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Said the Online Retailer to the Entrepreneurial Author

Web [1]
iStockphoto: spfoto

Come into my platform, where you shall have control.
Make your book cover be exactly what you like.
Set your price where you want it. Change it on a whim.
Make your book free. Make your book pricey.
Upload your brilliance. Format your genius.
Retain your rights. Collect nice royalties.
Come into my platform, where you shall have control.

And then your book disappears.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [2]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Media reports fly. Bloggers bluster. Cautious statements heavily vetted by Legal are issued. Appropriate disciplinary actions are said to have been taken against “the very few.”

But it’s your book that disappeared without warning. It’s your income stream that stopped. It’s your momentum that went up in smut, sorry, smoke, when those very few—always the very few—transgressed the terms and conditions.

And then the email arrived, finally—from the parlor, as it might seem—explaining that the company was taking disciplinary action against the very few who had broken the rules. Everyone else, like you, the parlor announced, was being riddled in the crossfire and so be it.

To our self-publishing partners…significant amount of negative media attention…offensive material…we are taking immediate action to resolve…removing titles in question…quarantining and reviewing titles to ensure that compliance to our policies is met by all authors and publishers…as soon as possible…implement safeguards that will ensure this situation does not happen in the future…working hard to get back to business as usual, as quickly as possible.


It can seem sinister, can’t it? Especially when it’s your briskly selling series that vanishes and you’ve done nothing wrong, being a cut well above the very few.

Kobo Writing Life [3]This week’s unhappy incident involves Kobo in the UK. It’s what industry consultant Mike Shatzkin in Finding your next book, or, the discovery problem [4] has called “a mess that points to how far we are from solving core challenges of selling books in a virtual environment.”

To be clear, I like the people of Kobo very much. A little over a week ago, the company’s unfailingly articulate Michael Tamblyn was a superb panelist at Frankfurt Book Fair in a CONTEC Conference session I moderated about self-publishing and its implications for the industry. I always enjoy being in touch with Kobo Writing Life’s Mark Lefebvre. Not a month ago, I met Christine Munroe, US manager for Kobo Writing Life, at Writer’s Digest West in Los Angeles, we had a fine chat.

In short, we’re not here to bury Kobo.

For that matter, look at the recent outcry when Goodreads started removing material to enforce its own standards and insisting, rightly, that members review books, not authors—and that authors acquaint themselves with the rules of conduct on the site, as well.

And do you remember the shouts of foul play when Amazon took steps to deal with paid reviews and sock puppetry?

[pullquote]The industry! The industry! needs to rethink this pattern of hurting its indispensable authors every time its sales models go pear-shaped. [/pullquote]

In fact, while Shatzkin is right that the virtual world seems particularly beset with these noisy bad moments, bookselling can go very wrong for authors in the dear old bricks-and-mortar setting of our youth, as well. Earlier this year, if you were published by Simon & Schuster, you may not have been able to find your book at Barnes & Noble because your publisher and that retailer were locked in a protracted round of difficult negotiations. Writer Unboxed contributor M.J. Rose became a particularly valiant champion, in that case, of authors whose books were simply not findable on those not-at-all-virtual shelves.

But what seems to happen in most of these difficult situations is characterized by two elements.

(a) Authors whose work has nothing to do with the crisis is at hand are hurt in the processing of the situation.
(b) Authors are given little if any timely information with which to sort out what’s going on, and thus are left making the rounds of the rumor-mongers to try to find out why their products have blipped out of sight.

It’s hard to think of a supermarket doing this to Procter & Gamble’s products, isn’t it? Without a word to P&G, just yanking all its things off the shelf for a while? Tide detergent? Gone. Nyquil? Vanished. Bounty paper towel, “the quicker picker-upper?” Outa here. Unthinkable.

And yet authors seem to be an easy target of such ham-handed remedial efforts. It has happened just that baldly this week.

Yes, of course, this is an obvious indication of how young and awkward we all are in understanding the author as the industry’s new central figure. This doesn’t excuse what Shatzkin rightly calls a “mess.” And the industry!the industry! needs to rethink this pattern of hurting its indispensable authors every time its sales models go pear-shaped.

The Story So Far

In terms of the latest melodrama, I can catch you up quickly in case you haven’t been following.

WHSmith [6](1) Tabloids in the UK reported over last weekend that pornographic ebooks were appearing right beside children’s literature on the Web site of WHSmith [7], which offers “Books, Stationery, Gifts, and Much More.” The “much more” wasn’t supposed to mean pornography, you see. This is the venerable chain that The Bookseller’s Philip Jones writes in Shock and awe at WHSmith [8] “holds a special place in the mind of middle-Britain: it’s a family retailer with a high street presence. …That explains what some might see as a massive over-reaction.”

(2) Apparently what has occurred is that some writers (the very few, damn them) have self-published porn which is said to include bestiality and incest, gaming the metadata with titles and phrases that include such words as “daddy.” This could cause those books to be surfaced by searches for legitimate family-oriented content.

(3) Kobo’s response, as Jones writes it,  emphasis his, was to get “busy removing ALL self-published titles, and also titles submitted through Kobo’s Writing Life platform by other small publishers.” That’s why everyone’s self-published UK titles were made invisible.

(4) As of Thursday evening before this posting on Friday, The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell is reporting [9] that WHSmith has reopened its Web site (after shuttering it for almost four days), but that it is not yet again selling ebooks. Kobo’s Michael Serbinis is saying that the quarantined self-published titles that aren’t inappropriate  “are gradually going back online” after being reviewed and approved. All appropriate material that doesn’t contravene Kobo’s policies is “expected to be back up by Saturday (19 October).”

“Urgently Consider”

Lisa Campbell [12]
Lisa Campbell

Of keen interest: This morning, Friday, as today’s column moves, Campbell has published Industry response sought to explicit ebook furor [13], in which we learn that the UK’s Booksellers Association [14] says “it will urgently consider an industry initiative to prevent explicit self-published ebooks becoming available on mainstream retailers’ websites.”

This is interesting because, unless I’m missing it, the Booksellers Association (its US counterpart is the American Booksellers Association [15]) has had nothing to say about urgently considering the thousands of upright, hardworking independent booksellers—we call them authors here at Writer Unboxed—whose work vanished this week as Kobo struggled to clean its lists of offending material.

Understand, this is not about the pornography. The pornography has to go, absolutely, to whatever degree it can ever be cleared away before its purveyors think of other ways around the rules. Fine.

This is, however, about how hard it seems for “industry response” to get on the side of the small business people we call our authors.

Might not the Booksellers Association be concerned that the very essence of its good work—the book—is challenged when the right-headed authors who create that thing are mowed down along with the very few who run porn?

Is it possible for the Association’s earnest CEO Tim Godfray to get in a thoughtful comment for the authors without whose books his bookshops are empty? What a golden chance to get some hands across the cash registers.


Unstable Parlors

During the course of the week’s ordeal, several things have come into focus, and they’re worth our observation.

First, if you ask the several authors in London who got in touch with me as this whole thing went down, they’ll tell you that Kobo’s handling of the matter has been little short of appalling. Never mind my high regard for the company’s folks, those aren’t my books that disappeared, are they?

Orna Ross, the founder of the UK-based Alliance of Independent Authors [16] (“ALLi”) certainly rose to the occasion, telling The Bookseller’s Campbell, “Of course we understand the need to remove illegal content but to remove all self-published books is not only knee-jerk but misguided. The category to remove while you sort this problem is not author-published books but all ‘erotica’, whether trade or self-published. Many of our members’ livelihoods are being affected while we wait for WHSmith to solve a problem of their own making.”

She’s right, of course, and well-said. But it’s also worth considering that roughly 10 percent of Kobo’s unit sales are coming through its self-publishing platform, Kobo Writing Life. This means, then, that a threat of this kind to that sector of its operation is substantial, simply on a fiscal basis, even without the awful publicity factored in.

The next problem for Kobo, however, is broadening circles of criticism.

In her latest report, The Bookseller’s Campbell writes:

Crowd-funded platform Unbound and small press Red Button Publishing have had their titles removed, even though neither publishes erotica.

Caroline Goldsmith, co-founder of Red Button, said: “Our books are literary fiction, so I was shocked to discover they had been taken down. Kobo is only a small part of our sales but we really liked working with the company.” She added: “I am more concerned about people now looking upon them unfavourably after this. We need them as a viable competitor to Amazon.”

Amazon, by the way, was included in early tabloid reports as purveying pornographic ebooks, too. Campell cites a BBC report, writing that Amazon “has been removing offending titles since the scandal broke. However, the online retailer has declined to comment on the issue.”

Kobo’s Lefebvre must have anticipated some of the backlash he’s now seeing in his letter to UK self-publishers whose work was vanishing early in the week. An author forwarded that letter to me. Its last paragraph is this:

Our goal at Kobo is not to censor material; we support freedom of expression. Further, we want to protect the reputation of self-publishing as a whole. You have our promise that we will do all we can to ensure the exceptions that have caused this current situation will not have a lasting effect on what is an exciting new channel that connects Readers to a wealth of books.

Alas, the bind in which Kobo found itself, and its decision to respond with so big a sweep, may not find much sympathy from the writers.

The author Rosen Trevithick writes in WHSmith and Kobo Stab Indies in the Back [17], “Authors who haven’t embarrassed Kobo are paying the price for the minority who have, and for Kobo’s lack of foresight.”

The designer and commentator Baldur Bjarnason writes in The Self-Publisher’s Perspective on the eBook Market [18], ” I find it hard to blame any self-publisher who decides to go exclusive with Amazon.”

Philip Jones [19]
Philip Jones

And Jones in his FutureBook essay writes with typical eloquence what probably is occurring to many of us:

I kind of thought we were on top of this: that we are not is alarming, but also greatly undermining of a community the traditional book business ought to be nurturing—namely authors. One of the things big businesses can do is create safe environments for small players to operate within.


What Can This Mean?

Jones has delivered us to the edge of the web, to the sticky portal of Mary Howitt’s fabled parlor.

The English poet published “The Spider and the Fly” in 1829, we learn from Wikipedia [21]. Her actual text, I’m told, reads, “Will you walk into my parlor,” not the “Come into my parlor” that today is the more common rendering in the States. Still, almost 200 years’ duration is not too shabby: a good author was at work that day.

In every round of author survey results—from Digital Book World’s “What Authors Want” last January, to Dr. Florian Geuppert’s report to us last week in Frankfurt on his study of 1,800 European authors using his Hamburg-based Books on Demand platform—entrepreneurial authors tell us that creative freedom and control of their business are top reasons for self-publishing.

But look how easily revoked that control is when retailers get into a bind.

What has developed this week is a new demonstration that for all the promises and expectations of control, authors are still very much at the mercy of the marketplaces in which they’re establishing new prominence.

There may come a time, and sooner than later, when entrepreneurial authors need to consider some form of unified liaison to the retailers, great and small, with whom they partner. Because when the very few can trigger a purge of the many, someone needs to be able to reach the retailers, negotiate to protect the commerce of the blameless, and get us past this draining era of intermittent crises.

What do you think? How secure do you feel as an author selling your material with retailers? Is the world of online retail simply too new for us to get through these difficult moments without harming authors? Can some sort of authors’ representation to the retailers ever work? 

About Porter Anderson [22]

@Porter_Anderson [23] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [24], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [25] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [26]