Should Self-publishing Platforms Censor Objectionable Books?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

censorshipAn investigation by the British website The Kernel asserts that “hundreds of ebooks that celebrate graphic sex, incest, and ‘forced sex’ with young girls,” are available for sale through Amazon.

The books are sold as “Kindle Editions.” Among the titles available (whose names actually be printed here) are Don’t Daddy (Forced Virgin Seduction) and Daddy’s Invisible Condom (Dumb Daughter Novelette).

Looking at a book by author Shannon Leigh (whose title is too explicit for this site), The Kernel said, “The book is a sick rape fantasy with language and details too graphic for a family-friendly publication to reproduce.”

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg reports that while Amazon has removed some of the offending titles from the site, other titles, such as Taken by the Vikings (rough erotic ménage romance),” Forced to Fit (taboo sex stories)” and Submissive’s Folly: Seduced and Ravaged, are still available. (The stories don’t appear in search results on the website – consumers need to know the direct link to the page selling that title. However, as The Kernel points out, “readers who purchase the purchase page for Naughty Daughter Abducted and Pounded by Daddy’s…are informed what ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.’”

The Kernel also reports that Amazon does have strict guidelines in place for amateur authors who want to self-publish using the Kindle Direct Publishing service. “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts,” say the guidelines. “What we deem offensive is probably what you would expect.”

But at the same time, it’s relatively easy for authors to set up “fake publishing houses” for themselves, as simply as paying $200 for a set of ISBN prefixes, which allows them to then bypass those restrictions. And in other cases, books are simply miscategorized (allegedly, one book about incest was categorized as a children’s book.)

And according to the LA Times, another author’s method to bypass Amazon’s restrictions was to simply use non-letters to disguise illicit material, as in the case of “It’s Timmy’s 18th birthday and his gorgeous s*ster Rachel, whom he lusted after for years, brings him to a party.”

In response to the reports, Kobo simply pulled all self published e-books from its website, announcing that it “hoped to return compliant self-published e-books to the store within a week.”

And the British bookseller W.H. Smith, which uses Kobo as its e-book vendor, took matters even further and shut down its entire website over the issue, leaving nothing but a statement that reads: “Our website will become live again once all self published ebooks have been removed and 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.”

And The Guardian reported that in an additional written statement, W.H. Smith apologized to customers and said the “explosion” of self-publishing had left book retailers exposed to pornographic content. “This is an industry wide issue impacting retailers that sell self-published ebooks due to the explosion of self-publishing, which in the main is good as it gives new authors the opportunity to get their content published.

“However, we are disgusted by these particular titles, find this unacceptable and we in no way whatsoever condone them. It is our policy not to feature titles like those highlighted and we have processes in place to screen them out.”

But how responsible should Amazon be for what is sold on its site? Jack Rivlin, writing in The Telegraph argues very:

“It’s not shocking that these books exist – we know a limitless buffet of filth is only a rattle on the keyboard away. But Amazon, one of the largest retailers in the world, is making a cut from their sales. Worse still, this light-touch regulation, where the company all but abdicates responsibility for what it sells, is part of Amazon’s business model. Can you imagine Waterstones or Tesco stocking books about shagging beloved pets? No, because they are shops in the traditional sense – they buy their stock and they sell it. Amazon is different: it’s part shop, and part marketplace. Anyone can sell on its site, whether they are an author, jewellery designer, or hey, just an incurable pervert.

And because it’s a medium, rather than just a good old-fashioned shop, Amazon tolerates – or rather, ignores – the torrents of smut it profits from…But they are responsible, and they know it…we should ask whether these tech giants, which are so powerful they are pretty much beyond the reach of the state, have any moral compass at all, and whether we should be worried.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.