E-Book Censorship – Necessary or a Slippery Slope?

The story as it unfolds

The story as it unfolds

Some worrying news has trickled through to me this week, through various sources, that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and particularly Kobo are censoring Self-Published/Indie Published books. As far as I can gather, from reading posts on Shannon Thompson’s Facebook wall – here and here – and through statements from Smashwords, the concern is specific types of erotica, such as incest or rape themed books, but may easily stretch into all Indie Publishing.

WH Smith, who sell Kobo books in the UK, took down ALL self-published books in response to criticism over some of the content they apparently unknowingly stocked.

Smashwords  also has this comment in their statement:

Going forward, I think we can expect this to become the new reality as major retailers set their sights on a global market where the cultural, religious or political norms in some countries will find certain categories of erotica too objectionable, or might find non-erotic categories that most western cultures consider mainstream as too objectionable.  This means we can expect more mess to come in the years ahead as the industry navigates ebook globalization [My emphasis]

Now I have to be honest, this isn’t a straightforward debate for me. My mind is surging with conflicting emotions. Paramount is the thought “Oh my goodness, if they start deleting Indie books, there goes my five-year plan. Amazon is already censoring reviews (I’ve had at least three reviews of my books deleted and lord knows how many more I don’t know about). I’ll have to give up writing and get a job.”

This might seem like an overreaction when I write books with no sex in them, never mind erotica. But, as Smashwords points out, this may well not just stop at erotica but might cover any area that’s considered taboo in a certain culture. Shannon points out on her blog that the legal age of drinking between the UK and the US is different, so might books featuring a teenager drinking be banned in the US?

First WH Smith then all KOBO

First WH Smith then all KOBO

Then of course comes the view that refusing to publish any kind of books is bad. It’s censorship, it’s against free speech, it’s harking back to the days of banning and burning books for not fitting in with the social mores of its time. As one commenter points out on Shannon’s blog, though, it isn’t actually against free speech, because these companies are businesses and have every right to sell what they choose. Even so, it still isn’t good news for Indie authors like me.

Ah, but then, a third voice pipes up: the voice of the parent. I’d happily see all porn banned on the internet: free speech or no. And if there are erotica books out there that favour or promote rape, then I am happy for them to be banned. (Remember this is only the parent talking, so no snotty comments about me being a bigot, thanks!)

I don’t want my daughter growing up in a world where people have had easy access to books promoting rape. There’s something about an idea being written down that gives it gravitas. You write about rape in a book, make it sound like a cool thing, and somebody somewhere is going to feel like that gives them a green light.

In an article on the Christian Science Monitor (which I found through Shannon’s blog) someone defends the erotica ebooks by saying:

“We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production,” wrote PJ Vogt on OnTheMedia.org.

“Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don’t exist in real life.”

So it’s okay if it’s in a book, with fake characters? I should agree, yes of course. Except I’ve read books that have changed the way I think. They’ve actually rewired my brain to see the world a different way. That’s the power of fiction (as so beautifully argued in a lecture by Neil Gaiman recently:

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

The On the Media article quoted above says that internet porn hasn’t increased actual instances of rape, and makes the assumption that literature won’t either. But if you look at Neil’s argument, the written word is more powerful than onscreen images, precisely because it happens inside the mind. It locates another ‘me’ in the world. Great if that widens the mind, not so great if it narrows it.

Neil also says, “We have an obligation [as writers] to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it” but that’s an entirely different argument against some of these books!

There is a petition on Change.org that I will probably sign, but I am having to think twice about it. The petition does say **This petition is NOT condoning non-fictional beastiality, incest, pediphilia or other things of such ‘extreme’ nature**. 

Non-fictional? What about fictional? Also, there are some views in the comments that I don’t agree with. For example someone says you need a credit card to buy the books, so you’re obviously over 18. Except what about the free sample? I’ve downloaded the first few chapters of plenty of books without having to pay for them, and many of them I wouldn’t want my daughter to read at any age.

It’s a difficult debate and I hate not knowing what side of the fence I sit on. If Amazon and other online retailers delete my books, I’m back to square one: trying to fight my way in through the agent/publisher route. And I believe we’ll all be the poorer for stopping the publishing revolution before it’s even got underway. However there is no doubt that there are books out there that ruin the image of self-publishing for all of us, never mind books I wouldn’t want my kids to have access to.

Where do you sit?


15 thoughts on “E-Book Censorship – Necessary or a Slippery Slope?

  1. Pingback: A Breather: 2013 365 Challenge #291 | writermummy

  2. This is a tough debate. The logical conservative in me wants to say that free speech is free speech, I served in the US Army to defend everyone’s right to free speech, even if I don’t like what they are saying.

    Then there is the moral side of me that says we should not encourage sick bastards to get off on rape and incest stories. We need to remember the warning from John Wesley “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.” Sometimes, adults need to take a stand to teach children what is acceptable moral human behavior.

    There is also the constitutional libertarian side of me that says Amazon, B&N, Smashwords or any other business has no responsibility to sell or distribute anything that they do not want to. It is not censorship if Amazon says they do not want to sell science fiction books, sci-fi writers would still be allowed to write and sell their books either through another company or on their own. Censorship only happens when the government makes a law against your ability to create and distribute something. If there really is a market for that kind of crap (rape and incest, not sci-fi) then let someone sicko create a website that caters to those dirtbags.

    BTW, I use those derogatory terms because I believe they fit the type of people that would even consider reading that type of material. Freedom of speech goes both ways 🙂

    Sorry if I sound like I am ranting, but this is a really good subject to discuss and I thank you for bringing it up in a public forum.

    • While I agree inherently with the different viewpoints you raise, the problem I am having with this whole debacle is the double standard. If Amazon doesn’t want to sell incest stories, fine. But don’t remove the self-published ones only to leave for sale UNFILTERED the traditionally published books featuring incest, rape, and underage sex!! They either need to fairly enact their policy across ALL publishers . . . or they need to do what most other industries have done, and use a filtering so that erotic titles don’t display beside children’s books. They need the online version of the “adults only” room you used to find at video stores.

      They also need to be clear in their policies. A lot of what was removed was what they called “pseudo-incest” where step-siblings or other legally related but not blood-related relationships took place, as well as age of consent differences across countries and consensual non-consent, which is very different than actual non-consensual rape. (basically the play-acting where one wants to pretend not to want it but actually does, and where there is NO confusion about this between both parties.)

      It’s the gray areas that concern me, because as Amanda writes above, gray can extend . . . and extend . . .

      • This is a valid point. It wouldn’t occur to me that there would be traditionally published books along those lines but, as you have explained, it’s all about the definition. I read somewhere today that Amazon does have a ‘back room’ so maybe, as you say, it’s about ensuring the right categorisation. Just as I don’t like being lumped in with self-published authors who have never bothered formatting or proofreading their works, I’m sure there are books out there that want to be put in the correct category rather than be lumped into ‘inappropriate’ and that’s it.

      • Right. Some titles off the top of my head that I know Amazon still sells which include both gray and true incest are “Flower In the Attic,” “Lolita”, “Sleeping Beauty” by Anne Rice, “50 Shades . . .”, “The Story of O”, and more. I find it ironic that a title with taboo materials is fine if it is traditionally published and may even be considered a “classic.”

        Right now they don’t really have a back room. It’s all about the keyword that you use.

  3. I think it’s viewpoint isn’t it? If the book is written from a stance that says rape is ok, it’s not an ok book. I don’t mean books about a protagonist who believes that, I mean books that put the view that it’s fine, whatever the protagonist thinks. So lovely bones has rape and murder in it but they are not portrayed as ok.

    People may get off on snuff, child sex, rape etc but they are not different, they are ill. Those things are wrong on every level. Love and life is about respect for another person’s humanity, by definition anything non consensual or forced on them when they are too young to understand is dehumanising them and disrespecting their existence as people. Wrong wrong wrong. So yeh, no to censorship but also no to the sick stuff.

    Does that make sense?

      • Surely rape is pretty sick for one of the people involved. It’s not a question of if they go in but if it’s portrayed as alright. It’s not alright for the person who gets raped. Ditto, Snuff. Murdering people for sexual kicks IS sick. No two ways about it. it’s not OK to want to do that, although to find the idea sexy might be OK if you have absolutely NO intention of indulging your fantasies in reality ever. I agree that it’s tricky though.

  4. I really appreciate your link to my website and your article as well. I think it’s really important we keep this conversation going and watch closely as the industry changes. I also agree with what you said about the petition. I am always weary of those. That’s why I encouraged readers to write to the CEO of specific companies, so you can explain what you are for and what you aren’t. Signing a petition doesn’t allow that wiggle room. Again, thank you for spreading the news.

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  6. Although I don’t agree with everything that you say, I do find this to be a very interesting and engaging article that was a pleasure to read 🙂
    I wrote one on the topic myself, though it focuses more on the actual content of the books and whether or not it is morally okay for them to be available in the first place, would be great if you checked it out!


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