Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Books and Censorship

This week a lettter from Smashwords was posted in my publishers author group about a policy PayPal is enforcing with their book sellers. Basically PayPal is forcing their booksellers to remove any books that contain certain content (erotica featuring bestiality, rape, and incest for example.) While I don't write (or read) these kinds of books, plenty of people do.

I'm not a fan of censorship. I think people should have the freedom to choose whatever types of material they want. People are smart. If something offends someone, they won't buy it again. A book rating system could even be put in place to make things easier on readers.

I'm concerned that PayPal could enforce stricter regulations in the future. Who's to say they won't start limiting the amount/type of violence, or swearing, or whatever else they feel like in the future. PayPal's job shouldn't be to regulate and enforce content, in my opinion. But right now, book sellers don't have many better options.

If you haven't seen it, I'm going to post the letter from Smashwords below.

What do you think about the situation?

From Smashwords:

I'm writing to give you an update on where things stand. We are extending the
deadline (previously set for tonight) for Smashwords authors/publishers/agents
to voluntarily remove certain content (erotica featuring themes of rape, bestiality,
incest) from Smashwords . I'll communicate the new deadline in a future email
once I gain new information.

I had another call with PayPal this morning. Our conversation is continuing
with them as I seek to achieve a less onerous, more sensible result.

There's a sliver of hope that I might be able to obtain a more positive, less
restrictive outcome than I communicated on Friday, yet it's unlikely we'll achieve
the true result I want (no censorship) in the near term. Today, PayPal hinted
at a more relaxed definition of prohibited content as, according to them [I'm
paraphrasing], "books for which rape, bestiality and incest are the major theme.
If rape, bestiality and incest are incidental plot points, then that content
might be allowable."

This represents a significant clarification in our ongoing attempt to delineate
the gray areas and push back the onerous, unfair and restrictive definitions
as they now stand. It's an opening, but it's not the final word from PayPal.
Our friends at PayPal are trying their their best to help Smashwords authors
and publishers.

This potential relaxation doesn't solve the broader issue of censorship. I think
if a writer wants to write fiction around the theme of [anything], I think they
should be able to write it if it's legal.

Today's progress, while encouraging, also opens up new gray area. How does one
judge whether the taboo subjects are incidental instances or major themes? Where
does one draw the line? The PayPal rep and I agreed our discussion will continue,
and they assured me our PayPal services will not be cut off as we both work in
good faith to advance the discussions.

A lot of people have been attacking Smashwords for my decision to comply with
PayPal's requirements. They're pointing their arrows at the wrong target, and
they're not helping their cause. We're working to effect positive long term
change for the entire Smashwords community, and that includes all our erotica
authors and readers. This change is possible only if we work together toward
a common goal. When people spread lies that this is all part of a Smashwords
plot to dispose of "icky books" (their words, not mine), or try to portray our
actions as some sexist attack against against women, or worse attacks I won't
repeat here, they're wrong. Despite the ugliness shown to me and Smashwords
over the weekend, I'm still working to protect these very people who attack us.
The attackers don't understand what we're doing on their behalf behind the scenes,
and even if they did understand I don't expect them to agree with our approach.
I'd rather work with PayPal in good faith than martyr the entire Smashwords
community upon the stake of this impending deadline.

This is only the first chapter in this battle. Even if we fail in the short
term we survive to fight another day. Regardless of the near term outcome, we
will continue to engage to effect positive change with your help.

Over the weekend, many Smashwords authors and publishers demanded we abandon
PayPal and find a new payment processor. It's not so simple, and it doesn't
solve the greater problem hanging over everyone's head. PayPal is trying to
implement the requirements of credit card companies, banks and credit unions.
This is where it's all originating. These same requirements will eventually
rain down upon every other payment processor. PayPal is trying to maintain their
relationships with the credit card companies and banks, just as we want to maintain
our relationship with PayPal. People who argue PayPal is the evil villain and
we should drop them are missing the bigger picture. Should we give up on accepting
credit cards forever? The answer is no. This goes beyond PayPal. Imagine the
implications if credit card companies start going after the major ebook retailers
who sell erotica?

My objective is for PayPal and Smashwords to pull the credit card companies into
a more open discussion about these issues. I want all financial institutions
to reevaluate their policies. I want the banks to change or clarify their policies
toward something more enlightened. I want PayPal to loosen their policies. We
need financial institutions to get out of the business of telling writers what
they can write and what readers can read. Without this much-needed debate, the
slippery slope gets more slippery for all indies.

Indie authors are the biggest publishers of erotica. Already, one retailer/distributor,
Bookstrand, decided to drop all indies from their store. I can only assume
they decided the angry authors were more trouble than they were worth. Our business
is all about serving indie authors, so even if some segments of our author community
are shooting arrows at us, we still want to help them work through this. The
campaign at hand goes beyond erotica authors. It's an indie issue. Indies are
breaking the boundaries previously set by large traditional publishers. This
boundary-breaking scares people. We should welcome the debate about what a "good
book" should look like. I think a good book is anything legal that readers want
to read, even if I don't want to read it myself.

This campaign represents an incredible long shot. To move this forward, I need
your help. Even if you don't publish in the categories directly impacted by
this crackdown, this campaign matters to you.

What can you do to move things forward? First, direct your attention where it
matters most. Contact your credit card company or congressperson and tell them
you want financial services companies out of the business of censoring what writers
and readers are free to imagine with fiction. Blog about it. Tweet about it.
Contact your favorite blogger and encourage them to raise awareness. Start
petitions and tell financial institutions you want their censors out of your
head. Contact the media. The media, with your urging, has the power to shine
a bright light on the dangerous slipperly slope of censorship by financial institutions.

If the media (both traditional and social) calls on credit card companies and
banks to honestly answer these simple questions, then they'll either be compelled
to acknowledge the absurdity of their policies or they'll be compelled to rewrite
their policies. This troublesome tide can shift if financial institutions are
forced to answer why they're prohibiting legal fiction.

I realize my message to you today cannot possibly answer all the questions you
may have. Know that we're working for all authors, even those likely to suffer
from whatever ultimate changes we implement in the near term. We all want censors
off our backs and out of our heads, and if that's not the result we achieve,
then we'll at least work to get you more clearly defined rules. Bear with us.

I will post this message in the Smashwords Press room at
so it's archived.

Mark Coker

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow...this is terrible. Paypal is owned by ebay which is a Mormon-owned company. I'm not surprised they are trying to do this, and I lament that religion has become so powerful that they are actively censoring writing. What is happening in this world is awful.