Haven’t you heard? It’s a battle of words.

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. 

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to Haven’t you heard? It’s a battle of words.

  1. MzSusanB says:

    This essay is very hard-hitting and presents a lot of material to think about.

  2. Papi Z says:

    Well said Misha. I along with many others responded with a knee jerk reaction that does no one any good. Highly thought out points and argument that is probably more right than wrong.

  3. Papi Z says:

    Reblogged this on The Literary Syndicate and commented:
    Misha makes some very good points here. I urge everyone to read this, and if you have differing opinions, feel free to comment here and/or on Misha’s site. This is a battle my friends, who shall win?

  4. This is a divisive issue because there are authors who believe in free speech not matter how odd, objectionable or damaging it may be. However, I don’t like the fact that all indie books are being “quarantined” ( a term used to describe items or people that need to be separated due to infectious bacteria or disease) because of the actions of a few people. If I write erotica, I don’t want to be lumped into a category with books about rape and incest, those are completely different subjects. There is nothing erotic about rape and incest.

    I hope a reasonable solution is found and soon. I’m stunned that there were no provisions in place for such an inevitable situation.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I believe in free speech for everyone, regardless of the content of the speech. However, the issue of what books a retailer chooses to stock has nothing to do with free speech, it has to do with a business making decisions regarding its inventory.

  5. l0rdraven says:

    A lot to think about. For me it would be horrific if the industry began to regulate, then it would be a matter of opinion as what was porn and what was just romance. But I get your point.

  6. kingmidget says:

    Can’t really disagree with much of what you say here.

      • kingmidget says:

        I wrote a post several months ago about my frustrations with Smashwords and how I had no sales there for my novel. One day, I looked at their bestseller list … nine of the top ten were erotica. Now, understand, I like to read a little bit of erotica every now and then. But, nine of the top ten. This is not … NOT … what self-publishing is supposed to be about. I cry for quality to come from the ranks of the self-published. Unfortunately, I worry about what you express. That self-publishing will become known as the place to get free sex stories.

  7. sstamm625 says:

    Very thoughtful post, Misha, with a lot of good points and fodder for thought.

  8. ameliabishop says:

    I’m with you on all points except the erotica. Only because it is too difficult to define, and I fear that doing so is a dangerous step towards the moral-policing of literary content. What is erotica? Where is the line between erotica and romance? Is “erotic-romance” acceptable? What about genres like LGBT romance, or BDSM? Are those out purely on “moral” grounds? And who will make those decisions?

    What about violence, needless blood and gore and killing that exists outside of plot? Isn’t that a form of “titillation” (though hopefully non-sexual)? And isn’t that more damaging, really?

    Also I feel it is too similar to the elitist attitudes of the traditional publishers themselves (only “acceptable” content gets the stamp of approval, the rest must be trash)
    But your points otherwise are fantastic, and very insightful. Great post, as always, thank you.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Thank you. In theory, I agree with what you say about erotica.

      In practice, however, I do think that there are works that are better sold by specialty retailers. I won’t try to draw that line for anyone else, but I think that respecting how retailers choose to draw that line is an important part of being a professional.

      I am not saying that erotica is bad, or should be stigmatized. What I am intending to say is that if a particular retailer decides not to shelve particular books, for any reason, then independent authors should respect their right to make that decision, even if we don’t agree with it.

      It seems that all of the major e-book retailers are either changing their guidelines or becoming more rigorous in enforcing existing guidelines. I believe that it is important for self-published authors to be scrupulous in abiding by them, and I believe that developing alternate retail outlets for e-books that fall outside what mainstream outlets choose to carry is more productive than either arguing or seeking to subvert the rules.

      • ameliabishop says:

        Certainly, e-booksellers can sell whatever they choose. We agree to that when we hit the “publish” button. I thought you were suggesting that self-publishers should somehow band together (via events such as “read tuesday”) yet exclude erotica authors, which isn’t cool.

        I doubt any major retailers will eliminate erotica, or stop wanting to sell it. It sells well, and they are in business to make money. Having said that, the titles which sparked this whole thing are probably not any that I personally would take much time to defend.

  9. rarasaur says:

    I’m a decent hand at marketing, Misha– if you come up with a short, fierce mission statement– and maybe a catchy name or two that I can choose from– we could manage a campaign, I’m sure of it. 🙂

  10. sknicholls says:

    What you wrote in comments pretty much sums up my point of view: “In practice, however, I do think that there are works that are better sold by specialty retailers. I won’t try to draw that line for anyone else, but I think that respecting how retailers choose to draw that line is an important part of being a professional.” Great post and great words to ponder, presented most professionally.

  11. sknicholls says:

    Reblogged this on mybrandofgenius and commented:
    Author, Misha Burnett, has some wise words to share in light of recent events in the world of self-publishing.

  12. Sue says:

    I forwarded this excellent article to my e author friends

  13. Being a vampire author I am already excluded from many events, awards, review sites, interview sites, etc and in many cases from earning any respect as a writer. Many of the so-called “legitimate” writers would be happy to wipe away all the paranormal fiction – especially any with *gasp* romance because it “cheapens” the marketplace. “Oh God, vampires? Ugh. If you ever decide to write something real let me know,” is something I hear from people, so whether I read erotica or not, I’m afraid I can’t really condone giving an entire genre’s worth of writers the cold shoulder over it. Whether I like it or not, it is a legitimate piece of work, and as soon as we start deciding what is “legitimate” and what isn’t we’re right back in the pigeon holes those traditional publishers love so much. Yes, erotica sells better – they have more sales then my unacceptable vampires. Apparently that’s what the people with the cash want to read. That’s like complaining that pornos shouldn’t be distributed because too many movie watchers buy them instead of buying “quality” work. Just as porno movie makers are already looked down by other movie makers, so erotica writers are looked down on too, not only by fellow writers, by religious groups, moral police, and in some cases even the public they sell to. But hey, let’s shame them all a little more, just so we can prove that we’re better than they are and hopefully separate ourselves to “prove” how “dedicated” we are to our “legitimate craft”.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      You bring up excellent points, and for what it is worth, I personally agree with you. My own work is a variant of Urban Fantasy. I am not only marginalized for writing works that have fantastic elements, I am further marginalized for writing works in which the fantastic elements are not the common tropes of fantasy literature. I’m the fringe of the fringe, as it were.

      That having been said, the issue is not what is legitimate writing, but what writing is appropriate for a particular sales venue. It is clear that most e-book retailers don’t have the resources or the inclination to do any sort of age-verification beyond the most cursory.

      Retailers have been relying on self-publishers to police themselves. Clearly, many don’t, and that’s the problem.

      Many self-published works have been removed from on-line catalogs because of a few works that should never have been listed on the sites in the first place. I am not suggesting that writers should be shunned for writing erotica, I am suggesting that they be shunned for posting those works in violation of the terms of service of the e-book retailers.

      A problem with this, of course, is that these terms of service are ambiguous, and in many cases selectively enforced. Self-published works are removed for violations that are ignored in traditionally published works. (I just checked, and The Hotel New Hampshire is still available on Amazon, for example. So much for “we don’t allow themes of incest.”)

      As I said, I don’t have the answers, and I don’t believe that there is going to be an easy solution. However, If the sales venue where I sell my books says, “no porn”, I am going to support their choice, and that means not supporting authors who violate the terms and trust to the volume of e-books to hide them from view.

      • I do see your point, but the problem falls under, as you said the ambiguous terms of service. For instance here is amazon’s “porn” policy:

        Pornography
        We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.

        Offensive Content
        What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.

        I find it hard to point my finger and say “You guys are bad!” when that’s what they have to try to follow. If the rules were clear cut with a bulleted list, then yes, I would agree because when you tick that little publish box you are agreeing to follow the rules, and so if you knowingly publishing something that breaks those rules (such as copyrighted content you don’t own) then you shouldn’t be surprised when it is yanked down. However,”what we deem offensive is probably what you’d expect” isn’t much of a rule to break. By those standards my own first book could be considered offensive, as i have had reviewers refuse to review it over a certain scene.

        I have no issue with saying “adult books should be sold at adult stores” except WHO decides where the line goes? HOW descriptive must a sex scene be before it’s over the line? How much violence is too much violence (because once they start regulating sex, that will be next) Who makes up the rules and the standards? Amazon? Well, we’ve seen what their policy is already. I read a book review the other day warning people away from an Agatha Christie novel because they used the word “damn” four times in it – which the reviewer found offensive. That’s no where near my idea of offensive, and in fact I found that review humorous, but the reviewer sure didn’t. She was offended.

        You mentioned traditionally published books, and you’re right. Are they going to remove V.C Andrew’s entire collection? With the exception of My Sweet Audrina, to the best of my knowledge (I admit to not having read many of the newer books) each series features at least one instance of rape or incest and in some cases incest-rape. In fact in the final book in the Flowers in the Attic series Cathy marries her brother. I doubt very much any retailer is going to yank them. The natural argument is, of course, “Well that’s not classified under erotica!” but neither was my friend Carol’s book – in fact hers does not even HAVE incest or rape in it – and yet is was yanked because the title was “suspicious”. Once it starts, where does it stop? In the end it’s nothing but an Indy book witch hunt, no doubt designed to help “un-flood” the market and create a whoosh of publicity because Amazon is doing just what you suggested about the Union commercials – standing tall and saying “Oh, we’re cleaning this up! Look, look at the action we’re taking!” meanwhile throwing authors under the bus to prove it.

        You have a lot of good points, but I am afraid we part ways when it comes to authors “cutting” other authors “loose” as the last thing we need in the industry is MORE nastiness, back biting and finger pointing.

  14. Word Savant says:

    It certainly raises a lot of questions. I’m particularly concerned about the reaction to quickly remove the books from the sites rather than, oh I don’t know, fix the problem. If this is true and erotic e-books were sold in view of young children 1.) that’s not cool 2.) let’s find out HOW it happened so it doesn’t happen again. Erotica has been around for a long time, long before e-books were around. It’s going to be around for much longer, and we have to figure out how to be responsible with it. People in this country have the right to write it and the right to read it, but it comes with some responsibilities. That shouldn’t be taken away because of the mistakes of a few people.

    Finally, I do agree with your comment that retailers have a right to choose what they sell and don’t sell, and that’s all the better for other retailers to pick up those niche genres.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post and engaging us in this important discussion.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      And that is why I suggest that erotic e-book writers partner with existing adult entertainment providers. They already have the experience in dealing with age verification and so on. No sense in re-inventing the wheel.

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  16. Patti Hall says:

    Misha,
    Thoughtful post. Here is my two cents, okay a bit more than that:>)
    1-There are genres for a reason. They categorize books, movies, etc so the public knows where to look for what they like. I don’t read certain genres like adult erotica, vampires, horror, or much fantasy, but I’m glad they are there for those that do.Let’s leave it at that.
    3- Banned Book month just passed and many still don’t have a clear stand on, or understanding of censorship. I don’t sit well with it, because I want to make exceptions, but censorship has no gray areas. I will try to add that to my list of research to posts.
    4- I follow book sales and especially self pub sales, and I believe erotica and vampires are at the top right now. (Literature isn’t on any indie top seller list that I have seen.)
    5- Where oh where are the facts on this latest upheaval? I see FB posts screaming about this, but I need facts to get behind a cause. Every scream begins and ends with the author’s anecdotal experience. Goodreads had a similar reaction to authors who were upset about rude reviews about them, not their writing. GR went overboard, while their intent was to deal with a problem. But they admitted that, and made corrections as they went about trying to fix the problem. I did find the time to follow that issue and read GR response moment by moment. Maybe the same thing is happening here and some mistakes are being made, while the indie publishers are trying to find a solution? We are so reactionary these days, without hard facts.
    6- If someone wants a good cause to support indie authors, without forming a union, I have a suggestion. We need to have something in place so that no self-pub goes to publication without being edited. Seriously. That is the issue we have heard for years and currently gives indies a bad name. Authors publish without professional editing because they are in a hurry and because they can’t afford a prof edit. How do we fix this? Maybe qualified editors would agree to a certain number of free edits a week, a month, a year? I don’t know the answers, but a filter is needed between completed book and publishing. I believe this tarnishes the indie authors much more than this erotica issue even begins to.
    Thanks for the time and space for my comments,
    Patti

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Again the issue that I see regarding erotica is not if it is a valid genre (it is) or if it should be censored (it should not), but if retailers have a right to decide what they will and will not sell. I think that’s very clear. They do.

      I need to make a second post, I think, because I have continued to think things through on this issue.

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  19. bellabryce says:

    Perhaps I fall between the cracks then . . . I don’t write ‘erotica’ as such. I write traditional discipline fiction (yes, bottom smacking) and a bit of age-play. However, my current and first book, is not sexual nor is there any romance. My story has a plot, characters that develop and pretty deep and undertones. Regardless, I appreciate the article but like I said, I feel I fall between the cracks. I’m not quite sure what I am then or where I stand! As long as it keeps selling, I guess it doesn’t matter.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      From what you are saying, your books wouldn’t violate any e-book retailer’s terms of service. That makes you a legitimate self-published author as far as I am concerned. Like I say, my problem is with people who knowingly publish works that violate a retailer’s content guidelines.

      And OTK rocks.

      • bellabryce says:

        Does it make any difference that I’m published through a legitimate e-book publisher, as well? I know that some books are still pulled, even though they aren’t self-published.

        Indeed, Sir, OTK does.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        It probably does make a difference that your your books are with an established publisher rather than self-published. Yours may not even be flagged for review because of it.

  20. jmcobbrn says:

    Reblogged this on Juliana Writes and commented:
    Some ideas to ponder. What is smoke and what is mirrors in the battle for ebooks – Indies vs. Traditional Publishers.

  21. This is a well written and thought provoking post. E-book retailers (I am thinking particularly of Amazon) are far from clear as regards their guidelines on unacceptable content. On Amazon’s site it states
    “Pornography
    We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.

    Offensive Content
    What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect”, https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A1KT4ANX0RL55I. These statements are so vague as to be virtually meaningless. Authors of erotica may well scratch their heads and ask what Amazon means by “unacceptable content”. I, personally believe that authors should stand up against the authoritarians who wish to censor free speech not by being offensive but by arguing in favour of a liberal and tolerant society, one in which the right of people to express unpopular opinions, deal with erotic subject matter etc is defended. We are seeing the thin end of a rather nasty wedge which should be opposed by liberal minded people both authors and other people of good will alike.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I am absolutely opposed to censorship. An e-book retailer that removes books from its inventory, however, is not practicing censorship, and calling it that doesn’t help anyone. Retailers can and do and should have the right to stock what they want and to not stock what they want.

      E-book authors who produce works that existing retailers don’t stock would be better served by exploring alternative retail outlets, rather than trying to manufacture a right to have their goods sold in a particular venue.

      • I agree with you that retailers have a right to take decisions on what books to stock. However the vociferous objections by certain groups sometimes (but not always) egged on by the tabloid press can create an environment in which retailers self censor in order to avoid controversy. On occasions retailers may choose the path of least resistance (I.E. self censorship) rather than taking a stand for freedom of expression. Ultimately retailers do, as you say have the right to determine which works to stock, however if authors don’t put forward counter arguments to those voiced by people who wish retailers to censor their content, variety of choice as regards books and individual freedom will suffer.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Again, censorship and freedom of expression have nothing to do with business. Retailers are in business to make money, not to advance the cause of freedom or self-expression or whatever.

        Yes, there is a market for hardcore erotic works. Mainstream e-book retailers are not the proper venue for selling them, however. Adult specialty stores are a much more appropriate place to list things like “Daddy’s Rape Party”.

  22. Sue says:

    Misha,
    you may be interested, or not, in this post – the comments

    http://www.serenajanes.blogspot.ca/2013/10/now-for-something-sweet.html#comment-form

    However, as with all “good intentions” the innocent get dragged along for the ride

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