Censorship, Sensibilities And Responsibilities. Is Erotica An Endangered Species? The Dark Side Of Smashwords.

Go Global In 2014

NB This post contains references to, and links to, ebooks that some may find offensive.

If you are a children’s or YA author, how would you feel about having your ebooks on display next to titles that make no pretence to be anything other than hard core pornography?

Come to that, if you write in any other genre, including mainstream erotica, would you want your title on display alongside ebooks that contain graphic sexual references in their titles, and product descriptions that graphically describe “gangbangs”, “anal fisting”, sex between stepfathers and stepdaughters, sex with horses and dogs, etc?

Some would argue that since Fifty Shades of Gray erotica has become “mainstream” and is part of the literary furniture nowadays.

We’d agree. Whatever your thoughts on the content, the title, cover and product description of Fifty Shades is unlikely to give even the most prudish reader sleepless nights.

And while we wouldn’t want to see Fifty Shades alongside children’s books, if it did appear amongst them then, short of using the Look Inside feature and reading through, there’s little to disturb young and impressionable minds.

Let’s be clear. The issue here is not about censorship. It’s about sensibilities and responsibilities.

Something that Mark Coker and Smashwords seem to care little about.

Those of us who simply upload titles to Smashwords to get distribution on other stores may have no cause to look at the Smashwords site itself, or the Smashwords bookstore, but readers do. Not in great numbers, but it happens.

And here’s the thing: When we upload our titles to Amazon, Apple, Nook, Kobo et al we have an expectation that our children’s, YA and mainstream adult novels – be they cozy mysteries, techno-thrillers, romance, sci-fi, whatever – will be sold alongside similar material, and not alongside extreme and taboo erotica that use sexually explicit cover images and graphic titles and blurbs as their selling point.

Yes, there’s adult material on Amazon. Not to mention sex toys – you can get everything you need to replay the Fifty Shades drama, and a whole lot more, in the Amazon store. But it’s not on the home page. You need to deliberately seek it out to find it.

On Amazon and Apple you don’t have titles like “My Babysitter’s Virgin C**t” or “Teaching Our Teenage Daughter To F**k” thrust in your face on the home page, or titles glorifying nubile young girls pleasuring horses or dogs, or “gangbangs”, or “anal fisting”.

You do on Smashwords.

Sadly this is the dark side of Smashwords Mark Coker is happy to take money from while claiming to champion freedom of expression. And the reason OverDrive refused point blank to have any erotica titles from Smashwords at all, even though most indie erotica is quite innocuous, and even though OverDrive carry a ton of erotica titles in their catalogue.

If people want to read hard core porn and whatever (some of the bestiality stories on Smashwords would have us in the UK arrested if we were caught with them) that’s fine.

But there’s a place for everything, and the Smashwords public catalogue is NOT the place for titles like these. Have a separate adults-only section.

Be clear Mark Coker is fully aware these titles are on the site, and does not see a problem. So long as it’s technically legal, it’s okay. The adult filter is there, he says.

The problem is if you switch on the adult filter you block standard adult titles like horror or thrillers. Turn the adult filter off and when you go to the Smashwords home page and there’s every chance a graphic cover and very graphic titles and descriptions of young girls and horses or stepdaughters and stepfathers will have just been loaded to the store and be shoved in your face.

Everything uploaded to the store, before being subject to any checks by Smashwords for guideline compliance, is automatically visible and for sale. And as often as not your innocuous book for kindergarten children will be right alongside titles that should not be seen anywhere near books for young children.

See image below. This particular screenshot was chosen because the adult material in question is not too extreme. There are far more graphic titles and covers popping up alongside children’s books every day on the Smashwords homepage.

Smashwords screenshot

We’ve nothing against gay erotica.

In the right place.

But listed next to an innocuous children’s book on the Smashwords homepage is NOT the right place.

So let’s look at the censorship angle. Obvious we all support freedom of expression. Within reason. But there are few among us who will take that all the way. Including Smashwords.

Do you think it acceptable to publish material involving sex with children, or that incites race hatred or homophobia?

We don’t, and Mark Coker does not. These subjects are clearly banned, as per FAQs and guidelines on the Smashwords site.

Not that this stops titles of that ilk getting through.

Just this week there appeared on Smashwords a grossly offensive title called “Memoirs of a Pedophile”. Not some academic study of a troublesome social problem, but a vignette memoir clearly listed as erotica, with a picture of a pre-teen girl on the cover.

Smashwords guidelines are clear that stories involving underage sex are not permitted. This title has been removed.

But the Smashwords guidelines are generally enforced, when at all, with such lack of vigour that they are usually ignored.

Again, let’s be clear. We are not advocating censorship.

This is not an issue about freedom of expression. It’s about sensibilities and responsibilities.

Yes, lots of sites sell hardcore porn, but there are clear gateways you have to pass through to get to them, and they are clearly labeled as adults-only, usually with strict age-verification restrictions.

With Smashwords you simply open up the site in your browser and up come all the latest uploads to the store. If you’ve just uploaded your latest children’s story and someone has just uploaded a very graphic story about young blondes girls having sex with a stallion or two dogs, or some stepfather having sex with his stepdaughter, or some teachers “gang-banging” their students, that story will be right there on the time line with graphic cover, graphic title and graphic descriptions alongside your story for eight year olds.

Yes, you can turn on the adult filter – and exclude everything except nuns’ memoirs and papal biographies.

But two things: First, what’s to stop a child simply switching off the adult filter?

Absolutely nothing.

Apart from which, on Mark Coker’s own admission on the Smashwords site, the Adult Filter doesn’t work!

Not only is the Adult Filter completely open to a child switching it off (and why would any unsuspecting parent suppose Smashwords would be a place they wouldn’t want their children visiting in the first place?), but even when it’s on it doesn’t do the job.

From the Smashwords FAQ page: “Even if the Adult Filter is on, if you search for Adult content, you can find it.”

So that’s okay then. We wouldn’t want an Adult Filter that actually worked, would we… What would be the point?

Here’s the thing: If Mark Coker wants to sell this stuff, fine. If it’s legal and there’s demand, good luck to him. We are not dictating what people can read or what they can sell.

But put it in a separate section that our children cannot get into with a single click of an opt-in/opt-out button. Put this stuff in a separate section with strict age-verification and a clear label of content, so we can recommend Smashwords to friends and family in good conscience.

And bear in mind that indies are completely banned from one of the key UK ebook retail sites, WH Smith, precisely because material like this was getting through along with the mainstream ebooks they expected and wanted from Kobo. The same sort of material caused the closure of the ebook arm of the New Zealand store Whitcoulls.

Mark Coker is adamant none of those titles were from Smashwords. Maybe so. Kobo took the rap.

We all pay the price.

But it’s no wonder that OverDrive, which has a ton of erotica ebooks available, just said a blanket no to Smashwords erotica titles. It’s no wonder that many agents, many small publishers and many indie authors, simply will not consider listing in the Smashwords store.

No, this doesn’t make Mark Coker a bad man. It does call into question his business nous, and his respect for readers, for authors, and for distribution partners.

But let’s come back to the Adult Filter, which Mark Coker believes to be widely admired in the publishing industry, even though he admits it doesn’t actually work.

You see, having got as far as clicking the mouse to turn off the adult filter any child can then download samples offering a lot more graphic detail, always supposing the graphic detail in the titles and blurbs hasn’t scared them off.

But the blurbs and titles are bad enough. Because Coker chooses to ignore his own guidelines when it comes to allowing titles to be sold.

The guidelines are clear that stories about rape, incest and underage sex are not allowed.

Incest not allowed? Check out titles like “Daddy’s Little Slut” (pseudo-incest as its stepfather and stepdaughter). (LINK)

or “F*****g My Drunk Mommy” (LINK)

which asserts it is “pseudo-incest” in the sub-title but in the blurb makes no mention of stepsons and stepmothers. “When his Mom comes home drunk and passes out on the sofa, a horny eighteen year old boy, takes full advantage of her incapacitated state, and indulges a secret, long-held fantasy.”

Rape not allowed? Well, we can all point to mainstream fiction and films about rape and how the victims handle it. Jodie Foster in The Accused, for example. But these books and films don’t glorify rape.

Are Smashwords titles any different?

Check out “Raped At Comic-Con” which with categories like erotica and BDSM leaves little room for doubt that is it not a sensitive drama. (LINK)

Or “Raped By Teacher” – selected categories erotica and BDSM. (LINK) No pretence here that this is some sort of sensitive drama either. This simply glorifies the act.

Or how about “Raped… And I Loved It,” which is described on the product page as “extreme hardcore erotica” and could in no way be deemed to be anything but glorifying a criminal act.

This author has such other delights on offer as “I Want To Watch You Jerk Off In My Panties”, with a classic one-leg-over here/one-leg-over the cover that even if she is wearing the aforementioned panties is not what we would want our children seeing. Or our mothers, who by any definition are adults.

The second title may not fall foul of the Smashwords guidelines. The first most certainly does. But it’s still there.

Bestiality is not banned by Smashwords, so some authors take full advantage.

Take “Raped By The Dog Pack” for example, which the blurb tells us “contains contains rough, nonconsensual bestiality between a nubile high school girl and a pack of large dogs.” (LINK)

“Nonconsensual” is pretty much the textbook definition of rape. But apparently it is acceptable, and furthermore conforms to the guideline to “Keep book descriptions PG-13.”

The Smashwords guidelines also advise against “excessive profanity or sexually explicit language” in the product descriptions.

By any definition the wording “Kitty rode my cock gently for a couple of minutes as her tits swung a few inches from my face” must surely count as sexually explicit language. But there it is in the description of the sensitively titled “Lick My Clit”. (LINK)

This title has been on Smashwords since 2012, bringing in money for Coker despite clearly breaching the guidelines.

Then there’s no-go area # 5 from the Smashwords guidelines: “Book titles with profanity.”

By any sane definition titles like “My Babysitter’s Virgin C**t” (LINK)

or “Abraham Lincoln: Presidential F**k Machine” (LINK)

or “Teaching Our Teenage Daughter To F**k” (LINK)

breach these guidelines. But hey, they are selling and making money. Who cares?

Well, lots of people do. Just witness the headlines when titles very similar to these were found in the WH Smith ebook store.

WH Smith’s response, while throwing the baby out with the bathwater, was not advocating censorship. They were making a very clear statement about sensibilities and responsibilities.

Yes, these titles may be legal, but that doesn’t mean they are appropriate in a general store providing content aimed at very young children.

Yes, Amazon sells sex toys. (LINK) But it doesn’t put them alongside children’s ebooks on the home page.

No, Mark Coker, the Adult Filter is not adequate. Again, by Mark Coker’s own admission, “Even if the Adult Filter is on, if you search for Adult content, you can find it.”

We are not advocating censorship.

What we would like to see is sexually-explicit adult material clearly segregated from children’s book, YA titles, cozy mysteries, sensual romances, literary fiction, etc, etc.

Yes, that will raise issues about classification of some titles. Steamy romances and niche erotica may need careful scrutiny to decide where it goes.

But titles like “Daddy’s Little Ballerina Gets F****d” (LINK)

or “Seducing My Son (Keep It In The Family” (LINK)

leave little to argue about.

By all mean sell this stuff if you want to, Mark Coker. But don’t sell it alongside our YA and children’s books on the Smashwords home page.

You’re supposed to be flying the flag for the indie movement, not bringing it into disrepute.

In your own words, you believe erotica is “an endangered species”.

In comments over at The Passive Voice back in June  (LINK) you said,

 “I can tell you my sense is that erotica is an endangered species at retailers and libraries. My impression from conversations with other partners is that it’s seen as too high-risk to the brand and reputation of any store or library.”

You went on,

 “Bestiality doesn’t represent a violation of our ToS. I think a greater concern of retailers is incest, pseudo-incest and barely legal.”

This from the man who runs the store known in the trade as Smutwords, which delights in making available “incest, pseudo incest and barely legal.”

You couldn’t make it up.

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3 responses to “Censorship, Sensibilities And Responsibilities. Is Erotica An Endangered Species? The Dark Side Of Smashwords.

  1. NB Whitcoulls NZ has new owners who do not sell romance or erotica titles AT ALL either online or in their physical stores. It is their policy.
    Smashwords are slack in a number of ways and I think you are correct that they should segregate topics and front page matter. Although so few people buy direct from their store perhaps it isn’t considered important?

  2. Pingback: Smashwords Titles Now Appearing In OverDrive Mainstream Ebook Catalogue. | Ebook Bargains UK Blog

  3. Pingback: Smashwords OverDrive Saga Updated – It’s Looking More Promising By The Day. | Ebook Bargains UK Blog

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