October 29, 2013

Kobo chief defends decision to pull “explicit” self-published titles


Kobo has recently come under fire for pulling a number of self-published titles.

Two weeks ago, a number of prominent retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo pulled a number of titles after the pornographic British newspaper the Daily Mail exploded in outrage over the proliferation of smutty self-published works being sold online. Self-published authors quickly rallied to protest what they described as “censorship,” collecting 13,000 signatures in a petition asking retailers to “LEAVE OUR EROTICA ALONE!!

Over the weekend, Kobo’s Chief Content Officer, Michael Tamblyn, responded to the fracas by issuing a statement on Kobo Writing Life.

For those few titles that remain unavailable, some feel that we chose a path of censorship. All I can say is that if your dream is to publish “barely legal” erotica or exploitative rape fantasies, distribution is probably going to be a struggle for you. We aren’t saying you can’t write them. But we don’t feel compelled to sell them. And yes, many titles live in a grey zone with far more shades than the fifty that sold so well in the past year, but that is what makes this all so challenging and so interesting. Many of our readers have no problem with an erotic title in their library next to their romance, literary fiction, investing or high-energy physics books. And we are here for the readers, so erotica stays, a small but interesting part of a multi-million-title catalogue, in all of its grey-shaded glory.

Tamblyn also made it clear that Kobo took the controversy very seriously, writing that “Almost everyone on the Kobo Content Team, spread across a dozen countries and time zones, was involved at one point or another.” You know what they say: “It takes a large group of people, spread over a dozen time zones, to rid a website of questionable content.” Still, Tamblyn was put in a tough spot and he responded about as well as he could, given the (largely manufactured) level of outrage—by not refusing to condemn erotica and, instead, simply stating that Kobo will no longer be publishing rape fantasies, Tamblyn walked an admittedly difficult tightrope.

The response to Tamblyn’s letter was mixed, however. Writing on Goodreads, John McKnight could hardly contain himself. In a post titled “Kobo’s Finest Hour,” McKnight showered the company with accolades, writing:

Others in his position might well have either said nothing, or issued the usual weasel words and large helpings of fudge accompanied by vague promises of reform that are never, of course, going to happen.

But not Michael Tamblyn. Aware, no doubt, that his words won’t go down well with certain authors and publishers who want to sell their work through the Kobo platform, he stands his ground (ground of the moral and high variety) and nevertheless tells it like it is.

McKnight’s conclusion is similarly breathless, praising Tamblyn’s “enlightened and admirable stance” noting that “putting integrity before profit in such a competitive marketplace is something rare and special, and worth celebrating.”

Others were less impressed. In a rant posted on Teleread, Paul St. John McKintosh went after Tamblyn and McKnight, writing:

I don’t know whether it’s fair to use someone like McKnight as a stick to beat Tamblyn over the head with, but Tamblyn certainly deserves to be beaten with something, and McKnight happens to be the thickest stick to hand. Tamblyn himself makes no admission of shortcomings in Kobo’s operation, and no apology to the writers who suffered through the affair. If, for instance, Kobo carried “some content clearly in violation of our posted standards,” then how on earth did it get there in the first place? No one can sneak stuff onto Kobo’s site through a back door.

As David Gaughran and others have pointed out repeatedly, Kobo’s own “terrible” search function and “failure … to adequately handle adult content” were triggers for the subsequent fiasco. And once the shitstorm broke, Kobo then made a kneejerk reaction in the wrong direction, taking self-published content offline in bulk regardless of content.

McKintosh is incensed by what he sees as Kobo’s lack of backbone: the company was happy to sell “explicit” materials until they were called out on it, at which point they folded like a cheap suit. Kobo didn’t make an effort to remove the so-called explicit materials before the media pressure; what’s being called “admirable” in some quarters is actually just kowtowing to media pressure. McKintosh continues:

And no, I’m not claiming that you were cynically and knowingly profiting off “exploitative rape fantasies” until you were brought to book. But your entire operation was obviously ready to take them on board without any kind of screening until the consequences blew up in your face. Does that make you a late repenter, or simply ignorant of the content that you are supposed to be chiefly officering, or what?

While I don’t share—or entirely follow—McKintosh’s indignation, he has a point. Whether or not you think what Kobo et al. did was censorship per say, it has been somewhat disappointing to watch these retailers fold to pressure from outlets like the Daily Mail (again, the Daily Mail!) instead of engaging with the criticisms that were being leveled against them. While the petition self-published authors brought before Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo may have been about as well-written as most  of their books, it asked questions that should have been asked about the controversy, like “Why is okay to sell “adult products” on said websites but not FICTIONAL reads.”

But, instead of engaging with difficult subjects, Kobo, responded by pulling all self-published works from its site. Tamblyn’s response makes up some of the ground Kobo lost—I have no problem with publishers stating that they have certain standards. But the “explicit ebook” controversy has been largely characterized by both a lack of conversation, which is disappointing, and by outrage from outlets that have no right to be outraged, like the Daily Mail.

Still, the Daily Mail preaching about  vulgarity is nowhere near as ridiculous as this paragraph from McKintosh’s screed:

And what is “barely legal”? Either it is legal, or it’s not. Are you going to explain exactly what “barely legal” means in law? Where it stands versus freedom of expression? Just what criteria have you put in place to decide this? If it’s content that should be off limits to some readers, isn’t it up to you to make that happen?

Hoo boy. For all McKintosh’s criticisms of Kobo’s search function, it appears to be pretty obvious that he’s never typed “barely legal” into an online search engine. And for that, at least, I think we can all be thankful.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.