To censor or not to censor?
That is the question confronting several of the world’s top e-book sellers as a messy abuse-themed self-publishing scandal brews.
Retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the UK’s WH Smith, and Canada’s Kobo have removed problematic self-published titles after the discovery of a slew of pornographic abuse-themed e-books. WH Smith and Kobo have gone so far as to shut down an entire website and suspend the sale of all self-published books, respectively.
The move came after news last week that these retailers, knowingly or not, were selling and profiting from self-published e-books featuring rape, incest, and bestiality. (Retailers collect a percentage of the sales on self-published books.)
According to news reports, titles such as “Taking my drunk daughter,” had been on sale on Amazon and search functions would automatically suggest phrases such as “daddy daughter impregnation.”
As a result, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have said they are in the process of removing such books. Kobo has temporarily suspended all self-published titles while it performs a review process. WH Smith took the serious step of shutting down its entire UK website while it removes abusive e-books.
The news illustrates the risks that come with self-publishing, which allows anyone to get their book published and pocket a significant share of the sales. Some, like self-publishing superstars Amanda Hocking and John Locke, have attained fame and fortune from their self-publishing success.
But there is a dark side: it’s the Wild West of publishing, with few controls, editors, or oversight. The result can be self-publishing embarrassments like abuse-themed e-books.
The controversy doesn’t end there. As a number of retailers act to remove abusive e-books from their sites, some observers are calling foul on censorship, saying pulling e-books is a violation of freedom of speech.
“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."
But in many cases, e-content was in violation of retailers’ policies, and in some cases retailers themselves may be held liable for allowing access to such content without protection mechanisms.
(On Amazon, for example, guidelines for self-publishing state, “We don’t accept pornographic or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.”)
"The directors of Amazon have a very difficult question to answer: why are they making profits from pornography which, on the face of it, seems to be criminal?" said Mark Stephens, former chairman of the Internet Watch Foundation, a body responsible for monitoring criminal content online.
“At the very least there should be a certain class of material that is adult, which ought not to be universally accessible,” said John Carr, secretary to the Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety, in an interview with the BBC.
At Digital Book World, Richard Stephenson, CEO of self-publishing platform YUDU, offers some well-tested advice on overseeing self-published content in his piece “3 Simple Censorship Rules Can Safeguard Self-Published Ebooks.”
YUDU, which seeks to be family- and school-friendly, asks its contributors to follow three main guidelines: No incitement to violence, no adult content, and no copyright abuse. Guidance on the second point states, “The content must be suitable for viewing with your friends and family. The content must be suitable for viewing at work with the knowledge of your boss & colleagues. The material used must be suitable for open sale in high street retailers or shopping malls.”
As the publishing world navigates the Wild West of self-publishing, the challenge will be balancing freedom of speech with acceptable content – all without bogging down the cheap, efficient, almost instantaneous process that is self-publishing.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.