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:
- 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
- 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
- Bestiality (sexual activity involving animals) including sexual acts in shape-shifter books if the shape-shifter is in shifted form
- 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.