Amazon Erotica Authors Complain of Content-Based Removal

by on January 2nd, 2011 1 comment

Creative Commons image by Mike Licht of NotionsCapital.com.

A kerfuffle has erupted recently among authors of erotica who have published Kindle titles on Amazon.com. It turns out that those featuring content that violates Amazon’s notoriously vague “content guidelines” have been removed not only from Amazon’s catalog but from the Kindles of customers that have already bought that title.

As KDawson posted to Slashdot on December 15:

“The independent writers who publish on Amazon report that erotica books containing incest are being taken down with no explanation by Amazon, and removed from the Kindles of purchasers of the books. Author Selena Kitt writes: ‘I want to be clear that while the subject of incest may not appeal to some, there is no underage contact in any of my work, and I make that either explicitly clear in all my stories or I state it up front in the book’s disclaimer. I don’t condone or support actual incest, just as someone who writes mysteries about serial killers wouldn’t condone killing. What I write is fiction.’ Kindle’s own TV ad features a book with a story line of sex between a 19-year-old and his stepmother, defined in some states as incest (Sleepwalking by Amy Bloom).”

[Link.]

Then, on December 30, it was reported by Nom du Keyboard that the removal has been expanded to include male-on-male fiction on rape themes, pointing out:

“Recently word leaked out about Amazon removing titles containing fictional incest. Surprisingly that ban didn’t extend to the 10 titles of Science Fiction Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein that incorporate various themes of incest and pedophilia. Now, it seems that the censorship is expanding to m/m gay fiction if it contains the magic word ‘rape’ in the title. Just how far is this going to be allowed to proceed in relative silence, and who is pushing these sudden decisions on Amazon’s part?

…Nom du Keyboard’s post pointed us at  a post on the blog of Kyle Michel Sullivan), who has released male-on-male fiction with rape themes under the Amazon DTP (Digital Text Platform) system. Whether Sullivan’s work is intended to be erotic or arousing wasn’t entirely clear to me on first glance — but more on that later.

Amazon pulled Sullivan’s titles “How to Rape a Straight Guy” and “Rape in Holding Cell 6.” Sullivan quoted Amazon’s letter in response to a complaint about it:

During our review process, we found that your titles contain content that is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we have removed the books from our store.

Please note that if you continue to submit content that violates our content guidelines, we may conduct a general review of your account.  Actions resulting from such a review could result in a termination of your account.

[Link.]

Kyle wrote them back (in part):

I’m at a loss as to understand how my books violated your content guidelines.  They are not pornographic and have solid stories and meaning behind them.  The sex in them is not that much more detailed than what you find in Jackie Collins’ and Judith Krantz’s novels, all of which can be found in a library.  Also, you carry items that celebrate the torture and murder of women (see “Saw2″ “Hostel 2″ (oops) where a naked female is strung upside down and butchered so her blood can bathe another naked female lying under her) and the gleeful slaughter of human beings (“American Psycho”, for example).

Please don’t misunderstand me when I say I am not as outraged as Kyle Sullivan. It’s just that as an author, I’m not that surprised. Amazon’s content restrictions have always been bizarre at best. Their terms of service are complicated, like all terms of service, where the burden of understanding is on the user, not the company.

And what Amazon’s DTP terms of service say on the matter of content (last time I checked) is that no pornographic material is allowed. Amazon apparently feels empowered to decide what that means. I don’t roll my eyes at their willingness to make that call. I roll my eyes at their willingness to do so without telling me, as a consumer, what the hell they decided it means — except on a case by case basis, after the fact, and potentially after I’ve bought a title.

I have not read Sullivan’s work, so I have no idea if this is a case of a “serious” work of entertainment/social criticism/literature that happens to contain sexual and rape-relate themes. Whatever that word, “serious” means, let alone “entertainment,” “social criticism,” “literature.” It might also be a case of an erotica author pleading “redeeming literary value” in a reasonable argument for why explicitly sexual writing in all its forms should be allowed in any appropriate venue. I’m not so sure it matters, because that distinction is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and retailers like Amazon (or Barnes & Noble, or Waldenbooks, or Joe and Jane’s Bookstore) have made that call since time immemorial, on what grounds I couldn’t even begin to speculate from case to case.

As it pertains to Sullivan, since I haven’t read the works in question, I haven’t the foggiest idea whether we’re talking about “art” or “trash” or something in between — and I don’t care.

Amazon removing material from their site that they’ve arbitrarily decided violates their guidelines, after leaving it live for a few days, weeks, or months, is nothing new — virtually all hosting companies, credit card processors, blog engines, etc, have been doing this since dinosaurs walked the Earth. It is outrageous of them to do this, and it is a crappy way to do business. But it’s not new.

What’s new is that if you’re a Kindle consumer, Amazon can now come into your house and take your books from your Kindle because of their screw-up in not catching the content violation earlier.

As a reader of all forms of literature, and a ravenous consumer of books, I am thoroughly outraged by that.

The word “censorship” has been tossed around a lot in this matter, while all the Amazon apologists and kiss-asses flood the airwaves with their protestations that it’s only censorship if the govermment does it. I don’t know about that, exactly, but I’ll agree that censorship is a very dangerous word, and should be used with caution.

Anyone who has been writing erotica for any period of time knows — or, if they don’t, they’re not paying attention — that anywhere you write for (or publish with, even if you’re just photocopying your stories down at the Copy Kween) makes decision as to what they are okay with you saying using their property. They have no problem making money off of you, however, provided that what you say doesn’t violate, by their always arbitrary guidelines, what they consider sexually acceptable. Rape and incest, in explicit terms, has almost never been considered okay by publishers or bookstores, which is why they show up in bizarrely coded and camouflaged forms throughout the history of erotic literature.

The difference now is that consumers are purchasing works, paying for them, and then having them removed because Amazon has retroactively decided they shouldn’t have sold them in the first place. That is incredibly dangerous, and it’s designed to limit Amazon’s damage in the case of “violations” that were missed the first time around because there’s no meaningful pre-publication review process.

If this reminds anyone of 1984, it should. Back in 2009, people who had purchased an edition of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four from a certain publisher found it had vanished overnight from their Kindles, owing to the little problem of who owned the Nineteen Eight-Four copyright. It seems obvious to me that the issue there was quite explicitly that Amazon was limiting its liabilities, not protecting consumers in any way. If Amazon had published a print edition, they would have been legally liable for all the books they’d sold that they didn’t swipe back from consumer’s bookshelves. Clearly, in the case of a print edition that would have been impractical. In this case? It just took the push of a button. No muss, no fuss — and nothing to do with Nineteen Eight-Four‘s content, in political terms.

But erotica, as any published erotica author knows (or should know), is a whole nother ball game. Publishers, editors, bookstores and other outlets, magazines and blogs that might promote one’s work — they all (and I mean ALL!!!!!!) make broad sweeping generalizations and restrictions on content grounds, of one form or another. Rape and incest have traditionally been two of the themes completely verboten in most outlets, and certainly any broadly commercial outlet. You can publish all the rape or incest erotica you want in a virtually unregulated and unrestricted non-commercial forum like the Alt Sex Stories Text Repository (or ASSTR — that link is NSFW, in a BIG way). But even publishing rape-themed erotica on your blog is a very risky proposition, which is why ASSTR is as bare-bones as it is.

The problem is, and always has been, that sorting out what is “pornographic” is as difficult as ever. Authors who claim not to be pornographic have always been treated differently than those who, without apology, submit that they write to arouse their audiences.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s no good way to draw a distinction between “this story is pornographic” and “this story is a serious work of social criticism that may involve the sexual arousal of the characters and/or the readers.” Feel free to make whatever boneheaded broad, sweeping suppositions you like about “porn” vs. “erotica” vs. “literature” — retailers, and now de facto publishers, like Amazon, will make different suppositions, I guarantee you — and no amount of arguing with them will sway them.

That’s always been the big challenge of writing sexual work on challenging themes. Erotic literature pioneer Maurice Girodas of Olympia Press got chased around Paris by the gendarmes. He and his friends carried their printing press out the back door and into a waiting jalopy while the cops pounded on the front door. The Girodas family later published William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller.

Whether Amazon has censored a Burroughs or a Henry Miller or an Anais Nin or whoever by this action — or just a Thomas Roche, and who cares — I haven’t the foggiest idea, and I don’t plan to find out. Either way, it’s nothing new from a writer’s or a retailer’s perspective.

As a writer, as I alluded to earlier, I frankly don’t give a damn.

But I read a hell of a lot more than I write. From a consumer’s perspective, this trend is completely new, and is phenomenally dangerous. It must not be allowed.

In fact I would say that, as a buyer of books, Amazon’s trend of retroactively canceling sales and removing work from your virtual bookshelf is absolutely catastrophic. It renders Amazon completely unacceptable as a retailer. In the case, for instance, of a CD that I buy, then legally rip, then illegally distribute as a set of MP3s, it takes legal action to hold me liable for that.

If Amazon’s position is that their sale to you can be rescinded at any time without notifying you, it has ceased to be a retailer. It can’t even claim to be a library, because libraries are (nowadays, usually) free. It is, at best, the on-demand equivalent of a radio station, except most radio stations are free, too. Why would one pay for the temporary use of a piece of text that they might have snatched from their computer at any time, when in the vast majority of cases they could obtain the same text for the same price from a company that doesn’t have a history of changing its mind and taking its purchase back?

Again, I will deliver my opinion explicitly, in case anyone missed it: Amazon must not remove from customers’ Kindles books they have already sold to them.

Amazon, either lock down your content at the starting gate, or take your lumps when you profit from the sale of something you’re uncomfortable profiting from.

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  1. January 3rd, 2011 at 10:25 | #1

    Excellent post. But has it been confirmed by any source other than the Selena Kitt report that any titles have actually been removed from Kindles?

    I tried to track this down when Violet Blue was posting about it in December, and at the time, it appeared that the early reports were in error. What seemed to have happened, if you worked through the threads in detail, was they removed books from sale and also (briefly) from the download cloud on Amazon’s servers for people who had already purchased them — so if you were in the state of ownership-but-not-possession, Amazon owed you a digital copy and was not honoring their deal. (I got most of that from reading the comments on the Ars Technica article.) But, Amazon then released a statement (this was in connection with the incest titles) saying it was a “glitch” (presumably meaning, they were just too sweeping about which systems they deleted the titles from) and had restored the incest titles to downloadable status for people who had already purchased them.

    So, at that point, there seemed to be considerable question (unlike in the 1984 case) whether any titles had ever actually been deleted off of devices. And I can’t tell from your post here whether you’re referencing any new device deletion claims — but it doesn’t seem you are.

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to undercut all of the other excellent points you make in this blog post, I just think the factual question of whether or not Amazon actually has wrongfully deleted any files from Kindles since the 1984 debacle is very important, and it appears that everybody who has addressed it in this current round of controversy has sourced their outrage to the original semi-debunked report.

    FWIW, I despise the whole “Standards, we has them, but we won’t tell them to you” corporate mentality. And I haven’t turned on the radio in my Kindle in more than six months. I love e-readers, but I don’t trust one that’s got a bat-phone umbilical home to the mothership. Just saying all that to make it plain I’m not an Amazon apologist in all of this, just wanting to make sure we’re not throwing a witch in a pond to see if she’s heavier than a very small rock.