October 15, 2013

Daily Mail’s manufactured outrage prompts retailers to jettison self-published erotica


If there’s one thing the UK hasn’t seen enough of recently, it’s wide-ranging censorship based on the outrage of its pearl-clutching minority. A major victory was won in the war on obscenity in July with David Cameron’s announcement of a country-wide internet filter to block pornographic and otherwise offensive internet content.

Now, thanks in no small part to an extensive investigation conducted by the Daily Mail*, the UK’s decent, god-fearing, Newsnight-watching population can rest assured that they will never again have to suffer the choice of whether or not to purchase a pornographic novel during their perusal of WH Smith’s online ebookstore.

The Mail claimed that WH Smith’s website “openly advertised titles with disturbingly graphic content on its website, right next to children’s literature,” which is about as intellectually honest as claiming that Google is advertising topless nudes right next to benign wildlife photos when you image-search “boobies.” (In fact the offensive material appeared when users searched keywords such as “daddy” and, due to ignorance and incredibly poor website design, such searches did not discriminate between genres, causing the titles to appear side-by-side.)

In response to the controversy WHSmith took down its website and a temporary splash page stated in groveling terms: “We are disgusted by these particular titles, find this unacceptable and we in no way whatsoever condone them.” They plan to return the site once all self-published books have been removed from their catalog. Several other retailers also carrying the titles, including Barnes and Noble and Amazon, said they were taking steps to remove the offensive ebooks from their own sites.

The conservative forces driving these moral outrage campaigns seem to want it both ways: they want to end funding for layabout artists and wasteful taxpayer-funded installations, at the same time they want free-market forces only to dictate the success of safe, sensible artworks. “Let the free market reign!” they say; but when it emerges that the public might perhaps not gravitate toward Da Vinci but rather De Sade, the outrage erupts.

The question though isn’t whether “vile” “sick” books belong in mainstream bookstores: it’s how the Mail, whose entertainment coverage frequently includes questionable photos of young celebrities in various stages of undress, continues to lead the charge on the increasing moralization of legal content. By skating by on technicalities and ‘bare minimum’ standards of legality the Mail and its ilk get to publish their nearly-naked photos of 17-year-old Courtney Stodden and eat their cake too.

It makes you wonder whether the Daily Mail really believes that the sale of pornographic ebooks is harmful to children, or if it just wants to cut out the competition.

Unfortunately the real victims in this case are the thousands of self-published authors whose works are being pulled from major sites by way of unfortunate association. As reported by the Digital Reader, self-published ebooks are being removed for a variety of reasons: “The Nun’s Lover appears to have been removed simply because the description mentions the word sister.” The target has primarily been ebooks in the erotic and romance genres but some commenters reported that their entire catalogs had been removed.

There’s no indication of if and when self-published authors will be able to petition for the return of their titles to online retailers, but the impact will be enormous, especially for those who were making a handsome living off their work. Still there’s light at the end of the tunnel: retailers’ decisions to carve off one of the most profitable areas of ebook retail will no doubt serve as the moment that launched a thousand start-ups.

*read: a quick online search after a tech blog initially broke the story


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.