Books Anne has written or has a chapter in.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Freedom to write, and be read

This blog post is FYI, in case you weren't aware of this developing situation.

You may feel that it doesn't concern you because you don't write erotica or don't use Smashwords. But if you read further, you'll see that literary works containing the themes Paypal and its partner financial institutions have deemed offensive are not necessarily exempted. This veiled form of censorship coming from the entities that process payment for books (digital and print) could have a significant effect on everyone's freedom to write - and read - legal fiction.

Yes, this censorship has already affected my literary press Kitsune Books. So... you should be aware.

The following is an open letter from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords.

In case you haven't heard, about two weeks ago, PayPal contacted Smashwords and gave us a surprise ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account.

We engaged them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution. PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations (likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, though they didn't mention them by name). Last Friday, I sent the following email to our erotica authors and publishers: Then on Monday, I issued an update, and announced we would delay enforcement of PayPal's guidelines so we and PayPal could continue our discussions:

THE PROBLEM: PayPal is asking us to censor legal fiction. Regardless of how one views topics of rape, bestiality and incest, these topics are pervasive in mainstream fiction. We believe this crackdown is really targeting erotica writers. This is unfair, and it marks a slippery slope. We don't want credit card companies or financial institutions telling our authors what they can write and what readers can read. Fiction is fantasy. It's not real. It's legal.

THE SOLUTION: There's no easy solution. Legally, PayPal and the credit card companies probably have the right to decide how their services are used. Unfortunately, since they're the moneyrunners, they control the oxygen that feeds digital commerce. Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor. That's not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind this, they'll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere. PayPal works well for us. In addition to running all credit card processing at the store, PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S. My conversations with PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.

BUILDING A COALITION OF SUPPORT: Independent advocacy groups are considering taking on the PayPal censorship case. I'm supporting the development of this loose-knit coalition of like-minded groups who believe that censorship of legal fiction should not be allowed. We will grow the coalition. Each group will have its own voice and tactics I'm working with them because we share a common cause to protect books from censorship. Earlier today I had conversations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). I briefed them on the Smashwords/PayPal situation, explained the adverse affect this crackdown will have on some of our authors and customers, and shared my intention to continue working with PayPal in a positive manner to move the discussion forward. 
The EFF blogged about the issue a few days ago:
 Today, ABFFE and NCAC issued a press release: I will not be on the streets with torch in hand calling for PayPal's head, but I will encourage interested parties to get involved and speak their piece. This is where you come in...

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Although erotica authors are being targeted, this is an issue that should concern all indie authors. It affects indies disproportionately because indies are the ones pushing the boundaries of fiction. Indies are the ones out there publishing without the (fading) protective patina of a "traditional publisher" to lend them legitimacy. We indies only have each other.

Several Smashwords authors have contacted me to stress that this censorship affects women disproportionately. Women write a lot of the erotica, and they're also the primary consumers of erotica. They're also the primary consumers of mainstream romance, which could also come under threat if PayPal and the credit card companies were to overly enforce their too-broad and too-nebulous obsenity clauses (I think this is unlikely, but at the same time, why would dubious consent be okay in mainstream romance but not okay in erotica? If your write paranormal, can your were-creatures not get it on with one another, or is that bestiality? The insanity needs to stop here. These are not questions an author, publisher or distributor of legal fiction should have to answer.).

All writers and their readers should stand up and voice their opposition to financial services companies censoring books. Authors should have the freedom to publish legal fiction, and readers should have the freedom to read what they want. These corporations need to hear from you. Pick up the phone and call them. Email them. Start petitions. Sign petitions. Blog your opposition to censorship. Encourage your readers to do the same. Pass the word among your social networks. Contact your favorite bloggers and encourage them to follow this story. Contact your local newspaper and offer to let them interview you so they can hear a local author's perspective on this story of international significance. If you have connections to mainstream media, encourage them to pick up on the story. Encourage them to call the credit card companies and pose this simple question, "PayPal says they're trying to enforce the policies of credit card companies. Why are you censoring legal fiction?"

Below are links to the companies waiting to hear from you. Click the link and you'll find their phone numbers, executive names and postal mailing addresses. Be polite, respectful and professional, and encourage your friends and followers to do the same. Let them know you want them out of the business of censoring legal fiction. Tell the credit card companies you want them to give PayPal permission to sell your ebooks without censorship or discrimination. Let them know that PayPal's policies are out of step with the major online ebook retailers who already accept your books as they are. Address your calls, emails (if you can find the email) and paper letters (yes paper!) to the executives. Post open letters to them on your blog, then tweet and Facebook hyperlinks to your letters. Force the credit card companies to join the discussion about censorship. And yes, express your feelings and opinions to PayPal as well. Don't scream at them. Ask them to work on your behalf to protect you and your readers from censorship. Tell them how their proposed censorship will harm you and your fellow writers. 
American Express:
Ebay (owns PayPal):

Starting Sunday, if our email systems can handle it, we will send out an email to several hundred thousand registered Smashwords members who are opted in to receive occasional Smashwords service updates. The email will combine Read an Ebook Week with the censorship call to action. Let's start a little fire, shall we? Thank you for your continuing support of Smashwords. With your help, we can move mountains.

Best wishes,
Mark Coker, Founder, Smashwords


  1. I have been following this development Anne, and while it doesn't seem to target my work yet, it is the proverbial camel's nose in the tent, soon to be followed by the rest of th4e beast. I don't write erotica. I write science fiction and fantasy. That said, I do have scenes in some works that might cross the boundaries somewhere. In one recent book I briefly, without going into any kind of detail, described a child rape. This was both to establish the evil of the character performing the act, and the impact the act would have on the young girl that was to become a powerful magic user sometime in the future. Now I guess under the new rules this book could be banned for sale on Smashwords, which is one of the outlets I use. Not a big deal yet, I could take out the scene and substitute some other kind of horrendous abuse in its place. I wouldn't want to, but it could be done.
    However, I can also see the inplications to other aspects of science fiction and fantasy if the trend is allowed to expand. Much of science fiction explores different political or commercial systems. What if the credit card companies take exception to writing that explores a world where they no longer exist. Or some very religious people object to the description of different religions, or fantasy Gods and Goddesses. Where will it end. Probably in a world where every reader is spoon fed what the people in charge want them to read, and only that. That has been written about before as well, by George Orwell.

  2. Doug,

    The statement that concerns me the most is this one: "PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations..." Since when did our financial institutions suddenly become censors of books? What's next, video and film?