Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Who Decides What You Read?

If you're reading this blog, you're most likely someone who, like me, loves the written word. The typical reader of erotic romance consumes dozens of books per month. The advent of ebooks has made it easier and cheaper than ever for us to feed our addiction to reading. Hop over to Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or All Romance Ebooks, or Smashwords, and in minutes you can be opening the latest scorcher from your favorite author. What a fantastic system!

In the last two weeks, though, we authors have been confronted with the darker side of this publishing revolution. Author-oriented lists and blogs have been filled with frantic, frightened, angry commentary regarding PayPal's recent ultimata to independent bookseller sites. I'm really not sure, though, how much visibility this issue has gotten among readers.

The situation in a nutshell is this. PayPal is trying to decide what you may and may not read, by restricting the content its customers may offer for sale.

Booksellers like ARE and Smashwords depend heavily on PayPal - not only to handle customer sales but also to pay royalties to authors and publishing companies. PayPal has threatened to cut off service to these enterprises unless they remove from their virtual shelves all books with the following categories of content:

  1. Incest, including sexual relationships between distant relatives such as cousins, unrelated individuals like step siblings, and also "pseudo incest", that is, role play in which the partners are not related but are pretending to enact an incestuous relationship
  2. Sexual activity involving "apparently" underage characters, including pretty much any story that includes a couple in which one member is a teenager of legal age but the other is significantly older
  3. Bestiality (sexual activity involving animals) including sexual acts in shape-shifter books if the shape-shifter is in shifted form
  4. BDSM stories about rape fantasies or role-playing, even when the submission is actually consensual.

Now, you may not personally like to read some of these categories of erotic content. However, some readers do. You may argue that PayPal is only enforcing the law, but in fact these definitions of prohibited content go far beyond what is illegal, forbidding fantasy as well as completely legal activities such as BDSM. In any case, nobody is trying to stop the sale of murder mysteries, despite the obviously illegal acts they describe. No, this action targets erotic sexual material only.

Many authors are screaming "Censorship!", with good reason - but since PayPal is a private company, with a commercial relationship to the booksellers involved, they cannot be accused of violating free speech protections. Well, they can be accused (and have been), but most commentators agree that there's no possible legal grounds for attacking these policies.

You may shrug your shoulders here, saying, "Who cares? I don't like this kind of book anyway. Maybe this sort of content should be treated as obscene." But wait: will you still feel this way if PayPal decides that M/M sex is a no-no? How about ménage? Or even sex between a man and a woman who aren't married?

"That will never happen," you may say. Think about the virulent opposition in some quarters to gay marriage. Remember the "amazonfail" incident, where Amazon systematically purged GLBT content? I'll wager even money that if PayPal gets away with this ultimatum, we'll see a ban on homosexual content within twelve months.

Am I making you a bit worried? You should be. PayPal and the conservative forces behind it want to decide what you can and cannot read, based on their definitions of what is appropriate. Sweet romance will probably survive, but if this trend continues, erotic romance is likely to become a lot tamer - or maybe disappear entirely.

However, you have some power to influence this situation. You're the reader, the buyer, the one who's money greases the wheels of the huge ebook publishing industry. Speak up! Tell your favorite bookseller that you, not PayPal, should be the one who specifies your reading list. Contact your legislators and express your concerns. Contact PayPal and tell them you're an adult; you can decide for yourself what to read. You don't need them to babysit or protect you.

And share news about this situation with other readers. Post a link to this blog on your Facebook page, or link to the open letters from the National Coalition Against Censorship or the Electronic Freedom Foundation, both of which offer well-written rebuttals to the notion that PayPal's action is defensible. Tweet, blog, make noise! Help make PayPal realize how hugely unpopular this policy is, and how much it will cost them and their customers.

You'll see other authors blogging about how this is the first step toward a police state, with total control over the media. They may be right. As far as I'm concerned, this first step is bad enough. Nobody should have the right to control what I read. And that's true for you, too.


Remittance Girl said...

Thanks so much for blogging about this issue, Lisabet. It is incredibly important. How utterly insane is it that perfectly grown up readers are being treated in this way.

Meanwhile, 42 writers, readers and publishers have formed a group to try and combat this slide towards economic censorship. Please join us at bannedwriters.com

Fabian Black said...

I can't agree more with the points you raise. Anyone who thinks that Paypal will stop at banning 'extreme' erotica is deluding themselves. They'll come after other forms of erotica and it's only a question of time before GLBT books are targeted, regardless of whether they're erotic or sweet romance. Censorship once started gathers momentum and soon crushes all in its path. Paypal action represents a serious threat to freedom of thought and choice. It's utterly scandalous that they're being allowed to get away with it. We seem to be moving towards a frightening new era of repression.

Emerald said...

Great post, Lisabet. Thanks for writing and sharing it.

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes. good post.

Word Actress said...

This is one of oh so many ways the 'publishing' biz is changing. Don't even get me started on Amazon and
how they are secretly (or not so secretly) trying to create the 'next big writer' using all of their insider resources to do so, to include having their insiders write book reviews as if they are just you and me. And the people they're selecting are NOT good writers at all. Think actor/soap opera star James Franco who co-hosted with Anne Hathoway the Oscars last year to not a very successful review. He's been asked by Amazon to write four books which they will heavily promote. ANYWAY, thank-you Lisabet for always staying on top of everything that matters to writers. You are one of our finest (in all ways! And i very much agree with you that nobody is going to control what I read...

L.M. Brown said...

Great post. Shared it on FB.

I totally agree that this is probably just the start. It needs to be nipped in the bud now before it goes too far.

Christina said...

Why does everyone these last 2 years want to control what we read?? Isn't enough how stupid they drive us through the most idiotic tv shows, now they HAVE to control what we read??!! This isn't only Censorship but an act against freedom of speech and individuality and forming my own damn opinion!!!

thank you for the post and making me aware of this and I was happy to be able to use their services... now I just want to @$#%!&

Keta Diablo said...

Hi Lisabet, saw this on my GLBT yahoo loop. Indeed! What is next? I tweeted this and also added to Google+.

Thanks, Keta

Keziah Hill said...

Good, concise post Lisabet.

Tessie L'Amour said...

I have seen a couple of transgender writers say that they have been asked to take down their work from Smashwords, even when it isn't erotica. I would bet that is the next step, before m/m or menage, although I would guess menage is close behind.

The more momentum the moralists can get behind stopping topics that make a lot of people uncomfortable, the harder it will be to stop them. Unfortunately, sex makes a lot of people uncomfortable, so it is an easy area to target.

Dianna Hardy said...

Excellent post - have shared. Thanks.

Bianca Sommerland said...

Insightful post as always, Lisabet! I've been making as much noise as I can, but it occurred to me too that while this is horrible for us as authors, there's only so much we can do. The readers have the power and the numbers to make a difference.

And **whimper** I was so nervous about my other books, I didn't even consider menage being in danger! O_O

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks to all of your for your comments, and even more, for helping to get the word out on this issue, and getting your readers involved.

Ironically, my company (not writing related) uses PayPal for its payment processing. Today I received an email from them inviting me to participate in a customer survey. It seems that I was randomly selected ;^)

The first question was "How likely are you to recommend PayPal to someone else?" I chose "Very unlikely". Then they asked me what they could do to improve their service... ! I didn't overdo it but I made my opinions on their policy very clear.

They're doing a drawing for a $1000 prize for one person who answers the survey. Wouldn't it be a hoot if I won?

Unknown said...

I feel as if I'm having a moment of de ja vu. Sad that I remember when they talked about censoring music. Thank you Lisabet for blogging on this matter. It needs to be brought to the attention of everyone. Because when will they stop? I believe no one has the right to tell me -an adult over the age of 21- what I can and cannot read.

Julia Kanno said...

Hi Lisabet:

This was an incredible post. I completely agree with you: no one should tell me what I can and cannot read (or write). I'll do my best to spread the word about this. This is by far the most ridiculous stunt the "biz" has pulled since the last Amazon witch hunt.

Thanks for spreading the word. :-)

blcsdina said...

Great post and of course agree. Would like to add some movies/books that might not be eligible for paypal-star wars-Luke and Leah bro and sis, VC Andrews books, Pulp Fiction, The Accused which won an academy, The Reader-another academy, etc. Hypocritical thinking!

K. A. Burton said...

I agree pretty much with everything that you say. I would only like to caution you that in many states in the USA BDSM is actually illegal. (I know pretty stupid in my thoughts.) That is why many people involved in the scene are so cautious about keeping their private lives private.

I would also like to make mention that freedom of speech has often been tested by whay people might find objectionable (books like "Lunchbox" and the infamous Compari ad).

Freedom of speech is determined so much by what the majority finds acceptable, but by what they find challenging to tolerate.

K. A. Burton

Fiona McGier said...

I've read the quip that "pornography is whatever gives the judge a hard-on". Unfortunately, the ones who yell the loudest about how obscene things are, are usually the ones caught with the gay prostitute in a bus station restroom, right? This is the flexing of the muscles of those who want to return to the halcyon days they long for, when women knew their place, and men ruled. Sex wasn't talked about, and no one was allowed to enjoy it. Sigh.
Sex outlawed today, mysteries tomorrow? What will be their next target?

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