In the past month there have been two big censorship scandals, first on Goodreads and then at a variety of English booksellers over the selling of pornographic “filth.”
The Goodreads issue is a bit more complicated and harder to understand without a lot of back story. Since this has been exhaustively and brilliantly covered on the blog Soapboxing, I will stick only to the barest facts: on September 20 a “customer care” rep for Goodreads announced on a discussion thread that the site would no longer allow reviews or shelf lists that deal with something they called “author behavior.” It then came out that they had already begun deleting reviews without giving any notice to the members. Though they have apologized for deleting without notice, they are aggressively enforcing the policy itself, including deleting an undisclosed number of reviews and even banning some members who have been trying to circumvent the policy.
The other scandal is much simpler. On October 11, a gadfly English tech journal called The Kernel published an article entitled “An Epidemic of Filth,” with the rather impressively indignant subtitle: "How Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, Waterstones and Foyles profit from breathtakingly obscene amateur paperbacks, e-books and audiobooks about rape, incest, bestiality and child abuse."
The article prompted a media storm in the British press that led two days later to Kobo Books, a Canadian e-book site which is big in England (and which I sell through), to pull all of its self-published titles, erotic or not, for review and the “venerable” WHSmith to shut down online sales entirely until, as an LA Times article quoted, “we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available.”
A gazillion unlucky pixels have probably been sacrificed to the latter controversy, with critics mostly following fairly predictable approaches: rehashes of the usual debates over the censorship of pornography; handwringing, winking, or mocking recaps of the various smutty titles—a la Forced to Fit (taboo sex stories)—along with their oh-so-titillating covers; equally handwringing, winking, or mocking speculations on the amount of money Amazon actually makes selling porn.
So now it's my turn to massacre some pixels, and I'll start with a little (indecent?) disclosure: I have a concrete stake, both economic and personal, in how these scandals play out.
1. I’m a self-published author of erotica that features such potential censor-bait as ménage, brothers sharing a wife, explicit erotic scenes between men, master/slave dynamics, non-consent and dubious consent.
2. I’m a book-a-day reader of erotica, most of it edgy and most of it self- or Indie-published. I've not read Forced to Fit (yet) but I've read plenty of stuff even I find questionable.
3. I spend huge amounts of time on Goodreads, mostly as a reader searching out recommendations to feed my reading habit and posting reviews for like-minded souls, and to a much lesser degree as an author pimping my books.
I think the very first and very obvious point to make is that both scandals are symptoms and indicators of the astonishing changes wracking the publishing world. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: we are where music was a decade ago. All of the rules and most of the economics are changing at a blistering speed.
There are two points that are not as obvious but I think are very important to understanding these industry changes and hence the scandals they spawned.
1. Romance in general and erotica specifically are key harbingers and drivers of these changes in the industry.
2. What we might call “establishment publishing”—big-time editors and agents, executives at the Big Six houses, executives at major retailers like Amazon, reviewers at esteemed journals like The Times or The New Yorker, even bestselling authors—despite being deservedly regarded as “experts” on publishing, for the most part know almost nothing about erotica and what they do “know,” they don’t understand.
The connection of my two points to the scandal in Britain is obvious; the connection to the Goodreads controversy much less so. It is important to state clearly that I have no reason to think that the reviews targeted by Goodreads were of erotica, though many were of self-published authors. (I'll refer you here to an excellent article by Ceridwen on the blog Soapboxing on what we can infer from the reviews and the reviewers Goodreads targeted in the initial purge.)
However, the scandal speaks to the staggering disconnect between executives at Goodreads (and by extension Amazon which now owns it) and the site's users, who produce nearly all of its content and are thus responsible for nearly all of its value. (Salon has an excellent article on this.)
Fundamental to this disconnect is the way self-publishing has changed and is daily changing the relationship between reader, author, and bookseller. I am not trying to make the argument that erotica is somehow the cause of the traditional publishing establishment’s difficulties understanding the new culture, as if that was something I could ever prove. What I can say is that establishment publishing has a longstanding habit of dismissing romance readers as ignorant, uneducated, dumb, conservative, female, and a long list of other cliches.
This would be offensive and annoying at all times, but when it's directed towards a group of readers who are heavy and reliable book buyers, to the tune of $1.4 billion in book sales a year, it becomes unbelievably myopic. No surprise, these readers are moving in massive numbers to self- and indie-published titles—including erotica that has not been prescreened and sanitized by unsympathetic or snobbish editors, agents, and publishers worried about propriety.
The publishing establishment’s problems with erotica and romance readers are symptomatic of their general inability to cope with the threat self-publishing poses to their business. I would also argue those problems are not fundamentally different from Goodreads’ problems with its reviewers. Goodreads reviewers are non-professional; they generally couldn’t care less about the world of establishment publishing—what confers prestige or makes it money. But top reviewers and group organizers have a lot of power to turn books into hits. Many of them are in frequent contact with authors, and especially through groups like M/M Romance they are quite literally driving innovations in publishing. Unlike many of their establishment peers, they understand the new publishing world very, very well.
And they are fucking angry about this. To quote Ceridwen, a blogger who is a top reviewer and librarian and who is now deleting her account:
Our anger at high-handed and vague policy decisions is not off-topic at all. It is the heart of a dispute about a database and a social network that is largely user-built, from the millions of hours Goodreads Librarians have put in correcting the database, to millions of reviews people have added to this site. It absolutely burns me that Goodreads can turn around and wave this changed terms of service at me like I’m some unruly child who needs to be checked. I’m not your product, or an idiot. I can see what you’re doing with these deletions, and I can tell you, Goodreads, it’s not going to work. I’m still fighting for a community I believe in.
So that’s the background and this post has cost the lives of more pixels than I'd intended. The hope and plan here is to take up some of the implications of these controversies in separate, shorter pieces, which are provisionally titled:
A Goodreads primer: or why everyone especially industry types should care about censorship here.
Why the fuck aren’t there any professional reviewers of erotica or romance?
Is Tentacle Sex “filth,” and am I depraved for writing and reading it?
Perhaps I can time my Tentacle-Sex blog piece with the publication of my upcoming masterpiece, Pet to the Tentacle Monsters! If I'm going down for publishing filth, I might as well get in a little shameless self-promotion while I'm at it. I can't promise it will be the equal of Forced to Fit since I've not read the book. On the other hand, I have been meaning to check out some dinosaur porn. If I find anything good, I will definitely post it on my tentacles-monsters shelf on Goodreads.