Banned Books Week: Why Readers Need to Care About Ebook Sellers’ Arbitrary and Capricious Content Guidelines

On Dec. 5, 2012 I published “Aunt” Grace.”

On May 11, 2013 I learned that “Aunt” Grace won second place in the National Leather Association: International John Preston Short Story Award for excellence in literary works in SM/leather/fetish writing published in 2012.

On Sept. 3, 2014 my publisher account with All Romance was terminated because of “Aunt” Grace.

A little background: Previously, I had only published my novels and short story collections (including the two that contained “Aunt” Grace) on All Romance. With the loss of Kobo retail outlets in U.K., the death of Sony and Diesel, and Amazon doing everything possible to bury my books, I saw potential for replacing some of these lost sales if I increased what was available at All Romance. I decided to invest more in that market and spent several weeks reformatting all my short stories and resizing all the covers to meet the site’s requirements.

I worked with the publisher relations supervisor to manage some technical difficulties I had in taking advantage of the interface that allowed books published on All Romance to be sold in the iBookstore. Then I received a notice from the Chief Operating Officer, accusing me of violating the site’s content guidelines, specifically regarding “Works which contain incest or pseudo-incest themes for the purpose of titillation” and “Works that are written for or being marketed to the barely legal market.”

The latter accusation was aimed at Jail Bait and Teacher’s Pet. While I admit the blurbs (designed to sell books) toy with the “barely legal” angle, that’s not what the stories are about. They both tell a story of an 18 year old discovering her sexuality, constrained by society’s one-sided, misogynist standards regarding women’s pleasure. (Two Brothers, about two young male virgins, one of the other stories that appears in Young & Eager, never gets banned for violating “barely legal” guidelines, even though the younger brother is only 18. Of course, that one gets criticized because the two brothers are in bed with the same woman and OMG, they might touch each other, even though they don’t.)

Both Jail Bait and Teacher’s Pet and the collection they appear in together are now published on Apple and Kobo, two of the most restrictive markets in terms of prurient content, via Smashwords. From the beginning, the first story was always available for sale on both markets in another collection, further proof that all these “content guidelines” are arbitrary and capricious.

Most of the All Romance COO’s ire appeared to be directed at “Aunt” Grace.” She erroneously claimed it “contains a pseudo-incestuous relationship between Grace and your protagonist, who she refers to and has thought of as a niece.” She terminated my account without warning, removing 60 plus works from two markets because she had a problem with three, forcing me to scramble to reformat everything yet again.

First, pseudo incest is an oxymoron. Incest is sexual intercourse between closely related persons. If people aren’t closely related, there’s no possibility of incest. Pseudo is defined as pretended; false or spurious; sham.

“Aunt” Grace contains no incest, pseudo or otherwise. The characters are two women who became acquainted as young girls because of other people’s marriage and who rediscover their attraction to each other as young adults.

It involves two women who are not legally related. Grace’s mother married the father of the boy who grew up to become Jen’s father long after both Grace and Jen’s father were born. Jen’s father never appears in the book. Jen grew up calling Grace “aunt” because that was required then, even though they weren’t related in any way and weren’t that far apart in age.

The two women always had the hots for each other. Their attraction was constrained more by their families disapproval of their orientation than their “relationship.” In the book, although Jen calls Grace “aunt” out of habit at first, the word “niece” is used only once, and that’s facetiously,
when Grace introduces Jen to her slave.

“Jen, this is my slave, Emma. Gurl, this is my,” Grace cleared her throat, “niece, Jen.”

It’s worded to make it obvious to most readers that Grace does not think of Jen as her niece.

The story is also about Jen fighting against misogyny in her chosen career and prejudice against her sexual orientation. She finds refuge, and a chance to explore BDSM, in Grace’s leather family.

I ran into the same specious objections to “Aunt” Grace at
Kobo and Apple. In both cases, in order to sell this award-winning story, I had to make arbitrary and capricious language changes, changes that eliminated the women’s backstory and reduced the characters’ depth. I also switched the cover to say “Sir Grace” instead of aunt.

This was not the first time my work was banned by All Romance. In 2012, Broken and Shattered were kicked off the site.

I write books as Korin I. Dushayl about the dark side of BDSM, including questionable consent and abuse of power. I’ve redefined them as transgressive because the sex scenes in them often aren’t supposed to be erotic (which doesn’t mean that some people won’t find them arousing). But, if any character exploits another in a story I write, it’s obvious to readers (if not the character themselves) that the relationship is inappropriate at best, criminally damaging at worst. I don’t portray abusive stalkers as romantic heroes.

I’m all for labeling books based on what’s in them so adult readers can choose what they purchase based on their own personal preferences, triggers, and boundaries. One person’s hottest sex scene ever will make another person want to hurl.

However, it is inappropriate and inexcusable for any individual or corporation to make arbitrary and capricious decisions about what other adults get to read.

Further proof that all this hoop jumping is for absolutely no legitimate reason and that so-called “content guidelines” are arbitrary and capricious:

  1. both Apple and Kobo sell the original “Aunt” Grace as part of another collection and no retailer has voiced any objections to that other collection;
  2. as of this writing, Apple still has not accepted Two Brothers for sale from Smashwords even though it was one of four books All Romance neglected to pull and the exact same story is still for sale on Apple via All Romance;
  3. I had to change the title and cover of Young & Eager to get it sold on Kobo even though all four stories within the collection were already for sale individually.
  4. On Amazon, Apple, and Kobo I must call my Family Dynamics collection, Leather Family Dynamics (although at least on Amazon, unlike the other two, I didn’t have to change “Aunt” Grace).
  5. Apple published and then pulled Sir Grace in the space of a few days. I was told I needed to change the category listed from “Romance > Erotica” to “Erotica > Romance” and I’m still waiting for it to be available for sale again. Meanwhile, that version of the story is available for sale on Apple in Leather Family Dynamics.

Arbitrary and capricious? Can anyone deny that?

Even Smashwords admits, in much kinder words, to the arbitrary and capricious application of “guidelines” by Apple. In explaining the reasons why books accepted by Smashwords don’t get distributed to Apple, the site states the process “is performed by humans, and is therefore subject to some inconsistency from time to time. You may also find that things that were okay a year ago are no longer acceptable to them going forward.”

In the midst of all this, Amazon had the unmitigated gall to encourage people to read really old books that had once been banned such as Madame Bovary and The Prince while arbitrarily and capriciously banning current work by numerous erotica authors.

All Romance, Apple, Kobo, and Amazon will continue preventing you from reading books the way they were written — how the author believed was the best way to tell the story, the way you may find entertaining and/or arousing — unless readers protest. The retailers have made it quite obvious they don’t give a rat’s ass about their authors. We’re just content providers and if any single person — on the retailers’ team or a random visitor to their websites — finds our content objectionable, it’s gone.

The only way to change this puritanical attitude that readers have to be protected from evil authors who produce books those readers might want to purchase and consume, is to yell loudly and repeatedly at any retailer that bans books for arbitrary and capricious reasons. Better still, purchase your books from other retailers, or whenever possible from authors and publishers directly, and let the retailers know why.


11 Responses to Banned Books Week: Why Readers Need to Care About Ebook Sellers’ Arbitrary and Capricious Content Guidelines

  1. I think online booksellers actually do not know what is in the books they sell, I think they remove things based on complaints and most of those come from people who don’t read the books.

    • True, but when content “guidelines’ state things as vague as: “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect,” when two different people at the same retailer use completely different criteria to “judge” whether a book meets those vague “guidelines,” when the criteria change from day to day, they are arbitrary and capricious.

      And, if people who do read books want to have choices in what they read, they need to be the ones who complain about those arbitrary and capricious guidelines that prevent them from purchasing books as they were written. Otherwise, their voice, and their choices, will be determined by the people who don’t read books but are offended by anything referencing enjoyable sex.

  2. Missy Jane says:

    I fully agree the guidelines should be very well spelled out and consistent. I try very hard not to get into the debate too much though because when books like the one that was basically a guideline on how to molest young boys was available on Amazon, I was part of the mob wanting it removed. I think some common sense needs to come into play in these situations. I think the publishers are looking in black and white at the shades of gray they don’t want to deal with, and it’s definitely hurting authors like you. I completely agree that adults should be allowed to decide what they want to read, so long as the material isn’t meant to hurt minors like the example I mentioned.
    Good luck with your work. I hope your readers are able to find you when they want to no matter what the publishers try to do.

    • And, what if someone read the book about molesting young boys and used what he learned to establish a program to help parents teach their boys how to avoid being molested? Or developed a treatment for pedophiles previously unavailable? Or maybe someone spent time reading the book instead of molesting children.

      Who’s to judge which books have merit and which don’t? Banning books, any books, is a slippery slope. The information in that book is available online, making the book go away didn’t change that. Leaving it up, making it a focus of education and discussion, probably would have had a more positive and longer term impact.

  3. The truth is, Amazon and the others would really prefer not to sell any books with explicit sexual content. The guidelines are fuzzy at least partly so they can be adjusted arbitrarily.

    I love your point about Madame Bovary though. And was The Prince banned as well?

    • Yes, The Prince was banned albeit for political content, not sexual. I used it as one example, because to me this is somewhat political — a) we’ve given corporations too much power over our lives and our freedom and b) not allowing women to enjoy sex is the very core of misogyny and preventing women from attaining full citizenship.

  4. Thank you for this post. It’s important. I don’t have much to add to the discussion here, we’re clearly on the same page with regard to the banning of books. I offer only my sympathies for what you’re going through to keep your fiction in front of the public. This has been an ongoing issue for me personally as an author and also as a publisher of erotica, much it the very erotica that has been targeted by these sites. Best of luck in your efforts, you are certainly not alone. I think the more authors that speak up about this the better. It’s my only hope that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction, and soon!, as I’ve seen it do before in the 25 years I’ve been involved in the erotic book marketplace. Best of luck!

    • Unfortunately, authors can speak up until the sun turns around and heads west and nothing will change.

      We must encourage our readers to speak out. Until the CUSTOMERS start complaining, none of the retailers will care. We’re just product and in their opinion, easily replaceable with someone who causes less trouble.

  5. gramegrief says:

    You correctly point out that readers can still purchase your work, and that of other authors who are not carried by the usual major retailers, by approaching you and those authors through other routes, including direct from publisher or author. This is not about censorship or book banning, but about the behaviour of commercial entities. If the offending companies were bakeries, and they refused to sell any products which were not Gluten Free, there would still be other bakeries. Coeliac customers would complain if there was a risk of contamination, so such a policy would make sense and incase profits.

    It’s fine for any company to decide what they will or will not sell. They do not have the power to ban or censor writing, because they don’t have a monopoly. They are at liberty to refuse to sell writing about non-christians, or people of colour, or people with disabilities, or written in Welsh. They are, after all, not cultural custodians, but profiteers. Money is of paramount importance to them, and any consideration of ideas or freedom of expression is irrelevant. Minority customer complaints are not going to worry them, and they will blow with the perceived prevailing wind.

    • It’s not quite that simple, gramegrief.

      First, you’ll notice the word censorship never appears in the post. (I used it as a tag because many readers don’t know the difference.)

      Second, it’s not true that there are always other places for readers to purchase books. Amazon has used predatory business practices to put as many booksellers out of business as it can. Apple is no better, forcing users of its hardware to use its bookstore. I used to push All Romance as a source because it’s a small, independent retailer but it’s chosen to arbitrarily and capriciously limit what readers can purchase.

      Unless you live in a very small town (in which case it’s going to be harder to find gluten free bakery) you’ll have dozens of options where you can go to buy bakery products if one doesn’t offer what you want. That’s not the case for booksellers, especially ebook sellers.

      Since I’ve gone Indie, the list of retailers where readers can purchase my books has shrunk dramatically. Since I don’t have a publisher I can send readers to for most of my books, they don’t have the option of buying them. I’ve investigated setting up a shopping cart and selling my books directly through my website. But, any payment processor which expressly accepts “adult” material is less than reputable, putting my readers in jeopardy, and prohibitively expensive.

      “They do not have the power to ban or censor writing, because they don’t have a monopoly.”

      Although they don’t yet have a monopoly, the fact that there are so few sellers of ebooks makes that statement specious. When writers change their words to make their books available for sale on the few remaining sites, it is a form of censorship, self censorship. But, if their only choice is to change your words or lose money, many writers choose to change their words.

      “They are, after all, not cultural custodians, but profiteers. Money is of paramount importance to them, and any consideration of ideas or freedom of expression is irrelevant.”

      If retailers didn’t make tons of money selling erotica ebooks, that statement might have some merit. But, they’re giving up money to enforce arbitrary and capricious guidelines, guidelines they often refuse to explain, guidelines they use to inconsistently determine the choices readers have.

      “Minority customer complaints are not going to worry them, and they will blow with the perceived prevailing wind.”

      Again, the fact that erotica is a top selling genre belies that statement. This isn’t about money. This isn’t even about drawing lines in certain genres about certain standards as proven by the books that remain for sale from major publishers. My point, from beginning to end, is that the arbitrary and capricious decisions are impacting readers’ choices. And if readers want to be able to choose what they want to read, unrestricted by corporate policies that make no sense to any intelligent reader or writer, then they need to speak out.

  6. gkparker says:

    In my opinion it’s simple — if it’s legal, then no one has the right to tell me or you or anyone that I can’t read it, write it or sell it. Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. But don’t you dare tell me I can’t read it because of your feelings.

%d bloggers like this: