Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware  

If you’re a self-published erotica author, you’re probably aware of the crazy events of the past few days, including the wholesale deletion of erotica ebooks and the shutdown of entire retail operations. If you’re not, here’s how things went down.

An expose in The Kernel that found numerous self-published rape and incest porn ebooks for sale at major ebook retailers precipitated a media frenzy in the UK. Amazon and Barnes & Noble began pulling titles from their stores. Other ebook retailers went farther: WH Smith shut down its entire website, and Kobo, which initially just deleted selected titles, suspended the sale of all self-published ebooks on its UK website–a shutdown that has since spread to Australia and New Zealand–in order to inventory its catalog and purge ebooks that violate its content guidelines.


As the story unfolded, authors who don’t write erotica saw their titles removed, as did authors whose erotica books don’t appear to violate retailers’ content guidelines. In response, readers and others have launched a petition asking retailers to “leave our self-published and/or indie authors alone.”

Beyond all the other issues raised by this incident–free speech, censorship (though IMO this isn’t censorship; these are businesses, which have the right to sell what they choose), where the lines for objectionable content should be drawn, the slippery slope of book banning–there’s one that I’m not seeing much discussed: the degree to which the apparently free market of self-publishing is vulnerable to Big Brother control.

I’ve gotten some shit for my dislike of the term “independent author” (as a substitute for “self-publisher”). I get that it’s supposed to denote an author’s independence from the traditional publishing establishment–an entrepreneurial new world in which authors aren’t subject to restrictive rights grants and can control both the process and the proceeds of publication.

But I think the term also encourages the inaccurate notion that today’s DIY self-publishing empowers authors to become fully independent operators, in complete control of their own destinies. As the Great Erotica Panic of 2013 demonstrates, that’s not entirely true.

Like it or not, your access to the tools of self-publishing–and, more crucially, to your published books–are controlled by your publishing platform’s Terms and Conditions. These 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.

Fortunately events like this are rare. But if you’re going to self-publish, it’s absolutely vital that you read and understand the Terms and Conditions of any platform you decide to use (a step that authors often gloss over), so you’ll know right from the start the degree to which you’re subject to your platform’s power to make you disappear. It’s also a good reason to avoid exclusivity and publish to as many platforms as possible, so that if one decides to torpedo your account, your books won’t completely disappear.

Some have speculated that increased screening and enforcement of content guidelines mark a sea-change for the self-publishing industry and will exert a chilling effect that could end self-publishing as we know it today. I don’t think so. This incident should, however, be a reality check for self-publishers who think they’re launching their work into a sphere of unlimited freedom. You’re only as independent as your publishing platform will let you be.

8 Responses

  1. Jacqueline Driggers

    I think the time has arrived for the sifting of the erotica genre from the porn that has been masquerading as erotica. And yes, I’ve read books in this genre and know that there is a difference.

  2. Christopher McKitterick

    Great points, Ms. Strauss; I didn’t know about this. Yet another example of how self-publishers really aren’t in control of their careers as much as they would like to believe.

    One person’s erotica is another person’s porn. When puritanical types begin complaining to corporations, they get those profit-center managers worrying about loss of sales, and BAM! Whatever the complainers want, they get. People who support things need to be just as noisy as those who oppose things, but unfortunately that’s not how humans operate, so fear seems to win – at least in the short run.

  3. Elizabeth Burton

    I thought I was the only one uncomfortable with the term “indie author.” :-)

    The erotica/erotic romance ebook industry has existed since Ellora’s Cave launched in 1998; my former partner in Zumaya Publications started eXtasy Books in 2003. In that time, I’ve read and edited erotica of many descriptions, and I’ve heard from fellow publishers some of the truly awful stuff that comes into their submissions queues.

    So, I can pretty much guess that some of those authors who were politely rejected for content (because not even specific statements in guidelines that rape, incest and/or bestiality are not wanted prevents some people from sending material containing same on the grounds of “intellectual freedom”) would go on to self-publish. And since they have no respect for submission guidelines, it’s hard to believe they’d care about contract terms, either.

    I applaud those writers who take on the burden of publishing their own work. However, the eagerness with which those companies who offer them the service have embraced anything and everything submitted is bound to lead to abuse. Several of my colleagues have had titles repackaged by some enterprising “author” and set up on Amazon. The infamous 1984 flap several years ago is another case in point.

    I suspect we’ll be going through this again in a year or two. It’s like piracy—you can deal with it, but it’s probably not going to go away anytime soon.

  4. Nobilis Reed

    @Jacqueline

    I refer you to the famous words of Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Potter.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_it_when_I_see_it

    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…

    There have been many, many people over the years, who have set themselves up as arbiters of what should be permitted and what should not. This would not be such a bad thing, if those people could actually agree on a definition that could be applied evenly across the board.

    Unfortunately, for every such definition, there are several classic works (often including the Bible) that would violate that restriction.

    That bathwater has lots of babies in it.

  5. R J Sart

    Defining pornography is impossible, and justice Potter was stating the truth. He knows it when he sees it because the definition of pornography is personal and targeted at what one finds offensive. I know those who believe a chaste kiss on television to be unacceptable porn, while others I have been asked to photograph, particularly couples, celebrate many deviations from what most would consider “normal”; proving, perhaps, that normal is no longer the norm, if it ever was. Most great literature has met someone’s definition of pornography at some time or other, including the scintillating mythical Greek tales and a great deal of factual history. This proves that only those looking for porn will find it.

    For what it’s worth, the market place of literature does not trade in ideas, as we would like to think, but in profits. Erotica is exceedingly profitable, and I would expect Amazon and others to set up sites branded in other names to keep those profits rolling in. As far as self publishing, there are tools to create e-books that you can yourself use on your own computer, and then sell through multiple outlets. Self publishers ought to use those, instead of being beholden to any platform controlled by others.

  6. Pingback: Lessons for independent authors from the Great Erotica Panic of 2013 | bostonwriters