A media firestorm erupted in the UK on Sunday after a tabloid story about WH Smith selling “filth” alongside books aimed at children, which has resulted in Kobo culling huge numbers of self-published titles – most of which have no erotic content whatsoever.
It’s hard to know exactly how many titles Kobo has pulled. What we do know is that Kobo has removed all 7,883 self-published titles distributed to their store via Draft2Digital, as confirmed in an email from D2D’s CEO to affected authors.
However, I think that’s only a tiny fraction of affected titles. Many self-published authors who distribute via the (much larger) Smashwords service have reported their books are no longer on sale on Kobo’s UK store, as have many authors who uploaded to Kobo direct, via their self-publishing platform Kobo Writing Life. And, indeed, it’s not just self-publishers that are affected. Lots of small publishers either use a distributor like Smashwords, or upload direct via KWL.
Those not in the UK will be unaware of the full extent of the problem, as only those with UK IP addresses can view the Kobo UK store. But when I ran a simple check of 10 self-published authors – none of whom write erotica or romance – half were missing from the UK store. Indeed, all seven of my titles have been pulled – which I uploaded direct via KWL – and I don’t write erotica (and don’t have any other pen-names).
In addition, Kobo’s UK partner – WH Smith – has closed their entire site. All that remains is a holding page with a statement, containing the following:
Our website will become live again once all self published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available. When our website goes back online it will not display any self published material until we are completely confident that inappropriate books can never be shown again.
The “offending titles” and “inappropriate books” are what The Daily Mail characterized as “vile books glorifying violent pornography, rape, incest and bestiality.”
Amazon and Barnes & Noble are reported to have quietly removed the titles in question, but Kobo seems to be at the mercy of its partner sites. WH Smith closing their entire site (and they sell lots of products other than books) has put intense pressure on Kobo, who reacted with the braindead decision to cull huge chunks of their self-published catalogue. I don’t know how they decided which books to pull, but it’s quite clear that most books removed don’t have any erotic content and are written by authors who haven’t published any erotic content.
And the moral panic is spreading. Whitcoulls – Kobo’s partner in New Zealand – has closed their ebookstore completely until they can “guarantee that any inappropriate material, that has been available through self published eBooks, has been removed from the Kobo eBook catalogue.”
This is pretty draconian stuff, affecting tens of thousands of authors who haven’t contravened any retailers’ guidelines. Kobo claim that removed titles which haven’t broken the rules, will be put back on sale “as soon as possible” – but no timetable was given.
Personally, I’m of the view (and I accept there’s a range of opinion on this) that a retailer can decide to stock whatever they like, and I don’t consider it censorship when any given retailer decides they don’t want to stock certain stuff. But when all retailers move in lockstep in response to a panic manufactured by a tabloid famous for clickbaiting, then that acts as a form of quasi-censorship.
And I have a real problem with outsourcing moral decisions to a tabloid like the Daily Mail.
Of course, there’s also quite a bit of double standards here. Even the Daily Mail admitted that not all the titles they outed were self-published, but Kobo’s actions have only targeted self-publishers. Indeed, the biggest selling book of 2012 was Fifty Shades of Grey which still remains on sale at Kobo, along with Flowers in the Attic (incest), Lolita (underage sex), and Justine by the Marquis de Sade (the works).
I’m not suggesting that those books should also be removed – far from it. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of corporations acting as moral policemen. I don’t think it should be a free-for-all, but we need to be very careful before we take the step of banning certain kinds of books because we personally find the contents objectionable.
Because where do you draw the line? How do you come to a consensus about what’s objectionable and what isn’t?
Obviously, nobody wants children to stumble across erotic content, but there are a variety of ways that retailers can (and do) filter this stuff that doesn’t require books to be banned. Those systems clearly weren’t working at Kobo and WH Smith, where searches on keywords like “daddy” returned erotic content alongside children’s books.
But the solution to that problem is not to remove self-published content en masse. One relatively simple tech fix would be to restrict authors of erotic content from using certain keywords in their metadata.
Alternatively, we could just ask the Daily Mail for an approved reading list.