E-Booksellers Take a Walk on the Vile Side

Last month, British retailer WH Smith temporarily shuttered its site after people realized it was selling particularly objectionable sexual content. Meanwhile, Kobo.com, the Toronto-based e-reading company from which WH Smith got its material, announced that it was suspending distribution of all self-published e-books. Amazon also got into the act by removing numerous titles from its online shelves.

This all seems to have been touched off, or at least greatly exacerbated, by an article in the online magazine The Kernel, which detailed the vast amounts of filth available online. That Kernel article leaned on our guest in this TechNewsWorld podcast, Jeremy Duns. Duns is the author of several spy novels, and over the summer he published the nonfiction title, Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation.

Duns found himself as a character in this e-book filth saga because he was tweeting about the phenomenon before most people knew about it, and certainly before the book retailers themselves seemed to know what was going on. Duns explains how he was tipped off to the obscene e-book world and talks about why the inevitable debate about censorship misses the mark.

Here are some snippets from the podcast.

Listen to the podcast (24:06 minutes).

TechNewsWorld: I want to start by reading a snippet of an article that was published in The Christian Science Monitor. This was in mid-October, which is right around the time that things were really coming to a head with these online retailers coming to the realization that they were peddling some pretty obscene stuff.

The article reads, “Retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the UK’s WH Smith and Canada’s Kobo have removed problematic self-published titles after the discovery of a slew of pornographic abuse-themed e-books. WH Smith and Kobo have gone so far as to shut down an entire website and suspend the sale of all self-published books, respectively.”

Now, what I find so interesting about that snippet is the section where they say, “after the discovery of a slew of pornographic abuse-themed e-books.” Were these retailers really legitimately caught off-guard by the existence of these books? Or were they more caught off-guard by the reaction to the books?

Jeremy Duns: Well, I have no idea, but it does seem extraordinary that they didn’t know what they were selling, but on the other hand, they are selling hundreds of thousands, I think even millions of e-books. So I think that’s part of the problem — if you don’t even know what you’re selling, clearly you can get into trouble.”

TechNewsWorld: You’re in the book business. I’m curious: Is this phenomenon of people publishing lewd and entirely tasteless material … is that something that has received much play in the past? I know self-publishing has really changed the paradigm of what is available, and people can publish things by themselves that they would never get a reputable publisher to publish. Is this something that, as a writer, you’ve heard people talk about, or is it something that’s sprouting up as a new thing?

Duns: Well, I hadn’t heard of it before last year. I was aware that there was erotica; I was aware that there was erotica bordering on soft-porn that was self-published. Of course in the past, there was plenty of stuff written in the 60s or the 70s. People would argue about, I don’t know, Lolita; you could make all sorts of arguments about different books.

The e-book revolution, the self-publishing revolution is really only a few years old, so what was surprising to me about this sort of material is not that it exists — that’s always existed, I guess — but more where it was sold. This seems to me to be more the material that you would have found in a sex shop. So to find it on iTunes or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or these kinds of places — that’s what was surprising.

TechNewsWorld: This raises the whole question of censorship. I’ve kind of scoured your Twitter timeline, and I know that when you were tweeting a lot about this and pointing out some of the more bizarre titles available, there was some question of whether or not you were just being a downer. You had a quote that said, “Had quite a few tweets suggesting I’m a book-burning Mary Whitehouse.” How do you approach the whole censorship topic, and do you see this as a fine line, or is it pretty black and white to you of what is and is not — or what should and should not be available?

Duns: Well, I don’t have any view on whether or not it should or should not be available, really. That’s not up to me.

I don’t see it as censorship at all, in the same way that none of these books are sold — I mean, WH Smith, who you mentioned when we started, who amazingly took down their entire website to sort out this problem, they are one of the biggest if not the biggest chains of bookshops in Britain. Every town has a branch of WH Smith. You can’t go into WH Smith’s branches and find this sort of thing.

Does that mean they’ve been censoring themselves since the 1950s? Of course it doesn’t. It just means they chose not to publish that sort of material. WH Smith has never published hardcore pornography. So I think as a retailer, if you choose not to publish hardcore pornography, that doesn’t mean you’re being censored.

The Internet is a very, very large place; there are millions of websites that feature porn on them. So it’s not a question that, you know, because you can’t buy incest-abuse-rape porn on Amazon, you’re not going to be able to find it. Of course it’s going to be somewhere on the Internet. It’s more about the appropriateness for those retailers. For me, it’s not anything to do with censorship, and it’s not anything to do with pornography. It’s more to do with what this means for the way in which websites — very large websites — self-publish and sell materials. Because your first question, “Did they know about this?” — if they didn’t know about this, well, how do we know what else they’re selling?…”

Clearly, I alone am not going to go through all of the e-books on Amazon, but they clearly haven’t been through them, either. So that raises the question: What if someone were to publish something illegal? What if someone was to publish something that breaches obscenity laws — breaches incitement to racial hatred laws, or is defamatory? What are the filters in place by which these websites stop themselves from publishing illegal materials?

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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