Amazon, Censorship, and The Law

I’ve been hanging out silently for awhile, I know. Things have been a little interesting in Camp Kinkade what with a broken arm and looming deadlines For real-world business. Normally I don’t get into heavy topics simply because I know to keep my mouth shut and my head down most days, but I this morning I’ve come across a plethora of things that have upset me to the point where I can’t behave myself anymore.

That having been said, let me preface this post with the following statement: THE FOLLOWING IS MY OPINION. Just because I don’t agree with you and you don’t agree with me does not give you the right to call me names, run me down, or treat me like a second-class citizen. I’ve seen enough hate mail over the years to know that most people who have access to the internet do not think before they speak. I’m completely prepared for that. I would prefer to have civilized, rational discussion on this topic, not have two hundred seething fundamentalists beating my door down with torches and pitchforks. What I’m about to say is not going to be a popular opinion by any stretch of the imagination. However, what I present to you today are facts, plain and simple. Take it as you will.

THE FACTS

1. I’m a romance novelist. I write both paranormal and contemporary romance of a “traditional” pairing. I don’t do much with fetish, multiple partners, or gay romance because none of those things appeals to me. It isn’t a slight on the genres…it’s just not what I’m into. I have no experience in those realms, so I stay out of them.

2. Amazon is a company based in the United States. That having been said, it falls under the jurisdiction of United States law enforcement.

3. The First Amendment reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment

4. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “censorship” is defined as the following:

the institution, system, or practice of censoring

(Censor: to examine books, movies, letters, etc., in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.)

Now, let’s start with the article that began this ruckus: Amazon Removes Abuse-Themed eBooks From Store.

This is not the first time we’ve played this game, kids. This isn’t the first time Amazon has chosen to remove books from their catalog. This isn’t the last time it’s going to happen, either. But before everyone hops on the “ZOMG AMAZON IS EVIL” Bandwagon, sit back and take a look at the facts.

They aren’t taking all erotic literature out of their marketplace…if that was the case, they’d have snatched me down as soon as I published. No, the only books they’re removing are the things that are better left to specialized groups in well-controlled, adults-only setting.

This content take-down is something that has been going on for a very long time. Amazon has never been quiet about its refusal to host offensively explicit content. And by offensively explicit, they aren’t talking about your latest strawberry-jam-and-sex-toys scene. What they’re talking about is an illegal act portrayed in a positive manner. It isn’t about “censorship” at this point. It’s about what’s legal and what’s not. Amazon is pulling down books with ILLEGAL content.

Illegal

In the United States, Rape is illegal. Bestiality is illegal. Incest is illegal (in every state except Rhode Island). Right now we aren’t talking about books. We’re talking about real life. We’re talking about criminal offenses punishable by incarceration on all three counts depending on the local jurisdiction. If these things were to happen to you in real life, you’d be up in arms and ready to hang the offender, yes? There is not a single human in this world that can look me in the face and say “yeah, I’m okay with being raped.” If you can, then you’re (a) lying to me, or (b) a sociopath.

Now, let’s translate this to the literary world. By selling rape in a positive light, it cheapens the crime. It lessens the severity of the act and in some cases can turn victims into villains. “She said okay at first, and I took her saying stop to mean she enjoyed it” is bullshit, people. Having a female character tell her attacker “thank you” afterward does not make it okay.

Let me stop here and clarify something: Rape is not the same as a properly constructed BDSM scenario. I know people and have friends in the BDSM community, and any of them will tell you that it isn’t about the threats and violence. It’s about trust and control. There are safe words. There are carefully organized plans and locations. Those in the BDSM community aren’t out to maim each other. They’re out to push their bodies to the limits for enjoyment. For all the complaints I have about 50 Shades of Grey, the one thing E.L. James got absolutely right was the planning and organization. At no time during that series does she ever portray Christian’s treatment of Ana as abuse. [Pause. Take a knee and let me say this as well: I know many in the BDSM community don’t see 50 Shades as BDSM, but my point is not the genre. My point is that the idea of the lifestyle is conveyed in a way that shows it’s both careful and consensual. Resume.]

RAPE IS NOT OKAY. I repeat: RAPE IS NOT OKAY.

Then we get into the subject of Zoophilia.Bestiality is a mixed bag of legal hoo-hah. It is illegal in 38 States in the US and punishable by both fines and imprisonment. In the other twelve states, as well as many countries around the world it is legal, but considered taboo and in most cases frowned upon. What you’ll find is that many jurisdictions (US or otherwise) allow the act, but prohibit the promotion of pornographic material involving zoophilia.

So can you do it? Sure.

Should you promote it? Probably not. At least, that’s the legal standpoint around the virtual watering hole.

Last but not least, let’s talk about Incest.

I know of several authors who have made a mint writing incest-related material. Many of them are on my friends lists on both Facebook and Twitter. These ladies are outstanding writers. However, I don’t read their material because it doesn’t interest me and I don’t particularly agree with the content. That doesn’t mean I’m going to bash any of them for what they choose to do and how they choose to make their money. But we’ll get to that discussion in a minute.

Incest – sexual acts between immediate family members (parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and first, second, and in some cases third cousins and step-family) – is illegal in every US State except Rhode Island. Of the 49 remaining states, 47 states see incest as an offense punishable by a minimum of five (5) years in prison. Not only is it taboo, but a child conceived from such a union has a much larger potential for debilitating birth defects than one born conceived from two non-related parents.

I know this is getting long…bear with me, we’re getting there.

So those are the legalities behind these acts. I won’t discuss the moral aspects, because morality is different in every culture, and what I view as wrong may not necessarily be wrong for my neighbor. Morality is a blurry subject, and one that doesn’t really pertain to this discussion.

Then there’s that pesky little thing we call the “First Amendment.” Remember that? I told you what it says earlier. Go back and read it again. No, seriously, go on. I want it fresh in your mind for when I make my point.

Got it?

Good. Now, by saying what I’m about to say, I am in no way, shape, or form trying to limit anyone’s First Amendment rights. I would never tell people they shouldn’t be allowed to write what they want. It’s a free country. Just because I don’t want to read it doesn’t mean I won’t respect everyone else’s rights. You write what you want, when you want, and how you want. That’s your decision, your prerogative.

HOWEVER.

If you look at “traditional” publishing houses – as in presses who have contracts and play middle-man in the publishing industry – the three things we’ve discussed above are the first three things they reject. Usually it’s on the basis of illegality. “No Rape for Titillation” is the very first line.

Sugar & Spice Press Guidelines

Typical Romance Publisher Guidelines (Sugar & Spice Press) — click the image to view full size

Look at it this way – as a self-published author, you’re looking to groups like Amazon to act not only as your sales outlet, but as your publisher. They’re hosting your work, collecting the money, and taking a small fee for the service. It is well within its rights as a publisher to reject a book based on content violations.  There’s no difference between removing these books from Amazon’s marketplace and removing them from the private website marketplace of a publisher based on content offenses.

Amazon is not “censoring” work. They are not actively pursuing the authors in an attempt to make them stop writing. They’re not banning or burning books. They’re not going out attempting to make the rest of the world’s marketplaces stop selling these titles. They’re simply exercising their right to free speech, press, and petition when it comes to their own space. Amazon is choosing not to condone acts considered “offensive” or malicious by many cultures and governments.

It’s a company designed to make money. That’s the bottom line.  If they’re not willing to compromise their policies to sell someone’s book, that’s their right. Do I agree with the decision?

Not necessarily.

But I understand why they’re doing it because if it comes down to a lawsuit, Amazon is bound by US law – more importantly, the laws of the state of Washington, where it’s based, and the state of Delaware, where its was registered for public trade. Whatever the laws of those states say about (a) illegal acts, (b) illegal acts as portrayed in artwork, (c) or the distribution of illegal, offensive, or pornographic material are the laws by which Amazon as a company is bound. They’re protecting themselves, which is a standard business practice.

The truth of the matter is that we really don’t know why Amazon has suddenly chosen to pull these books down. There has to be a reason, and I’m willing to bet the reason has something to do with their legal team. Until Amazon actually steps up and tells us why they’re doing it, there’s a pretty good chance we won’t know.

Just for reference – I contacted Amazon directly about this issue in an attempt to get a list of topics that fall under those “offensive” and “pornographic” categories. As soon as I hear from them (if I do), I’ll be sure to let you know.

But by authors jumping on this bandwagon and trying to force Amazon through petitions, vicious verbage, and strongarm tactics to sell these things, the very authors who are screaming about censorship are attempting to remove the very rights they hope to keep. The First Amendment works both ways.

That having been said – taboo authors are not barred from creating their own storefronts and marketplaces to sell their work. AMAZON IS NOT THE ONLY ONE. There are plenty of  other platforms for self-publishing work. Beyond Kobo and Barnes & Noble even, there are a lot of them out there. For Example:

Smashwords
Lulu
Blurb
Outskirts Press
Xlibris
And loads of others…

There are also programs you can obtain to format your own eBooks should you decide you want to go it completely alone and set up your own storefront. Calibre is my particular favorite. I’ve used it for my own projects once or twice. I’ve even used it to convert manuscripts to eBook for my own self-editing program.

And The Bottom Line

It isn’t about stopping the production of the work. Amazon (and Barnes & Noble and Kobo) has made a policy-based decision through which it is attempting to look out for the best interests of both itself and its millions upon millions of clients.

Which (because again, this goes both ways), the authors are easily able to choose a different platform with which they can publish. No, the other probably aren’t going to have the massive exposure like Amazon and B&N, but the books can still be made available.

My recommendation: Rather than petitioning Amazon to give up its rights, simply don’t use Amazon. It’s easier to step aside than stop a giant. I know, I know… “if we don’t fight them, someone else will.” But here’s the dirty little secret, kids: it isn’t a fight. It’s their decision, and that’s the way it is. They’re exercising a legal and moral (again, sticky) right, just as you are by writing and reading the material. I just want people to see that bashing Amazon is going to get them as far as bashing their foreheads against a door jamb.

No, I don’t condone the types of things I talked about earlier. I don’t write them, I don’t read them, and I don’t want my children exposed to them. But I’m not going to stand in the way of someone who wants to do it. After all, it isn’t my job to judge.

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6 responses to “Amazon, Censorship, and The Law

  1. One thing that really bothered me was that some of these authors were using tags and renaming books to get around the filters. Some of those books showed up when people searched for children’s books. *Shivers*

    • That’s part of the issue I’ve found over the last two days. People are claiming to have children’s books pulled from the shelves because of keywords in the title, and I think it has a lot to do with the tagging and renaming problems. The system is likely flagging certain titles so if they pop up again, regardless of author, they’re yanked. I hate to see it come to that, but honestly it’s the fault of people who can’t respect the rules.

  2. You’re right; you’re right; you’re oh so very right, and anybody who says otherwise is an over-entitled child who thinks every entity in the world belongs to them to use as they will and anyone who objects is being mean to them. You can’t make Cracker Barrel sell sushi. You can’t make Nakato sell biscuits and gravy. And you can’t make Amazon sell products they don’t want to sell, regardless of their reason. You can’t do it. Not by petition; not by screaming online; not by nothing. It’s their store, and they stock what they want. And anyone who thinks they’re so wrong they don’t deserve to exist any more should stop buying books from them. That’s the only recourse they have. By petitioning against Amazon’s right to choose their own inventory, the protesters are missing the entire point of the issue and wasting energy. Save the righteous indignation for when the law gets passed – as it will, kittens, if people continue to make a stink – that says such subject matter can NEVER be published ANYWHERE by ANYBODY and anybody who does publish it is subject to imprisonment. Not so very long ago, that was the norm in America, and it could happen again tomorrow.

    • You’re very right about the law. I think people have succumbed to mass hysteria instead of seeing the actual point here. I do wish I had in hand Amazon’s list of “offensive” material for just this reason. I also have to wonder how many people have contacted Amazon directly to find out how the system works and why it does what it does. My guess is that there aren’t many.

  3. Most publishers (I know of) have guidelines on what they will and will not accept from submissions. That said, Amazon has a right as a company not to accept certain questionable material, especially since self-published material doesn’t have a publisher’s filter to sift through the integrity and quality of the works in question. Why shouldn’t Amazon or any other retailer be able to have guidelines on what sort of material they sell? Having worked in a bookstore off and on for more than a decade of my life, I can say with certainty that if works containing blatant pornography, rape, incest and bestiality were displayed or sold by the retailers I’ve worked for, customers would refuse to shop there. There is a reason that XXX bookstores and outlets exist. Amazon and other book retailers know their customers and demographic enough to know what type of headaches would follow them should they start and/or continue to sell such material. Just because they are an online retailer, doesn’t give the public the right to dictate their policies as a business. If you object to their business practices, simply don’t shop with them any longer.Just because you have a right to write something, doesn’t mean all retailers are forced to sell it, regardless of what you might think. This is my opinion, anyone is free to agree to disagree. =D

  4. A word from the wise. Thanks for pointing out what, to me was as plain as the nose on my face.

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