Lessons for independent authors from the Great Erotica Panic of 2013

As I continue to prep my first novel for sacrifice to the ravening coyotes of the publishing process, I have started to think a lot about the possibility of self-publishing. Skipping the part where a bunch of agents and publishers reject you for several years before you finally see your book in print is remarkably appealing.

Enter the Great Erotica Panic of 2013.

In case you haven’t heard of it, on Wednesday, October 9, independent online magazine The Kernel published an article calling out Amazon for selling what The Kernel called “rape porn” in its Kindle ebook store. In response to the article, Amazon removed the titles in question from their Kindle store. But as The Kernel pointed out the next day, Amazon overlooked a few other titles that broke similar incest, rape, child abuse, and bestiality taboos. On Friday, October 10, The Kernel called out Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Foyles, and WH Smith as well for participating in what the online magazine called “An Epidemic of Filth.”

According to reports from The Digital Reader, nearly every online ebook retailer has responded to the furor in some way. Amazon and Barnes & Noble appear to be removing all self-published erotica books from their Kindle and Nook stores–even the ones that don’t deal with the taboos in question. WH Smith shut down its website entirely for a few days (it’s back up again today). Both WH Smith’s ebook partner in the UK, Kobo, and Kobo’s partner in New Zealand, Whitcoull’s, have suspended sales of all ebooks indefinitely. In Kobo’s case, the bookseller appears to be removing all self-published ebooks–regardless of genre–from their UK store. (Which titles, if any, will be restored remains an open question.)

Clearly these people have never read Greek mythology, Lolita, or anything by the Marquis de Sade.

Do I think Kobo and Whitcoull’s went too far? Well, obviously.

But I’m not here to rant about the unfairness of online booksellers singling out self-published authors when traditionally published authors deal with many of the same taboos. Other, sharper industry minds already have that covered.

What this episode highlights for me is one of the often overlooked facts of self-publishing.

Publication does not equal distribution.

And that means Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other online booksellers have become the gatekeepers of the self-publishing industry.

When marketing her (then) self-published book, What More Could You Wish For, Samantha Hoffman stood on the sidewalks of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, hawking it to everyone who passed by. She took extra copies in her carry-on bag on every flight she took and gave them to flight attendants. She sent free copies to every relative and friend she could think of, asking them to read it and if they liked it, to tell their friends about it. She worked incredibly hard to get her book noticed, and eventually succeeded in having her book picked up by St. Martin’s Press. But as her efforts make painfully clear for the rest of us, in most cases, a lone writer simply cannot make up the volume of distribution you need to sell even a hundred copies of your book, much less several thousand.

For that, you need someone like Amazon, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble. Like you, those guys have a business to run. It may be perfectly legal for your book to describe incest, rape, murder, and tea parties. But it’s also perfectly legal for Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble to refuse to distribute it.

So what can you do?

Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware covers it quite nicely in Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013. Her entire post is well worth a read, but the bottom line for those of us considering self-publishing ebooks is to:

  • Read the terms and conditions of every publishing platform we release our book to, so that we understand the conditions under which the distributor has the right to make our work disappear
  • Release our work on multiple platforms to make it a bit less likely that our ebooks will disappear from the market entirely

Final thoughts:

Just to be clear, I don’t think this distribution problem only affects self-published writers. It’s entirely possible for moral panics to erupt about traditionally published works, as Neil Gaiman, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maurice Sendak can all attest.

But I suspect that one of the reasons that self-published authors are more likely to suffer from this sort of mass deletion event is precisely because there are fewer gatekeepers in that segment of the industry. At least in theory, traditionally published books have been vetted by professional editors, agents, and publishing houses–all of whom have a reputation to protect (and a vested interest in keeping the author’s book on the market). A self-published author typically doesn’t have an array of editors, agents, and publishers standing beside her ready to vouch for the fact that her book is exactly what she says it is.

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