#KoboFail: erotica ≠ romance and romance ≠ erotica

May 27, 2015

Recently, I stumbled across a reviewer’s comment that she had received a copy of my “science fiction BDSM romance.”

Spyder’s Trouble is in no way, shape, or form a romance. Technically, it’s not even science fiction, it’s space opera, but that’s a distinction many people don’t make.

I checked on the retail sites and sure enough, Kobo lists the book as Romance > Erotica > BDSM and Romance > Erotica > Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Once I recovered from shock, I wrote to the publisher, Circlet Press. I received the following response from Cecilia Tan:

“Unfortunately on Kobo the only erotica categories are all subcategories under Romance. There is literally no other way to choose an erotic category, and you must choose a category in order to publish. You are free to take it up with them if you wish, but they’ve been deaf to all calls to revise their categories so far.”

So, I did.

I started by tweeting:

“Hey @kobo erotica ≠ romance and ≠ porn! No romance in Spyder’s Trouble (http://transgressivewriter.com/spyder.php#trouble) but that’s only listing option!?!?!?

@mtamblyn” (@mtamblyn is the Twitter handle of Kobo President Michael Tamblyn.)

Tamblyn responded: “I don’t think we necessarily have a problem with any of those three options. Not sure what your question is…” Of course, when I explained the “question” by tweeting “@mtamblyn The problem is that a BDSM space opera with NO romance can’t be listed under Erotica BDSM or Erotica SFF UNLESS it’s under romance” he didn’t respond.

This did not surprise me. I had the same experience last September when I tweeted: “Hey, @mtamblyn it would be nice if your employees actually read emails before they cut and
pasted canned irrelevant responses. #KoboFail” Then he responded with his email address and a request to contact him. He completely ignored my email, despite two subsequent posts on Twitter bringing it to his attention.

This time, I refused to let him get away with pretending to care in public while ignoring all complaints in private. A couple of days later, I asked: “Ain’t it amazing how @mtamblyn always responds to @Kobo tweets, tells you to email him, then ignores emails & tweets questioning #KoboFail”

That’s when he started the whine (later picked up by another Kobo executive) that he couldn’t “have a conversation about metadata in 140 char.” (My interpretation: he didn’t want to have a conversation in the public eye.)

When I reminded him that “Last time I emailed you, you never responded. Since this subject is fairly simple, I thought to keep the conversation public,” he out and out lied.

“Last time I brought in our Director of Self-Pub @MarkLeslie & his staff to help you out. Hope we can help again.” I responded to this blatant fabrication with “Last time NO one responded to
my email, @mtamblyn. Not you nor any member of your staff. My concerns were ignored. You only pretend to care.”

No response.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Director of Self Publishing & Author Relations at Kobo, aka @MarkLeslie tried again (repeatedly) to steer the conversation offline (and out of sight) by following me and urging me to DM (direct or private message) him so “we can have a proper conversation regarding category code options.”

Then, he also resorted to lies stating “when a problem is identified it’s definitely addressed.” A good portion of my original email to Tabmlyn was specifically related to the fact that Kobo does not address problems created by its staff. This especially includes issues resulting from Kobo staff training to respond to emails by cutting and pasting FAQ responses rather than actually reading the emails sent them.

I reiterated that I didn’t believe any “dialogue” was necessary, either Kobo intended to correct the classification problem or it needed to admit it had no intention of doing so. Lefebvre again tried to take the conversation off Twitter: “Still waiting for your email so a proper dialogue can occur.” I asked “Why should I waste words on an email you will ignore?”

A day later when he hadn’t responded, I taunted him with “Apparently, @MarkLeslie goes to @mtamblyn school of #KoboFail customer ‘service.’ Pretend to care until hyperbole proved wrong, then ignore.” Lefebvre then took it upon himself to find my email address on my Kobo publisher account and contact me.

He started out with a proven lie: “We take every single email we receive from authors seriously and we track issues reported.” (To which I responded with the list of five emails — including the one to Tamblyn — that never received answers from Kobo.)

He then went on to complain that issues weren’t black and white and required more than 140 characters to discuss after which he wasted almost 600 words trying to justify, with some pretty lame examples, why erotica needed to be listed under romance. He actually claimed that: “Our customers are able to find what they are looking for within the existing hierarchy so what you might see as an issue isn’t an issue from the point of view of the people who are currently purchasing titles in those categories.”

I pointed out that by forcing erotica books to be categorized as romance, “whether or not they are found is not the issue. When they are found by someone thinking they will include romance they are tossed aside in disgust because they contain no romance.

“Meanwhile, people who are interested in Erotica > Sci-Fi or Erotica > BDSM but do not care to read romance (men) will not find my books because they wouldn’t think of looking under romance.”

He insisted that “customers make purchasing decisions from a cover that is designed to appeal to the target audience as well as a synopsis that ensures they are properly informed about what they are going to read should they purchase that book.” He completely ignored the fact that the first step in that purchasing decision is finding a book (to see the cover and descriptive blurb) and no one will be able to do so if the books “are on the wrong shelf in the library or categorized incorrectly by the retailer.”

His response completely ignored the “dialogue” he claimed on Twitter he wished to have. He just defended his boss ignoring my emails, and instead focused on the other four emails that never received answers under the mistaken belief that they could have gone missing. (They all were responses in ongoing conversations that were cut off by Kobo staff who just stopped answering my emails rather than discuss my concerns.)

When I admonished him for not addressing “a single point I made about the classification system,” his response was a politely worded “go away.” He said: “As I stated in a previous email, classification systems are arbitrary. Ours is no exception. I explained how our classification system is set up and acknowledged that you do not agree with it. (Which he actually had not done. His only reference at all to the “dialogue” he claimed to want was the statement: “Your concerns and points have been dually noted.”) It has been noted and if it is felt that making any change to the existing classification system better serves our customers and our business, the appropriate changes will be made.”

Kobo has been, as my publisher stated, “deaf to all calls to revise their categories” for one reason: Kobo wants to marginalize erotica. As I explained in my Banned Books Week post back in September, retailers’ puritanical attitude that readers must be protected from evil authors who produce books those readers might want to purchase and consume will continue unless readers take their dollars elsewhere.

You will notice that I have shared no links to Kobo on this post. I would ask that those of you who are interested in reading Erotic BDSM Space Opera without romance instead purchase Spyder’s
Trouble
from the publisher, Circlet Press. There you also will find many other books that offer both speculative fiction and erotica, some of which contain romance and some of which do not. But, at least you’ll be able to determine whether or not romance is included before you purchase any books.

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

September 23, 2014

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.


Stolen Rights: Are you one of more than a hundred victims?

June 25, 2013

Writers often get their panties all in a knot about pirates stealing their work. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether book jacking helps or hurts right now. However, I am going to describe another type of rights theft that’s, in my opinion, much more serious and more commonly tolerated.

Way back in 2007, I sold a flash fiction piece to a very large anthology. The pay was low, but it was for non-exclusive print rights and (I thought) good exposure, so I accepted the terms as did 109 others.

I was dismayed to discover that the anthology included no biographical information for its authors and, in fact, only listed them by first name. So much for exposure.

Flash forward to 2012. Through someone’s post about another book, I discovered the anthology that includes my story at the top of the Amazon rankings for erotica EBOOKS. The original agreement did not include any electronic rights.

I immediately wrote the editor and demanded my story be removed or I receive compensation for sales of the book in electronic form.

After a series of e-mail negotiations, I agreed to allow the continued use of my story for a percentage of the royalties. I was very specific that I would not allow royalties to be determined based on “net” unless that term was defined. I received a small check and inferred (possibly incorrectly I now believe) from the correspondence that other authors also received compensation.

Imagine my surprise a year later when I get (one month late) an accounting indicating that the book was now “in the black” and that royalties were due, but because I had already received payment (for royalties up through December 2011) I would not receive additional compensation for sales from January 2012 through December 2012.

Remember, I got the term “net” struck from the agreement. Royalties were due on all sales.

After insisting that I receive the compensation which the publisher had agreed to pay, I was told that my story would be removed from the collection and I would receive what is essentially a go-away-and-don’t-bother-us-anymore kill fee.

Now, given that I get no additional exposure from this collection, given that I have since sold the same story to two other collections and that I also have it for sale (with all of my backlist) on Smashwords, given the size of the royalty payments, I gladly accepted the cheque.

But, I have to wonder if any of the other authors included in the book received royalty payments for the electronic rights that were stolen from them. I also have to wonder how much more money the book is earning than is being reported (late) to me and to any other authors who insisted on being paid for their rights.

This is why I publish most of my work myself. Too many publishers steal rights and don’t honor the terms of the contracts they sign.

If any other writer is curious whether their work might be included in this collection, feel free to contact me privately for the name of it. I prefer not to give the collection any publicity by including the name here. (And, needless to say, I waited until the cheque had cleared before sharing this information at all.)