I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the news. A small shitstorm started in the UK about ‘obscene’ ebooks depicting underage sex, bestiality, (pseudo) incest and rape fantasies has grown in the last few days to an all-out war on indie books. Some genius apparently went to WH Smith’s online store (powered by Kobo) and typed in “daddy”. You can imagine the results.
In the last two or three days major retailers have responded with almost unprecedented enthusiasm. WH Smith shut down their entire ebook store; Kobo have pulled all self-published titles pending a review of each one, and Amazon have also started taking down books, sending authors cryptic non-compliance notices and allegedly removing copies of those titles from the Kindles of customers who have legitimately paid for them. If you click on the Kobo links for my own titles right now, you’ll find them ‘Not Currently Available’.
I’m not getting into the conspiracy theories here (of which I have heard several, some more compelling than others), nor even a rant about censorship. Honestly, I’m bored. Bored of dealing with this issue and bored of fighting this same fight over and over.
No, I don’t write any of the stuff that the newspapers were screaming about. No, I don’t read it either. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it deserves to be published. Erotica is, by its very definition, a highly individual and specialised niche. What turns me on could turn you right off, and vice versa. That’s part of the wonder of being human. Moreover, this is fantasy we’re talking about here.
The fact is, erotica is hugely popular. Ordinary men and women from all backgrounds have invented pen names and got scribbling, and an awful lot of them are (or were) paying the bills through erotic stories. Sex is a source of endless fascination to us all; it’s the most repetitive plot that never gets boring.
Others have (or will) write long and involved essays on the absurdity of this slippery slope into censorship. Go read them, they’ll be worth it. I’m not going to do that, because I feel I’ve done it so many times before that I’ve nothing much that’s new to say on the matter. Fantasy is not reality; censorship is never positive. That’s the crux of my argument. Rather, I’d like to point out a couple of facts that so far seem to have been overlooked by the raging right as they took up this story.
Firstly, numbers. According to Bowker, in 2011 there were just over 148,000 new self-published titles released, across all genres. In 2012, that rose to over 391,000 books. That’s over half a million titles in two years, and that only accounts for those books which have been issued with an ISBN. There is no such requirement for ebooks on Amazon, for example, meaning the actual number of books published is sure to be considerably higher. Those books are published on a number of platforms, of which the biggest are Amazon, iTunes, Barnes&Noble, and Kobo. Most of those half-million books will, undoubtedly, be available through Kobo and therefore through WH Smith. Of those half a million plus, how many do you think the media found that they could deem ‘objectionable’? Sixty four.
And you can bet your ass that creepy journalists were all over that library like a rash, each trying to find a title worse than the last. On Amazon they found 73; on B&N, 30; and on Waterstone’s, 5 (although there’s some debate about whether or not all those titles were actually available as the website ties in with Nielson’s catalogue, which lists all books with an ISBN and not all of them are stocked or supplied by the distributor).
Further, I’ve got a problem with the alleged accessibility of these books. Much was made of the ‘daddy’ style fiction and its similarity in title to children’s books. Major newspapers are claiming all a child has to do is type ‘daddy’ into WH Smith’s search engine to find adult material and yes, that’s undeniably a fact. WH Smith should have a separate adult and general store, as Amazon and Kobo both do. It’s not such a difficult thing to manage. But let’s go back and walk through the steps logically. Firstly, the sweet, innocent, about-to-be-irreparably-and-tragically-damaged child must be able to read, not only to navigate the internet but also to be accessing, consuming (and therefore being harmed by) ebooks. We’ve got to assume that the child has bypassed Google and bigger retailers such as Amazon, got onto the computer (unsupervised, one assumes) accessed the internet, directed the browser to WH Smith’s page, gone to the ebook section, and decided that what he wants to read right at that moment is some heartwarming story about a father and son bonding in the traditional fashion.
Is anyone else seeing a disconnect here? A child old enough to manage that whole process without adult supervision is not going to call his father ‘daddy’, and even if he did, he’s not going to be searching for ‘daddy’ stories. He’s more likely looking for the next Harry Potter or Mortal Instruments style flight of fantasy. A child too young to manage this is likely equally incapable of comprehending what he is seeing if by some strange miracle he does manage to land on that page. And all this is assuming, of course, that he hasn’t simply typed ‘daddy’ into Google, and lord knows what he’d find if he did that without the adult filter being activated. Certainly material far more extreme than the cover of even the most depraved book.
Then there’s the double-standard. Only self-published titles are getting pulled, for a start. Nothing has been said of any of the myriad titles published by traditional houses that deal with themes of underage sex, bestiality, rape and the like – usually in terms far more explicit than even these ebooks contain which usually, contrary to the impression given by the blurb, do contain characters who are of age, not blood related, etc. This hypocrisy becomes even more evident, however, when we consider that anyone can set themselves up as a publisher (rather than an independent author) for less than £150. My favourite comment so far on the matter has been from the genius calling for the banning of the Bible, as it contains all the material these publications believe should be suppressed.
There’s another form of hypocrisy at work as well in that it is only portrayals of sex we have these periodic mini-meltdowns over. What does it say about our society that we don’t even pause at depictions (in film; in books; on the news) of the most extreme and graphic violence, but we freak out about sex? I recently
devoured watched the Spartacus TV series (I’m years behind the herd, I know) and I saw men and women being killed every which way. It was truly gruesome. Yet what I recall from the media write-ups at the time, from the blurb and box content, and from most discussion surrounding the series is the fascination with the sex contained therein. Yes, it’s as raunchy as it is brutal but somehow we are blinkered when it comes to gore and violence. We truly do live in a broken society when death is a commonplace and sex is shocking.
I’m not saying fiction should be any less violent, but why can’t we at least temper our more bloodthirsty cravings with a little bit of lovin’?
Much is going to be made in the coming weeks of ‘innocent’ authors being caught up in this scandal – as my own books’ removal from Kobo attests. There is going to be a line drawn in the sand, if it has not been already, between the guilty and the rest of us. I reject that line. Unlike a number of authors, some of whom I am very good friends with, I do not believe in an automatic right to publication. The self-publishing industry has fostered an expectation of being able to see your work in print that I don’t necessarily buy into. Publishing is a privilege, and I don’t believe that the rights of the supplier (author) to have their work made available outweigh the rights of the distributor in deciding what they do and do not stock. Where a distributor has clear guidelines as to what they do and do not deem acceptable I think every author has a responsibility to ensure they conform and when they fail to do so they deserve to be penalised. ARe, for example, is very clear as to the content they will not supply. That is entirely their prerogative.
However, not all distributors are so forthcoming. Amazon’s contract advises that content they deem objectionable is “pretty much what you’d expect”. That’s simply not good enough, because what to me might be perfectly acceptable might be entirely beyond the pale for someone else. It is sheer irresponsibility that leaves the terms so vague (and of course it’s convenient because they can knee-jerk to any moral panic citing the terms without the poor authors having the faintest clue what rules, exactly, they have broken).
Where the terms are vague, I’d argue it’s the distributor’s responsibility to prove a breach and I’d be very, very interested to see such a contract tested in a court of law. Not that it’s likely to happen.
To my mind, authors are free to write whatever they want and should be free to publish providing they comply with the distributor’s terms. Such an arrangement makes for happiness all round. Now the terms themselves may be morally objectionable (I am reminded of Amazon’s purge of LGBT fiction several years ago), in which case public opinion or even antitrust laws can play a part in altering them where there is no legal objection to a product being sold. Distributors exist to supply the market, after all.
The fact remains, many of the authors currently having their titles permanently removed from the shelves of all the main distributors have done nothing wrong. What they write might not be my bag or yours, but the reporting media themselves admit that these titles contain pseudo-incest, naughty schoolgirls over the age of eighteen, and the like. Nothing illegal – or even in violation of most sites’ T&Cs – has been committed. These are not bad people, they are authors writing, often, to make a living. The market is supply and demand and do you really think there’d be such a plethora of erotica titles for sale if the market didn’t have an appetite for them? Some of the books pulled have been said to have sold over 300,000 copies in the last year alone. That’s a lot of demand.
It is very easy, when stirring up a moral panic, to select as an example the very worst case you can find and hold that up as the standard for an entire group. To lay people who don’t understand the nuances of the group itself, it becomes tainted in its entirety, and it makes defending the group’s position far more difficult. I have no doubt that were the right wing media fueling this drama to be challenged their response would be something along the lines of, “Do you realise you’re defending paedophilia?” No matter that’s not actually the case for all or perhaps any of the books in question in this panic, that’s the wheedling insinuation and, well, mud sticks. The very whisper of certain words will stop a lot of good people from standing up for what is right.
The fact is, there is no panic here, save that of the media’s making. Had WH Smith invested in an adult filter for their ebook store, this whole story would never have happened. We live in an age where the merest implication of sexualising children (either through ‘underage’ erotica, or through children happening to stumble over anything that is erotic) is enough to shut down whole websites and legitimately trading businesses overnight. It is enough to excuse the removal of any and every book, across all genres, “just in case”. What is happening here is no better than any other book-burning you can think of, and is always the first sign of a totalitarian state. Just because they crusade in the name of morality, be not deceived. The Third Reich used exactly the same argument.