Amazon is on the hunt again.
Why is this such a surprise to anyone? Where Amazon is concerned, there’s always another witch-hunt looming just over the horizon.
Since the inception of indie publishing, Amazon has always been some kind of almost-mystical Holy Grail. Its very popularity… “Want something fast? Go to Amazon!” …makes it an irresistible draw to anyone trying to sell products. This is just as true for authors as for small companies and large corporations.
But like that 800-ton gorilla hulking in the corner, there’s a price to be paid if you’re an indie publisher. Not only Amazon’s extremely unfair pricing scheme if your book isn’t priced within a very narrow range; not only their extremely unfair chargeback policy that screws authors by allowing readers to download and enjoy books, then return them for a full refund. Not only their extremely unfair payment policy where you have to wait 60 days to get paid…assuming 99% of your books haven’t been fraudulently returned for credit.
Not only their extremely unfair policy of holding all foreign sales until a high minimum threshold has been reached, unlike ALL other publishers who pay out global sales along with domestic sales without thinking twice. Not only the extremely unfair way they screwed authors just recently with their Kindle Unlimited program, unexpectedly changing the program terms while authors were still locked in and unable to escape, so that everyone who had foolishly thrown all their eggs in one basket was suddenly declaring bankruptcy.
(Are you sensing an ‘extremely unfair’ theme here yet?)
No, it’s much worse than that.
Amazon is untouchable…and even worse, unreachable.
Let’s take a quick little trip through the Way-Back Machine to the early days of the internet. Not indie publishing…further back. Much further back. Let’s go back to those primitive caveman days before Al Gore was claiming he’d invented the web. 64k dial-up was considered lightning-fast. AOL ruled supreme because it offered a user-easy interface. Indie publishing was only a gleam in someone’s squinty little eye.
I remember seeing my first animated gif, a neon-colored hula dancer. It was very simple, and so darned cool that I just had to save it. (I still pull it out every now and then to enjoy it…the simple things in life really are the best!) I remember building my first website in 1994, and I was so proud when I finally managed to get all the images to display properly!
There were no wysiwyg editors then; all coding had to be done by hand, character by character. To see whether your code worked, you had to upload it, then troubleshoot it while it was live. Sandboxes were still things for little kids to play in; they didn’t yet apply to websites.
I thought in html as easily as I do in English. Easier, truth be told, as I remember waking up one morning frustrated because the alarm wouldn’t shut off. Why not? Because I’d been thinking at it in html code rather than reaching up to slap the Off button! LOL
Ah, those were the days.
Adult websites began to pepper the web. They were hot movers! Suddenly porn addicts didn’t have to hike through the snow, and face the stigma of going into an adult store (which were few in number and always in the seedy areas of town). No more risk of being seen by anyone they knew…who, despite the telling fact that they were also in the seedy part of town (which should speak volumes), were always stern and disapproving. Nor did they have to wait days or even weeks for their monthly skin mag to arrive, so discreet in its plain brown wrapper that it positively screamed “HOT PORN IS INSIDE THIS ENVELOPE!”
Yes, it was a glorious new age for anyone who wanted to look at naughty pictures from the privacy of their own homes.
And back in those dark ages, it was easy to protect children from those naughty pictures, or the racy stories that some people wrote and self-published for free on their newbie websites. AVS (adult verification) companies required a credit card on file before anyone could enter an adult website, even one that provided free content. Since children couldn’t have credit cards, and debit cards for minors hadn’t yet come into vogue (remember this was the dark ages!), children couldn’t access adult sites. Life was good, and everyone was happy.
Then things began to change. Debit cards became accessible to everyone, even teens and pre-teens. AVS sites died a painful death because having a credit card was no longer proof of age majority. Adult sites that specialized in free nudie pictures died soon after, because search engines added a category for images…and included explicit adult photos in their selections.
Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free?
This was an even greater boon for the perv, because now hot sex pictures (and even videos, if you knew where to look) were available to anyone for free!
There was only one little problem: If pervs could access it, so could anyone else.
I think we can all agree that when kids develop an interest, they’re going to find a way to see what they want to see. No one’s better at getting into that cookie jar than the kid who’s just been told he can’t have a snack before dinner!
But what about innocent little Johnny who’s been given a research assignment about endangered cougars? He goes online searching for information about tawny-coated hunting cats…and the first 5,000 listings he finds are about sexy older women searching for hot young studs to fuck!
No question about it…the World Wide Web can be a little too ‘wide’-open sometimes.
What’s the solution?
Many have been tried. All adult sites are required to have some kind of disclaimer on their index page, or at least prominently listed, warning accidental visitors that they’re entering an adult’s-only zone. Some go as far as making you click a “Yes, I’m 18 or older!” button before you can enter their site. Does that deter minors? Not in the slightest. But at least it satisfies the strict letter of the law.
But what about the teen or pre-teen who sees a book listing that looks interesting…and because the description is extremely vague so it will be accepted everywhere, doesn’t realize it’s hardcore porn? Don’t laugh, it happens! Sites have been summarily shut down because little Suzie clicked the wrong link, unexpectedly found herself inside an extremely raunchy porn site, and ran crying to Mommy.
Did she see the warning disclaimer? Of course not, because she followed a direct link rather than accessing the site through the front door!
Such is the power of a search engine.
So what’s the solution?
Realistically there isn’t one. In this enlightened ‘Age of the Internet,’ anyone can access anything.
Oh, sure, you could try taking all erotica off the web…but you might as well try to strain the ocean with a colander. The so-called Moral Majority (who are neither the majority nor, on the whole, especially moral in private) have been trying to eradicate porn ever since the first hungry cavewoman spread her legs in exchange for a piece of food. Their success ratio is even lower than my chances of winning the lottery…which I don’t play.
The best you can hope for is to make kids jump through enough hoops that they get discouraged…which isn’t going to happen if they’re determined. But sometimes all you can do is put up the barrier. Any actions they take beyond that point are their own responsibility.
So what’s the next-best solution? All “adult” products…toys, lotions, movies, stories, etc.…need to be segregated from the “non-adult” products on any website that carries both.
That’s not as difficult as it sounds if you’re willing to do a little work. eBay has done the best job so far. In order to access ANYTHING of an adult nature, you have to go through their adult gateway and click the button that says, “Yes, I’m 18 or older.” They have it set up so that even if you follow a direct link, it routes through the gateway first, and then lets you see the adult product after you’ve clicked the button.
It won’t deter anyone who really wants in. But it just might keep innocent little Johnny or Suzie from accidentally seeing porn when they’re searching for information or videos for their Endangered Animals report.
The sad thing is that so few people even realize eBay has an Adult’s Only section; I found it two years ago totally by accident, but there’s absolutely nothing on their site that lets people know it exists.
Another solution that works reasonably well for independent publishers is to split their website out into a group of genre-specific sites. Fiction4All has done that, and has sites for mainstream fiction, various types of erotica, and taboo porn that specializes in BDSM and incest.
Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we borrowed their extremely good idea some time back, and have been slowly building two extra websites of our own. When we’re done, all mainstream literature (non-erotica fiction, non-fiction, science, medicine, arts, etc.) will be listed on Book Oasis, all mainstream erotica will be listed on Timeless Erotica, and the remainder…taboo subjects like BDSM and incest…will be listed on Carnal Pleasures. Each site will have links to the other two, so someone wanting to expand their interests can easily access whatever they want. But if they don’t want to look at erotica or anything taboo, they don’t have to!
For those interested, we’re still adding books to Book Erotica (www.book-oasis.com). Timeless Erotica (www.timelesserotica.com) is mostly done, and we hope to finish adding the last few books there soon.
So where was I? Oh yeah, talking about how ineffectual most methods really are for keeping minors from accessing adult products.
Still, you have to start somewhere, right?
So will someone please tell me why, in the name of all that’s holy, the world’s largest online retailer (that would be Amazon!) has done absolutely nothing to segregate adult products so they can’t easily be accessed by every Tom, Dick, and Mary on the planet?
Periodic witch hunts in response to Moral Majority public outrage are as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise!
Unfortunately book purges are never done properly, because using heuristic software (which just looks for certain keywords rather than taking into consideration the context of the whole book) isn’t nearly sufficient to the task. That’s why innocuous titles like “Cindy Plays With The Family Dog” might get blocked, but books with blatantly taboo titles, keywords, and descriptions may be left intact.
Don’t believe me? I just did an Amazon search using the keyword ‘incest.’ They have 19,874 books listed about incest…and very few are social commentaries on the evils of it! Most of them are explicit erotica books dealing specifically with incestuous taboos. Many of them are even listed in Kindle Unlimited…despite Amazon’s public claim to never allow incest erotica, ever, for any reason!
What’s worse…if your book is blocked, rightly or wrongly, you have no recourse. Absolutely none. Amazon is all-powerful—just ask them!—and there is no possible way of reaching an actual human to state your case. All correspondence is computer-generated, so they are absolutely unreachable. If your book is blocked, it’s a one-way ticket, never to be changed. If you dare to resubmit it, your entire account is likely to be blocked…and that, too, is irrevocable. Once Amazon blacklists you, you can never submit directly to them again. (Fortunately there are a number of wholesale publishers who will submit to Amazon on your behalf, but you’ll pay a steep royalty for the privilege.)
But there might just possibly be hope on the horizon. How? Amazon may finally be getting smart! And I don’t mean that as a snide insult; I mean it quite sincerely. They may have finally realized that the best way to keep everyone happy is to segregate erotica books behind a link that says: Excluding adult items. Show all results. (This link only shows up on their website, however, not on tablets or other i-devices, so it appears they aren’t filtering results anywhere else.)
The forum boards are lit up like Christmas trees in protest of this filtering, but I think it’s the best thing that could possibly happen to the adult industry. I hope they move ALL adult books behind the Excluded link, on all possible devices! And the sooner, the better!
Because it doesn’t just protect innocent little Johnny or Suzie. It protects all erotica authors, too!
There’s an old maxim about the squeaky wheel getting greased. Why does it get greased? Because it’s being such a flaming nuisance that someone makes an effort to eradicate the noise.
Erotica is no different! If the so-called Moral Majority don’t see it, they won’t complain about it! Sure, they’ll know it’s still lurking out there in the weeds. But if their noses aren’t rubbed in it every time they go online to search for something totally unrelated, they won’t spend time and effort trying to eradicate it!
That Excluded link is the grease that will protect erotica authors from more witch hunts, and quite possibly open the floodgates again so authors can write what they want without having to censor titles, keywords, and descriptions. Or totally rewrite books to make them more acceptable to the censor-Nazis who are currently wreaking havoc with their livelihoods!
Sure, during the interim when some books have been flagged but others haven’t, authors might lose the odd sale. But the Excluded link is clearly visible at the top of the page. How much effort does it really take to click it? Even Walmartians and other obliviots are smart enough to do that!
And once everyone’s erotica books have been safeguarded, clicking that link will become second-nature.
Everyone benefits. Johnny and Suzie don’t see what they shouldn’t before they’re ready. (It’ll happen quickly enough…let’s not rush them along, shall we?) Their parents…the small but vocal Moral Majority who are beating the war drums…will wander off in search of easier targets. And writers can finally go back to doing what they love: writing the books they want to write without having to censor them just so they can get published.
I don’t think Excluding books will damage sales long-term. I think it will improve them.
So hurry up, Amazon, and get the job finished! You’ll benefit, too!
And maybe, if we’re lucky, all the other publishers will jump on eBay’s bandwagon so we can all make tons of money doing what we love, and retire to the exotic islands of our choice. Mine’s Ireland! Anyone with me?