In recent weeks there has been minor panic in the world of ebook retailing, as big vendors such as Amazon and Kobo overreacted to the discovery of self-published pornography in their catalogues. Their shock at their own content and their reactions bring Captain Renault to mind. Content featuring non-consensual and underage sex was removed, along with less offensive work. Predictably, this has led to cries of censorship.
It is certainly true that there is a double standard in book publishing. Established publishers and authors can get away with any manner of perversity, while the less successful see their works, with with equal perversity, rejected. The sad truth is that not everyone who writes about the joy of sex with underage girls is Nabokov. Judging artistic merit is difficult with works at the margins, so when in doubt, vendors are likely to err on the conservative side.
Authors would be wise to read site submission policies with a similar conservative mindset. If your work is pushing the boundaries of a site’s acceptable content policy, perhaps some revisions are in order. No vendor is obligated to carry your work, and just because you are self-published does not mean there are no rules. It’s not censorship if a book seller refuses to sell your book. You are free to sell it yourself.
If marketing your own book makes you pause because of the obscenity or hate speech laws you might be breaking, then maybe it’s not a book you should be writing. Put it aside and establish your artistic credentials with something less extreme.
When it comes to protecting children from finding inappropriate material, some commentators suggest the book industry should take a page from the film industry and use ratings or “adults only” sections on their sites. A children’s area would be preferable. Most of the content in a book store, from “adult” fiction to self-help books to auto repair manuals, are for adults. Brick and mortar book stores and libraries tend to keep children’s books in a separate area, and there is no reason why online stores cannot do the same. At the same time, online books are more self-age-limiting than other online materials such as games or video clips. The child needs to be old enough and inclined enough to read. Unless a preview is available, the child also needs a credit card in order to actually read the book, which suggests another possible solution for adult content is no previews or no previews of possibly objectionable content.
For illegal or potentially illegal content, it’s sensible for the bookstores to be cautious, especially with self-published material. As for protecting children, there are solutions less drastic than shutting down ebook stores, but their need is debatable. As a parent myself, concerned about what my children might be viewing online, erotic fiction is among the least of my concerns.