One of my all-time favorite movie scenes is from Doubt.
It seems a little bit of gossip has gone a long way this week toward creating a lot of trouble in the ebook world. Jeremy Duns likes to gossip. That much is apparent from his voluminous Twitter feed. (How he managed to get any books written is beyond me!) He also has a history of attacking other writers. He and Kernel magazine owner Milo Yiannopoulos (self proclaimed gossip who even refers to his ezine as "technology gossip") got into it with someone in the Twitterverse about erotica and all of a sudden, this... "article" (and I use that term loosely) was born. It lambasted Amazon for not doing anything about titles he deemed unacceptable (i.e. those of a sexual nature) on Kindle. But that wasn't enough. He then had to make a list of smutty titles. And then another one. Then he dug a little deeper and started accusing all the major retailers of allowing "filth" on their virtual shelves. (Never mind that he defends sending naked pictures of your ex to other people--but that completely fictional erotic story? That's just wrong!)
Now, I have no idea if Jeremy Duns and Jeremy Wilson are the same person. The byline on the "articles" is Jeremy Wilson - but it was Jeremy Duns who was tweeting his prudish, pedantic heart out on Twitter before the articles appeared. I really don't care if they are the same person, different people or conjoined twins. The result was the same. A little bit of Twitter gossip ballooned into three gossipy (and poorly researched) "articles" in a magazine that boldly claims it is all about gossip. I'm sure these gossip boys got off "researching" their topic--researching it real hard! I think they got so excited about doing it they forgot to include a lot of actual facts.
The Kernel has a history of presenting things in the worst light, twisting facts to suit their sensationalist needs. Want proof? The guy who runs it, Milo Yiannopoulos, doesn't exactly seem to be the most ethical fellow, as this article proves. He even calls himself a gossip and identifies his blog as "technology gossip." If you want some examples of the controversy Mr. Yiannopoulos has invented or stirred up, just check out this wiki page.
DunsWilson pointed out the most shock-and-awe titles in his "article" (and I use that term loosely) in The Kernel, that's when the notoriously extremely conservative UK rag, the Daily Mail, picked up the story. I guess that makes sense - they're all about gossip too right? In a stellar act of journalism (not), they posted titles on their site they clearly did no research on. One of Excessica's titles was listed. It's a little romance story called Dog Gone It by Chelsea Fox. Ms. Fox is a romance writer. She even said herself, "There's hardly any sex in it at all! This is crazy!" Apparently, the Daily Mail posted it simply because it had a dog on the cover, professing to all the world that it was "BESTIALITY!" I can assure you, as the publisher of this book, at no time do any humans have sex with any dogs and portraying this book and the author this was was a serious act of libel.
Then the BBC picked up the story and ran with it. You would think a mainstream news organization wouldn't lower themselves to culling articles from gossip rags. And twenty years ago, that would be true. But today, gossip IS news, unfortunately. So the BBC spread the gossip further.
Once it hit a mainstream news source and they accused the largest bookstore in the UK of carrying erotica titles that they deemed "unacceptable," that's when it got real. (Never mind that most of these titles had been available for a very long time. Years, I would venture to say. At least since WH Smith launched the Kobo reader in their stores back in 2011 and started using the Kobo feed for their ebooks. I know my books have been on Kobo for years.)
What did WH Smith do. They acted like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “What? Who me? I had NO idea! You mean there are COOKIES in this jar? What!? I’m appalled and disgusted! Get that offensive cookie jar away from me! That’s it, we’re banning all cookies from now on! No cookies for anyone!”
Brilliant. Bloody good show, ol chap!
So WH Smith took their bookstore offline. That's right, completely offline. As of this writing, they are still offline. Even I could have told them that wasn't a good idea, and the experts apparently agree with me. But that's what they did. They shut down the presses and put up a statement saying they would be unpublishing ALL self-published books. Not just erotica, folks.
All of them.
All of them.
I wrote a blog post a long time ago called, "Self Published Authors Banned From Kindle," talking about the possibilities of a backlash against self-published authors due to Amazon's (and other distributor's) perceived liabilities in publishing. Most authors said I was being too "Chicken Little" about it. Self-publishing wasn't going anywhere, they said. They were safe, they said.
Hm. Not so much. When David Gaughan's entire Kobo account gets hit, now authors start to listen and perhaps realize that they, too, aren't as safe as they once believed.
Unfortunately, many self-published authors not only thought they were untouchable, but they have acted holier-than-thou whenever the subject of erotica comes up. "Well, it's good that they're taking those books down!" But when suddenly their own books are being threatened? Now, all of a sudden, it's a problem - it's not fair, it's censorship, it's overreacting.
WH Smith obviously confronted Kobo about the material in question, and since Kobo is the one who feeds them their content, the buck now stopped with Kobo. They started by taking all self-published books down from their store. I could almost hear Kobo president, Mark Lefebvre, yelling, "Shut it down! Shut it ALL down!" Do you think they knew these books existed on their site? I know they did--they even created a "taboo" category for it. Kobo knew. So did WH Smith. What's going on now is a bunch of damage control and whitewashing.
The only books of mine that currently appear on Kobo are the ones we uploaded via FTP years ago, before Kobo developed its self-publishing platform, Kobo Writing Life. Then books started re-appearing, slowly, one by one. Obviously, they were doing all of this to appease WH Smith. One vendor, who was up in arms about titles they a) knew perfectly well existed in their online store and b) who only professed to not know now simply because it was convenient and c) only paid attention to them now because someone (The Kernel) had started gossiping, a little doggie with a bone it just couldn't let go. (They got bored and have moved on from erotica now, although they're still targeting Amazon. This time it's holocaust denial books.)
Amazon and Barnes and Noble, not to be outdone and having caught whiff of the stench coming from the other side of the pond, started working on their catalogs too. Barnes and Noble claimed to be working on ridding their virtual shelves of offensive titles. So far I haven't experienced that firsthand, but perhaps they don't have the manpower to put into doing it quickly. Amazon, on the other hand, came down like Thor's hammer and started removing books from their store with lightning speed using all the keywords used in the articles like virgin, teen and yes, babysitter.
That's right, fans--my Amazon Top 100 Bestseller, Babysitting the Baumgartners, was taken down. They couldn't remove the audio version, since Audible is far less reactionary and, in my experience, much more protective of intellectual freedom, so that one is still there. But they removed the CreateSpace paperback version. As of this writing, I have changed the title to "Sitting For The Baumgartners" (Really, Amazon? Really?) and they have restored the Kindle version. But not the print one. If you've read it, you know that there is no underage sex in it - the babysitter in question is nineteen, going on twenty. And while it does explore an alternative lifestyle, there is definitely a story being told, as there is in all my fiction. It's not "porn." It's erotica.
Perhaps, if someone along the way had said, "Whoa, wait a minute - what's really going on here?" instead of jumping to conclusions, shutting down big online book retailers, banning titles left and right or simply hiding entire accounts of books from view, this little witch hunt could have been focused on the "real" problem. Considering how out of hand it has gotten now, I'm surprised they haven't started burning the books (digital or not) and hunting down the authors to burn them too--as witches, of course. When we look back on it, we'll think of the Porn Hunt of 2013.
Most of the titles they referenced in their article aren't even written by real authors.
What? How can that be, you ask? Well, let me explain.
Having heard there was "gold" in them thar hills, many black-hat internet marketers have entered the erotica field. That's right--they go on Fiverr or other sites looking for ghostwriters, have them "write" a story (some of them just pull stories from Literotica or other free story sites instead and hope they don't get caught) slap a girl with big breasts on the cover, title it for SEO keyword search (which is why they have such long, "porny" titles, in case you were wondering) and then "publish" them via Amazon's KDP platform. Or Kobo's Writing Life platform. Do they make money? A ton of it. Why doesn't Amazon or Kobo stop them? Good question. I think they try. When they discover one, they delete the account. But black-hat internet marketers are just above the level of "criminal." What they do isn't technically illegal, but it's ethically wrong. So they have no qualms about creating another account and publishing the same material again.
The Kernel references Shannon Leigh (whose once extensive catalog, you'll note, has been decimated--she has one book left, and the term babysitting has been switched out for a ridiculous, clunky replacement, "teen worker") who is clearly recognizable as a black-hat internet marketer. I knew it at first glance. She'll lay low until this all blows over, and then she'll upload those titles again, trying to get around Amazon's "adult filter" by using phrases like "teen worker" instead of "babysitter." Most of the 'real authors' of erotica and erotic romance don't do what Ms. Leigh did. Most erotica writers have begun heeding my earlier warnings, toning down their titles, covers and blurbs. We all went through the Pornocalypse. We're not stupid and most erotica authors want to play by the rules. We have conformed to Amazon's rule changes over and over and over again.
But none of that mattered to the "journalists" (Bwahahaha! Ahem. Sorry.) at The Kernel. They found a little sensationalist bit of gossip and spread it like wildfire! Did they care who they hurt? No. They just wanted to cause some drama. And they succeeded.
So instead of going after who they should have all along, the retailers overreacted (to say the least) and started going after EVERYONE. Erotica writers who don't have "porny" titles are being lumped in with black-hat internet marketers whose main goal is to game the system by trying to garner the most visibility by using shock and awe tactics. The Kernel was clearly taken in by their efforts. So are many readers, unfortunately. What Mr. Duns and Mr. Yiannopoulos did on Twitter and spread to their "ezine" was nothing but a bit of fear-mongering. Gossip. They didn't check their sources, and neither did The Daily Mail. And the response to the original article was a huge overreaction.
The question now is--how far are they going to go?
They won't touch legacy publishing's books, of course. But I can tell you, a lot of my stuff is tame in comparison to what's being offered (and protected by legacy publishing) out there right now. Tampa by Alissa Nutting is nothing but kiddie porn. It touts itself as a modern day Lolita, but Nutting is no Nabakov, and it comes off as blatant child pornography. Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma contains incest between underage siblings. (Not step siblings, mind you - actual biological siblings). That one's protected by legacy. Self-published erotica writers write things no worse than any of the above, or worse than any of the numerous romance, erotic romance and new adult/college romance titles out there, for that matter, but they are being singled out, simply because they CAN be. Kobo and Amazon aren't removing Fifty Shades or any other erotic books protected by big publishing logos. But their content is quite similar to what's being removed.
I've been through this enough times to know, this too shall pass. Perhaps the black-hat internet marketing folks will finally take the hint and disappear. It was those "authors" (using that term lightly too!) who started the ramped-up title and cover competition. Erotica authors (those who actually took the time to write a good story) who didn't title this way saw themselves slipping in rank and felt forced to complete with "Daddy's Anal Whore." So they started titling using keywords and put out covers showing more and more skin. I warned authors this was going to happen. And so it has.
I've also called Amazon out again and again on how they lack any parental controls. The same goes for all of the other retailers. It isn't there and it should be. That's the only thing the gossip-mongers didn't get wrong, and may be the only good thing to come out of this mess. I won't let my children search anything on Amazon. I know what's out there--and I know Amazon won't protect them from seeing it. The only retailer who does this right is Smashwords. They have a simple parental control switch which is defaulted to "OFF." Those who are offended or who have children using the search can simply switch it to "ON" and keep those titles from appearing.
Would some authors try to get around the parental control by labeling their book as "not adult?" Yes. The black-hat internet marketing folks sure would. But it's certainly better than nothing, like Barnes and Noble and Kobo have done (until now). It's also far better than Amazon's "Adult filter" solution. And it would definitely be more useful. Amazon's current solution simply puts a Band-Aid on the problem. It's like trying to plug the Hoover Dam one tiny hole at a time. They "fixed" my book, Babysitting the Baumgartners, by simply having me remove the "offensive" word from the title. It's still on the cover, but that's okay with them. And it's still the same book inside--titled as Babysitting the Baumgarters at every other retailer.
I think the message here is loud and clear--no one cares what's inside the book. It can be the most raunchy tale of sex and debauchery since the Marquis DeSade started writing, as long as the title, cover and description don't reflect that. Of course, you see the problem. Erotica writers are being asked to deceive readers. We have to pretend our books aren't about sex. If they involve sensitive subject matter that could trigger some readers (pseudoincest, nonconsent etc) we aren't allowed to label them as such. Of course, if one of my books gets into the hands of someone like that, they're going to complain to the retailer--and the retailer is going to simply remove the book, because the customer is always right.
This puts erotica writers in a very bad position. And yes, it's quite unfair. The retailers have put the burden on us, as authors, rather than assuming it themselves. Frankly, they should have anticipated this problem before the first Kindle was ever released. Everyone knows new technology is driven by porn. And it's widely known that erotica pretty much made the Kindle. And even if they didn't anticipate it, they have had more than enough time to come up with a real, workable solution. Unfortunately, until they do, many self-published authors are going to suffer--or live in fear of something like this happening again. So don't shoot the messenger--in this case, erotica writers--put the blame where it should be, on the shoulders of all of the distributors who have done nothing, or next to nothing, up until now.
So what can you do? As a reader, you can:
Write to Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Apple and all the other book retailers, telling them you support intellectual freedom and do not support corporate censorship
"Like" the Facebook page: Banned Erotic Books - we are working hard to keep authors and readers updated when something like this happens
Buy your books at Smashwords, or direct from your favorite erotica author's web site--Excessica has its own and there are many good writers to be found there
I'd just like to point out that erotica writers aren't perverts--at least the ones I know. We write for a living, and what we are writing is fantasy. Words, not actions. This is fiction, folks. It doesn't hurt anyone. And the "but it might make someone DO those horrible things!" argument has been debunked again and again. Books about serial killers don't make people become serial killers. Books about rapists don't make people become rapists. Books about incest (or pseudoincest) don't make people go have sex with family members. In fact, research shows that most people who do read incest erotica don't, in fact, fantasize about actual family members. As for rape--it's also well documented that rape fantasies are common for women (the BDSM community flirts with this and there is a cross-over) and psychologists say that it's completely normal. And, in the end, what we are talking about here is just words. Words, not actions. If you don't like it, don't read it. But telling other people they can't write or read it crosses the line of personal and intellectual freedom.
That's not okay.
And one last thing. There is a reason we look back at the witch hunts in Salem and cluck and shake our heads and wonder how people could have overreacted like that. Gossip is powerful. It's insidious, it's heinous, and the people who participate in it suffer from the need to feel superior to others, to compensate for their overwhelming feelings of inferiority. Gossip is a form of passive-aggressive violence and the people who run or write for rags like the self-proclaimed "tech-gossip" site The Kernel are far more offensive and damaging to humankind than even Ms. Shannon Leigh's over-the-top erotica titles could ever be.