Removal of Self-Published Content by Online Retailers Results in Petition

In response to an alarming number of retail giants removing self-published material deemed “inappropriate” from their websites, a group of authors have come together to form a petition in support of the creators. While each privately owned company is entitled to determine and exercise their own policies, there are concerns over the vagueness of content guidelines as well as the potential impact content policies might have on free expression.

Publisher’s Weekly reported on the petition, providing more information on the stances of the major digital platform retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. The petition, addressed to Jeff Bezos (CEO, Amazon), Michael Serbins (CEO, Kobo) and Leonard Riggio (Founder/executive chairman, Barnes & Noble) requests that the companies “leave our self-published and/or Indie authors alone,” and specifically addresses self-published materials in the erotic genre that had been removed. From PW:

The issue over the removal of material has been simmering. While all three retailers had been removing self-published erotica titles deemed inappropriate, things came to something of a head — and began getting picked up by the consumer press — after Kobo removed all self-published titles from one its sites.

Kobo posted a statement on October 15th, stating that the items removed violated the content policy for their store.

A spokesperson from Kobo also told PW that the company never shut down its self-publishing platform Kobo Writing Life, and clarified that titles were only removed from the retailer’s site in the U.K. Now, the spokesperson said, Kobo is taking steps to update its content policy. The spokesperson continued: “We are additionally taking steps to ensure that compliance to our policies — and international law — is met by all authors and publishers. Content that does comply will be made available online as soon as possible. In fact, we are already returning titles to the Kobo catalogue and expect the large majority will be available by end of week. Additional titles requiring further examination will be reviewed over the next week. Those that meet our content policy will also be returned to the store.

Although Kobo confirmed that they plan to continue with their self-publishing platform, they are revising their content policy, which had been vague in the past. Their content policy currently prohibits pornography, nudity, and sexually explicit material, with the exception of “appropriate” adult or explicit material. No further guidelines are issued on what Kobo deems as appropriate, but they do state that pedophilia, incest, bestiality, exploitation, and sexual force are unacceptable.

It is unclear if Kobo, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble plan to hold traditionally published materials to the same policies, but it’s safe to say that if they were to do so, the list of prohibited titles would be immense.

Indie erotica author Dalia Daudelin has been a strong voice of support for the petition, as several of her books were removed with little explanation. In her blog post on the topic she expands upon the goals of these revised policies, which seem to target books perceived as abuse-themed, even if the actual content isn’t abusive or exploitative.

Amazon, the largest web-based store in the US and definitely the largest ebook store in the US, has been removing huge amounts of books that have certain keywords in them. Many are what you’d expect: “daddy”, “daughter”, “little girl”. However, there is now evidence that they are removing any reference to the keyword virgin. They’re even removing stories about babysitters, even when they’re over 18 and having completely consensual sex.

Instead of telling authors exactly what they want and do not want in their store, they are explicitly refusing to give any details. When a book is blocked on their website, they will only tell you if it was blocked because of the cover, the title, or the description. That’s it. They will not tell you what is wrong with your cover, title, or description. 

Often, the potential access children may have to the material is used as reasoning for removing it. Daudelin explains that none of the authors are interested in selling porn to children and takes online retailers to task for not being more proactive:

The problem of children supposedly finding these books can be solved by making it so adult content is only visible when you choose for it to be. Google has safesearch. Amazon has one of the most advanced search algorithms on earth, and yet it is refusing to put all adult material on an even footing. Each of these websites should be capable of putting a check box in the settings for their account that will allow them to see or not see adult material.

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Casey Gilly is a comics journalist and cat enthusiast living in Oakland, CA, where she eats tacos and plays ukulele.