At this very moment I fear that the majority of self-published authors are getting ready to fight the wrong battle, and thereby lose the war.
Over the past week a traditionally published author tweeted a link to a self-published erotic e-book that featured themes that many would consider objectionable. After that a website published an article that complained about similar self-published works being available on a major e-book retailers. And after that, major e-book retailers pulled many self-published works, some of which were erotica, and some of which were not.
The narrative that we are supposed to believe is that a fundamentalist group has put pressure on retailers to remove books. We are supposed to react with anger and outrage and demand our rights and to stand shoulder to shoulder with other self-published authors, no matter what they choose to publish.
I’ve got this problem–I’m no good at doing what I am supposed to do. Instead I have a nasty habit of asking questions that I’m not supposed to ask.
For example, how did this happen so fast? All of the major e-book retailers acted virtually overnight. Most of us, in fact, heard first about the books being pulled, and then heard about the website article. Usually when a group pressures a business to make a major change in the way it does business there are a spate of articles, then a business says that they are responding to concerns, and then one business makes a change, then others are forced to follow. That doesn’t seem to be what happened here.
And why now? We are entering the most profitable season of the retail year, and yet major retailers are willing to make a move which is bound to cut into their profits, perhaps deeply. In response to a single article on a fairly obscure website. Really?
And why that particular sub-genre of erotica? There are a great many more that people could find offensive, but the article and the subsequent hysteria is focused on a rather small niche.
I’m troubled by these questions, and I am very troubled by what might happen next. Keep in mind that this is pure speculation on my part, but I don’t believe that any part of the scenario I am going to outline is particularly far-fetched.
The first part is already happening. The howls of outrage and protest are starting from self-published authors. I have seen a number of acerbic rants against e-book retailers, against religious communities, against anyone who seeks to prevent e-books–no matter what the subject matter–from being sold. I have seen apologetics ranging from the inchoate to the merely outre to the genre of abuse-fantasy erotica.
Next, let’s suppose for a moment that you were in the marketing department of a traditional publisher. Suppose that you have been watching your market share erode under the onslaught of self-published authors who have much lower overhead and the freedom to engage directly with the marketplace rather than being forced to work through the bureaucracy of a major corporation.
You can’t compete with the indies on price. You no longer have a lock on the best authors, since so many new and talented writers are choosing to self-publish. You don’t have a monopoly on editorial staff or cover artists or book designers–much of the best talent in those fields are becoming freelancers.
What do you have? A big voice. Traditional publishers still have the ear of the traditional media outlets, and the resources to blanket the media with their message.
Go back a couple of paragraphs to the part where I describe the rants of self-published authors. Imagine going through them and cherry-picking the most offensive and inflammatory quotes. Imagine that you can feed these quotes to media outlets who are sympathetic to your plight. Imagine that you have the power to present to the world the image of self-published writers that will make readers recoil with horror and disgust and run back in to the welcoming arms of traditional publishers.
Paranoid? I’ve been called worse.
The war that is going on is not about what is stocked at a particular e-book retailer, or how retailers list e-books, or what categories are acceptable to whom. The war is much bigger than that.
We are engaged in a fight to decide who creates the public perception of self-publishing as an industry, and unless we get serious about it, we are going to lose.
I’m an old man. I remember the 1970’s, and I remember VCRs. There was a critical period when the technology was new and the VCR very nearly got labeled as a pornography machine in the court of public opinion. You can’t look it up, because it’s the kind of thing that media historians prefer to gloss over, but you can take my word for it. A VCR was on the verge of being a shameful thing to own, because the public perception was that anyone who owned one was using it to watch dirty movies on. Seriously.
What happened is that movie producers and retailers put a lot of effort into presenting the image of the family gathered around the TV, watching Disney movies on tape. And it worked.
Self-published e-books are in serious danger of being seen as a euphemism for pornography. What’s worse, all the big money is on the side that wants to make self-publishing look shameful.
So what do we do? Is it really that bad a thing? Yes, and here is where I go back to my observation regarding the sort of erotica that has been singled out for particular scrutiny. Instead of going after gay sex, or group sex, or consensual BDSM, the article and the subsequent purges focus a niche that has a lot of enemies.
It isn’t just fundamentalist groups that object to Daddy/Little Girl Abuse themes, it’s also feminist groups, child protection groups, folks who won’t be marginalized and have a lot of pull in the courts. I don’t believe that this is accidental, and I will not be at all surprised if these sorts of groups begin making their objections known once sufficient numbers of self-published authors have expressed their willingness to stand along side writers who publish in incest play genres.
Again, what do we do? We have to be proactive. If we wait for the next move it’s all over–we are outnumbered and outgunned, we can’t afford to be outmaneuvered, too.
We have to present our case to the court of public opinion. We have to reach out to everyone with the message that we are professional providers of quality merchandise. Another trip down memory lane–there was a hugely successful media campaign by the Garment Workers Unions back in my youth. (And if you’re my age you know what I am going to say and you are probably already singing the song.)
It was a simple message and one of the most relentless earworms of all time, “Look for the union label.” The TV spots showed union workers, standing together and singing about how they put pride in their work and that Americans should make sure that the clothes they bought came from unionized factories. It worked because it hit strong and simple nerves–we are ordinary people just like you, and we need your support.
To go back even further, back in the early 1950’s comic books were on the verge of being run out of business. There was a lot of outrage and a best selling book called Seduction Of The Innocent. Comic books were tied to every evil from promiscuity to violence to chewing gum in class. Publishers of the comics responded by getting together and creating the Comics Code. There were then and are still today a lot of objections to the Code, but it’s likely that it saved the industry, which was in real danger of being regulated out of existence.
I am, perhaps, the worst marketer in the world. I’d put odds on my being in the top ten, anyway. So what I am not going to do is tell you how to run a campaign to increase public perception and enhance public opinion of self-publishing. What I will do is say that such a campaign is needed, and offer my support to anyone who can organize one.
One person who is doing that is Chris McMullen who is putting together an event called Read Tuesday. Now, it wasn’t intended as anything so sweeping as I describe, it’s a sales event, designed to promote e-books as gifts for the holidays. However, it is the kind of thing that self-published authors can work together to build, and it is the kind of thing that can show us collectively in a better light.
Obviously it’s not the only one, but it is the one with which I am involved right now, so it’s the one that I am promoting. Please feel free to provide links to other events in the comments.
I wish I could end this here, because what I am going to say next is going to ruffle a lot of feathers. I don’t want to say it, and I hope I’m wrong about it, but it is my honest opinion of the current state of the industry.
Self-publishers on mainstream platforms have to cut writers of erotica loose.
EDIT: 18 OCT 13, see endnote, comments, and this post for clarification and correction of that statement. (I am leaving the original text intact, simply adding to it.)
It’s ugly, and I don’t like to say it. I expect I will get a lot of criticism for saying this, and I can’t say that it is unjustified. However, the reality of the situation is that self-published erotica is the one thing that is most likely to sink self-publishing as an industry. You can call me hypocritical, and you’ll be right–my books are full of violence and horror and some profoundly anti-social characters. How would I feel if my books were singled out for censure due to the subject matter, you ask? I’d be mad as hell.
Obviously there is a market for erotic e-books, and there are many talented writers in the genre. I don’t expect either the producers or the customers to just go away. What I would suggest is for erotic e-book writers to partner with existing on-line retailers of adult entertainment. There are companies that have the market share and the distribution channels, that know how to limit access to adults and have legal teams who are familiar with the laws in question.
I suspect that someone like Peter Acworth of Kink.com would be open to the idea of adding an e-book division to his family of sites. It would probably be very profitable for all concerned as well.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I don’t even claim to have all the questions. What I have is some dark forebodings and (possibly) paranoid fantasies. If there is one thing that I have learned in a half century on this rock it is that anything that I think I know could be wrong.
I hope I am wrong about this, but I think we are in for some heavy weather and we had best be prepared.
EDIT: 18 OCT 13, I realize that my remark above was ambiguous and ill-advised. Thanks to conversations with other self-published authors I have clarified my thoughts. My problem is not with writers of erotica, it is with knowingly posting of files that violate a retailer’s terms of service and trusting that the volume of the site will prevent discover for long enough to make some money. That is abusing the system, and that has caused retailers to make the publishing process more difficult for everyone.