermore, it erodes the “community standard” set by the Supreme Court by redefining “the community” as “the corporation”: convenient for them, dis-empowering for everybody else. At least your “censorship” rule clearly lays down a line in the sand and puts the responsibility back on the authors’ shoulders to fit their content to the market. Apple has also been very careful about what it allows on their website; you might have noticed that they are conspicuously absent from the present puritan panic, as they have been strictly monitoring ebook content for some time.

  8. Theresa M. Moore

    Upon reading several articles about this issue, the only thing I can conclude is that this is a new tactic to exclude self-published books of any kind. It constitutes institutional censorship and private discrimination against all self-publishers, including those who publish children’s books and nonfiction about history and science. It seriously damages the culture, and offends me no end that a few titles in the vast pantheon of literature can cause retailers to take down titles which do not violate cultural norms in favor of “censoring” themselves “for the benefit of readers”. The terms of service for these sites specifically state that they do not accept porn or hard core erotica, yet the self-published smut sellers posted the books anyway. Amazon and WH Smith should be ashamed of themselves for not taking them down immediately once they were posted for violation of their own statements. As for me, I had always been concerned with going down the road and had already heavily edited any such scenes from my books, because I wanted to reach the broader universe of readers to begin with. That these purveyors of badly written and prurient literature should prevent me from selling my work on any site is beyond offensive, and calls into question the intent of these retailers when they state that they will not allow self-published books on their sites. Are they book sellers or aren’t they? They had better make up their minds.

  9. Mina

    There needs to be a dedicated site for fans and authors of erotica. Like how Fantagraphics has Eros Comix on a separate site. We should be able to make a living or purchase digital erotica without all the panic and worry of it getting into the wrong hands.

  10. Mina

    Also, go take a look at Amazon.com and search for Housewives at Play. They’ve been selling it for years. Yet, this is the very content they would reject if I were the one submitting/selling it. I’ve asked them about this, and they dodged the question. All I could get was the vague repeat of the ‘objectionable’ material gibberish.

  11. Mel C. Thompson

    The Bible violates every single rule of all content guidelines of Kindle and every major e-publisher. It contains incest, torture, mass murder, incitement to violence, plagiarism, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate speech, supremacist speech. And here’s the total cowardly, craven logic of all e-publishers: We want to make millions of indie writers without bearing any responsibility for protecting the constitutional right of free speech these authors are entitled to. As a result, since there are two billion Christians, a billion Muslims and millions of angry feminists – – the answer is one call from any of them shuts you down, gets your whole account shut down, and you have no recourse, no way to call them; and they’re too ashamed to admit they don’t want to spend a penny defending free speech, but just want to rake in the billions. POD publishers live utterly without principle. Our government should say to all countries: Our people have freedom to write what they will, and that material will be online. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. We will defend our country and our writers, even if their works are repulsive. That literally is what a believe in free speech should say. Amazon should be at the Supreme Court continually, clogging up the whole court system until the judges tire of hearing it and give in, which they always do after a certain number of lawsuits. It would not really be, comparatively, that expensive or legally complex for Congress and Amazon to work together to simply protect our rights, but they won’t. As a result, if your book is a wonderful book that contains one sex scene in it that makes a Feminist or Christian unhappy, your business is closed, period. That’s how stupid and lifeless and soulless and cowardly and craven and greedy and utterly spineless POD is now.



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