Normally I don’t wade into censorship debates, but this story caught my eye and I thought it would make for interesting discussion. Now, a lot of authors, especially self-published authors, have noticed that in the past couple of years there’s been an explosion in demand for erotica titles, and many self-published authors are making a lot of money by writing these works, which sometimes involve violent encounters between the characters. And lately there’s been a rising trend in what is known as cryptozoological erotica, which is sexual encounters between humans and legendary beasts such as Bigfoot and others (I know, right?). The example used in the story I’ve linked to is Virginia Wade’s Bigfoot series, which has been downloaded and read by enough people to make me wonder whether I should at least dabble in the erotica genre.

However, authors of these and other erotic works have been finding their works taken off the digital bookshelves by Amazon and other sites as of late:

In October, the online news site The Kernel published an incendiary story called “An Epidemic of Filth,” claiming that online bookstores like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, and others were selling self-published ebooks that featured “rape fantasies, incest porn and graphic descriptions of bestiality and child abuse.” The story ignited a media firestorm in the U.K, with major news outlets like the Daily Mail, The Guardian, and the BBC reporting on the “sales of sick ebooks.” Some U.K.-based ebook retailers responded with public apologies, and WHSmith went so far as to shut down its website altogether, releasing a statement saying that it would reopen “once all self-published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available.” The response in the U.S. was somewhat more muted, but most of the retailers mentioned in the piece, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, began quietly pulling hundreds of titles from their online shelves — an event Kobo coo Michael Tamblyn referred to last month as “erotica-gate.” 

The crackdown was meant to target the obvious offenders — ebooks like “Daddy’s Birthday Gang Bang” and others that fetishized incest and rape — but in their fervor to course-correct, the online bookstores started deleting, according to The Digital Reader blog, “not just the questionable erotica but [also]…. any e-books that might even hint at violating cultural norms.” That included crypto-porn. Wade’s sexy Sasquatch, not unlike the elusive hominid beast of legend, vanished without a trace.

Now, there’s been a lot of talk about censorship such as this over the past couple of months. Authors of a lot of works that have been taken down have accused Amazon of not taking a good look at their works and using very vague criteria such as the titles of the books to judge whether or not they are offensive. Amazon’s wording of its policy as to what constitutes “offensive” doesn’t seem to help its case: “What we deem offensive is probably what you would expect.” Giving that people generally have different expectations on what is considered offensive, there’s been a lot of cries that Amazon is only answering to the expectations of a certain segment of its customers. And by having to modify titles or edit their work to be acceptable to these vague standards, they are losing customers and revenue. As one author complained:

Author Emerald Ice (a pen name) — who lives in southern Illinois with her husband, a Catholic high school teacher — is less concerned about offending Amazon browsers than being overlooked by potential paying customers. The first three books in her Alien Sex Slave Series — “Alien Love Slave,” “The Sex Arena,” and “Alien Sex Cove”— were runaway hits, she says. At least until Amazon pulled them from distribution and requested changes, once again citing content guidelines. That’s how “Alien Sex Slave” became “Sidney’s Alien Escapades.” “I hate it,” she admits of the new title. “I came up with it because I was in a panic about the books disappearing.” Her sales have since plummeted, and she isn’t surprised. “If I was a reader searching for hot alien sex books, I wouldn’t look twice at something called ‘Sidney’s Alien Escapades.'”

On the other hand, Amazon and other bookstores like it are private businesses. They can decide what items to have on their shelves and what items they want nothing to do with, especially if a large enough percent of their customers threaten to boycott the site if they hold items deemed “offensive” by whatever criteria these people use. So if Amazon deems a work or works unacceptable and uses no other reason than it threatens their own revenues, then that’s their choice, and there’s not much an author can do to fight back (unless you start a humungous letter writing campaign with a lot of your close author friends and a ton of fans, but that might be difficult to pull off).

Now, my own views on censorship is if a creative work isn’t blatantly encouraging hatred, violence, or other despicable deeds or beliefs, then it should at least be considered as a work allowed to be sold, distributed and enjoyed like any other work. And as much as I don’t like to speak badly about Amazon (mostly because it’s where most of my sales and reviews come from),  I have to admit that they should take a deeper look at their work in order to decide what is offensive and maybe revise their content policy to something that’s not so vague. At the same time, I should advise authors to be careful that the work they write might not be accidentally encouraging rape, incest, or other objectionable acts or could be misconstrued as encouraging those acts. I’m not trying to stifle your creative work, but it might avoid some grief later on if you make sure that someone can’t point to a particular passage of your work and show that it is terribly objectionable.

If you have anything to add to the discussion, please let me know. What do you think constitutes as an “objectionable work”? And do you think what Amazon and other booksellers is doing is justified, or are they overstepping their bounds or being unfair in their attempts to filter out unacceptable works?

Also, that comment I made about dabbling in erotica, in case any of you were wondering: I don’t know how I’d feel about writing an erotica story. If I did though, I’d be honest about it if I decided to publish it, even if I published it under a pen name. Anne Rice did that, and if she can do it, why can’t I? Besides the fact that she’s a huge force in the world of writing and I’m still trying to claw my way up, I mean.

  1. It is a difficult issue, imposing regulations when its so hard to monitor everything that is being published. And its to be expected that sooner or later, filth would emerge on the indie writing market. Hopefully, this will die down soon enough once the controversy has passed, but a long-term solution other than tags is going to be needed. Perhaps some sort of keyword algorithm when author’s upload new works. Isn’t that someone thing that should already be in place?

    • I think so. I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure out the tagging system on Amazon and how to “tag” something, so I can’t even begin to wonder what sort of algorithms they might be using for this kind of stuff.

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