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Summary:

Self-published rape and incest porn available through ebook retailers is fueling media outrage in the UK. As a result, some retailers have taken drastic action. But the retailers aren’t the only ones to blame: Some self-published authors are also employing techniques to ensure that their books stay ahead of filters.

The U.K. media is in an uproar over rape and incest porn ebooks that popped up in searches on sites like Amazon and Kobo. In response, WHSmith took down its entire site over the weekend, and on Tuesday Kobo — which powers ebook sales through WHSmith’s site — announced that it is pulling all self-published books from its own U.K. website while it addresses the problem.

The ebooks in question have titles like Daddy Daughter Sex Stories and Daddy’s Birthday Gang Bang.

The saga started last week, when U.K. tech site The Kernel published a post entitled “How Amazon Cashes In on Kindle Filth.” Various U.K. newspapers, including the Daily Mail and Guardian, picked up the story. In the following days, The Kernel has continued to pump out posts on the issue, with titles like “An epidemic of filth” and the link bait-y “The five most disgusting titles for sale at Amazon” and “Do we need to show Amazon where all the rape porn is?”

The U.K. media’s outrage has been almost solely aimed at ebook retailers like Amazon and Kobo. Yet some self-published authors also deserve blame for using wily techniques to circumvent the retailers’ existing filters and to ensure that some of the most objectionable titles pop up in searches.

Kobo: “Reviewing our policies and procedures to implement safeguards”

The offending self-published ebooks were available through all major ebook retailers, not just Kobo. Amazon hasn’t commented on the controversy but has removed some of the titles called out by The Kernel from its site. Kobo has been more open about how it’s addressing the problem. It issued an updated statement on Tuesday:

“As you may be aware, there has been a significant amount of negative attention in the UK regarding offensive material that became available across a number of ebook platforms. Kobo is taking immediate action to resolve this issue which is a direct result of a select few authors and publishers violating Kobo’s content policies.

In order to address the situation Kobo is taking the following steps:

1. We are removing titles in question from the global Kobo platform.

2. We are completing a thorough review to ensure that compliance to our policies is met by authors and publishers.  As a result we are quarantining and reviewing additional titles.

3. During this process, we have removed all self-published titles from the UK store. We expect titles that comply with our policy to be returned to the store within the week.

4. We are reviewing our policies and procedures to implement safeguards that will ensure this situation does not happen in the future.

We are working hard to get back to business as usual, as quickly as possible.

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. While some may find our measures extreme, we are confident that we are taking the necessary measures 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.”

WHSmith: “Inappropriate books can never be shown again”…

U.K. bookstore chain WHSmith, which sells ebooks through its website in a partnership with Kobo, is taking even more extreme measures: It’s taken down its entire website. In place there is a holding page that reads, in part:

“Our website will become live again once all self published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available. When our website goes back online it will not display any self published material until we are completely confident that inappropriate books can never be shown again.”

…good luck with that

It’s unclear how WHSmith can ensure that “inappropriate books can never be shown again” on its website. Setting aside for now the questions of free speech and what, exactly, porn is (and all of these ebooks are legal for now), ebook retailers have largely shown themselves incapable of fully policing the self-published content that’s uploaded to their sites.

In addition, certain self-published authors have employed tricks to stay ahead of the filters that the retailers do have in place.

Retailers obviously carry some of the responsibility for not having better filtering processes to remove these titles from their sites — or prevent them from being published there in the first place. Amazon’s guidelines for the Kindle self-publishing platform say that “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” Spend two minutes searching the Kindle Store for porn and you’ll realize that’s a total joke.

But the problem isn’t just the retailers. The authors of some of the most objectionable rape and incest titles have often employed tricks when uploading these titles to ensure that retailers’ filters don’t catch them. And by tweaking the ebooks’ metadata — labeling a book about a father who rapes his daughter as a children’s book, for instance — they can take advantage of the filters that are supposed to work against them.

“It seems  (and we’re still investigating at Bowker, though I quite frankly don’t expect to find much in our own data because I’d bet that the authors who are doing this are not exactly fans of best practices) that these authors are assigning children’s (and possibly other) categories to their porn books,” Laura Dawson, product manager at SelfPublishedAuthor.com and Identifier Services at RR Bowker — in other words, she is the queen of metadata for books — told me in an email. She elaborated:

“There’s little a retailer can do about this — essentially, it boils down to the authors not telling the truth about their books. Policing that is hard when you’re dealing with tens of millions of titles…algorithms that can get you part of the way there, but clearly there also needs to be some penalty for spam-tagging. This was obviously malicious (and I don’t use that word lightly — misdirecting readers is exactly that) and deliberate.”

Authors have also stayed ahead of ebook retailers’ filters simply by changing their books’ titles and descriptions. One ebook, for instance, was originally titled In Too Deep with My Daughter. By Tuesday, the ebook’s author — “Kelsey Charisma” — had changed its title simply to In Too Deep and added a note in the book’s description to “Be aware of the title, cover and/or description change. Please see inside book for former title.” It remains for sale on Amazon’s UK website.

If ebook retailers truly want no porn to be sold through their sites, they’ll have to spend much more time and money than they do now implementing both automatic and human filters.

They’ll also have to clarify exactly what they mean by porn, and in doing so they’ll risk alienating many authors and readers. The book industry reaped massive profits from the bestselling erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. If that’s okay, but other porn isn’t — if, for instance, child rape porn is unacceptable — retailers will have to be much more explicit in publicly declaring what is and isn’t acceptable. They’ll then have to employ humans to ferret out offending books and keep those books’ authors from reposting them under different titles or descriptions. And that is likely to be more than a full-time job.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Lucie Lang

  1. the global population should be put on trial, governments first, for allowing it to spread like the worst of all diseases, then blaming others, such as the innocent children caught up with the stuff via the mobile phone, but we live in a world where the media and the political class live incestuously, one supporting the other regardless of consequence, time to act on this atrocity,

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  2. There isn’t such a thing as an inappropriate book, that should be the topic of your article.
    Some things are illegal and beyond that all is fair game.
    Maybe some is garbage, maybe some are good (would they ban The Beauty Stealers by Pascal Bruckner?). Lets censor porn and then Mein Kampf and then any James Bond book just because that’s garbage too.Should we go after movies too,since we are all just fine with choking art.
    All those bookstores need to be sued, Apple’s app store too since they ban sex and they all need to lose.We have laws (and some are wrong , some books are banned around the world) we shouldn’t allow semi-monopolistic entities to censor the world just because they are scared of some fundamentalist groups of very loud morons.

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  3. I agree with Laura’s take on this. The problem that’s showing up here is that the scale of self-publishing has made the old bookselling model – in which someone actually read every book on the shelves – untenable. If you want to sell self-published stuff, you’re going to have to deal with unacceptable content in retrospect. That content, by the way, doesn’t just include porn that violates bookseller ToSs – it’s also going to include spam books and plagiarised books, for example.

    Any filtering which isn’t humans reading books is going to lead to false positives and false negatives.

    By the way: Realjjj says all the stores who have removed books “need to be sued”. I don’t really see why. Retailers aren’t obliged to sell products. You can’t walk into your local bookstore and insist they sell your book. Especially when it violates the terms and conditions you agreed to when you uploaded it.

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    1. You can when an industry colludes to ban a category, this is clearly not a case of some but most and you should when an entire ecosystem has access to only 1 store )apps for iToys). In a competitive market there would be stores that allow suhch content, but we don’t have that anymore it seems.

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  4. Valentine North Tuesday, October 15, 2013

    #1. They can have their automated filters. I know programming, I do it for a living, and the filtering can be done without much effort. What they really wanted is to do everything using ONLY those filters, and zero human interaction. Ideally, they should have had both, very stringent filters, coupled with a few employees that checked the ambiguous titles. With millions of titles, and at most a few thousands new each month, they could have solved everything with only a handful of people.

    #2. Are we really certain this isn’t just another ploy from the publishers to kill off competition? It seems to me, that self-published authors will almost always have lower prices than the big publishing houses, and that might be the true issue. After all, just a few years ago, they were fixing ebook prices, much higher than what we have today, so, instead of trying that again, they’re simply removing competition altogether? Who is next? The minor and mid-sized publishers?

    #3. Other than the blanket censorship issue, should we really care? Erotica or those steamy romance novels ARE getting bought, even those with some very, very questionable content get a lot of sales. That’s a lot of money just waiting to go into someones pocket, someone will get, who will then be able to compete with the big publishers, so, isn’t that a good thing?

    #4. They’re works of fiction, why does the content get so much hate? There are a lot more movies, also works of fiction, that easily sell without so much scrutiny. How about the news on TV? A lot of them show very horrifying content, often “by mistake”, very real stuff, never, or rarely fiction, and get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

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    1. 1) Unless you’ve invented a way for computers to parse novels written in natural languages, I think you’re underestimating how effective filters can be. Filtering porn is extremely difficult without a lot of false positives and false negatives. You’re also underestimating the volume of publishing, I think.

      2) Yeah, so, what, we forced retailers to set policies against incest rape porn, then got people to sneak incest rape porn onto their platforms, so that it could be discovered and start a furore? I think you’re giving us too much credit for intrigue. Also, if you think publishers have the power to force Amazon to mess with a significant part of their business like that, you’ve seriously mistaken the power dynamic.

      This is Amazon responding to violations of policies *they set*. Not responding amazingly well, but that’s what’s going on.

      The really grimy porn – and a lot of what we’re talking about is thinly-veiled child rape stories – isn’t the only problem. When you are running a marketplace platform instead of a curated bookseller, with fairly cursory vetting, you’re also going to see spam books (auto-copypasted bits of Wikipedia, sold for cash) and stolen books (I often have to take down pirated copies of our titles some chancer has tried to sneak in there.) Amazon have historically taken a similarly relaxed attitude to those things, only removing them retrospectively when people complain, and until people actually notice they’re ripping off customers and authors. So this is all symptomatic of a wider problem retailers need to get to grips with.

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  5. I am impressed by how much effort is also being expended on banning books that describe and contain massive amounts of violence…oh…wait a minute..

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  6. Two things:

    1. Kobo hasn’t been open whatsoever about how it’s addressing the problem. Their email to authors late on Monday night came about 24 hours after they started removing self-published books – en masse – from their store, and only came in response to social media pressure for comment. The email failed to disclose the full extent of the problem. Most authors don’t know they are affected as they can’t view the Kobo UK store unless they are in the UK. It was only in the *updated* statement on Tuesday – which was NOT emailed to authors – that they admitted they had removed most self-published books from the UK store. The section I’m referring to is Point 3 in the statement from Kobo you quoted. This was NOT in the email to authors, and hasn’t been communicated to authors. Hardly open.

    2. Even the Daily Mail admitted that not all of the titles they had highlighted were self-published. WH Smith and Kobo have stressed on numerous occasions that not all of titles under question are self-published, and that many come from publishers. But you exclusively focus on self-publishers. (And so do Kobo’s actions)

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  7. ‘What they really wanted is to do everything using ONLY those filters, and zero human interaction.’ -> Valentine North

    ‘And that is likely to be more than a full-time job.’ -> LHO

    Yes, in fact, it should be the work of many full-time employees. Collaborative filtering isn’t foolproof, obviously. And while Ms. Dawson is spot on finding the practices reprehensible, I see it as just another predictable symptom of published books being shoved through the digital media meat grinder. The core problem is Tech-land’s holy grail of maximum profits derived from near complete automation with little to no human labor costs.

    The consumer shouldn’t have to rely on the fourth estate to compensate for a Siren Server’s responsibility. In exchange for a lot of valuable personal data (purchasing, cc card, whatever) the consumer deserves more value that this.

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  8. As an 18 Year old Erotica Author that is published by a Publisher and not self-published, the vetting process for all Erotica has increased dramatically.

    My titles now take close to a day to be reviewed by distribution sites such as Amazon, compared to a normal ebook which is a few hours.

    Amazon is telling erotica publishers and self-pubs that the que is 7 days to review adult titles now.

    So censorship is very real across all major eBook distribution platforms due to the fallout from this recent issue.

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