A few weeks back, I wrote about the war against erotica — about how big ebook retailers go through periods where they purge whole catalogues of erotica from their websites, throwing the erotic author community into turmoil. I argued that we as a community of erotic authors are partly responsible for our own demise — largely through the actions of a subset of us who engage in shady practices and/or make unwise choices. For my full argument, please read my previous post.
Yesterday, Smashwords announced what is essentially a ceasefire in the war on erotica.
Smashwords has introduced a new classification system for erotic works. Authors and publishers now have to explicitly state if their book contains age place, bestiality, dubious consent (dubcon), incest or pseudo-incest, nonconsensual sexual slavery, and rape for titillation.
I know for some authors, this will immediately feel like they are being discriminated against because these rules don’t apply to any other genre. However, I argue that these special classifications help you as an author/publisher, not hinder you.
If you occasionally write one of the above categories — say, age play — and you care about your account and your standing with Smashwords, then prior to the introduction of this new system, publishing an age play story could be a nerve-wracking experience. You know that not all stores take age play. (According to a chart provided by Smashwords, iBooks does not take age play.) Although you have done nothing wrong, what happens after uploading to Smashwords is largely out of your hands — Smashwords pushes your ebook to all of their third party retailers, including ones that don’t accept your story.
Let’s say that your age play story somehow got into iBooks. The system isn’t perfect, so these things happen. Some time later, iBooks catches on that they have age play in their store, so they go on a hunt for it and delete all of those titles — and if you catch the wrong person on the wrong day, that staffer might decide that you are trying to push the boundaries and purposely publish stuff against their guidelines… and they could ban your pen name entirely.
Under one of my other pen names, I occasionally publish stories that fall under one of these special classifications. Believe me, this has been my worry every time I upload a questionable title. If iBooks has a problem with what I write and makes a big enough stink about it, they could ban all of my stuff from their site — and iBooks is a big selling vendor for me.
But with this classification system, I can explicitly say which of the topics (if any) are contained in my story. If I publish something with age play in it and specifically mark it as such, then it will not go to iBooks, Scribd, Gardners, Overdrive, Odilo, or Bibliotheca. This reduces the chance of me being on the receiving end of backlash if my story ends up in the wrong place.
The retailer benefits, too. They can ensure that what they are carrying is specifically what they feel is acceptable. This reduces the risk of erotica purges (sometimes called a “pornpocalypse”), because they are receiving none of what they do not want.
This does, of course, depend on authors and publishers being truthful about what’s in their book. And that is a problem for some. Some authors and publishers deliberately miscategorize their books to get around filters and content bans. However, it sounds like Smashwords is taking a much more involved role in this — miscategorization can lead to your account being banned.
The act of deliberate miscategorization helps no one — not the author and not the reader. All it does is put a book up in a totally inappropriate place, which then leads to backlash against the industry, which harms all erotic authors, including the majority who follow the rules.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to go ahead and read the blog post from Smashwords that details all of the changes and some of the negotiating they’ve done to lead up to this.
There are a few important points that I’ve gleaned from their post:
Smashwords fights for the rights of erotic authors.
Smashwords could have easily rolled over and acquiesced to the demands of their third party retailers and just remove the ability for erotic authors to have their books published on B&N, Kobo, etc. Instead, Smashwords worked with them to create this classification system that satisfies the retailers and Smashwords. Indeed, erotica is being allowed back onto a retailer’s website that had previous banned it (Gardners) — because Smashwords worked with them and rebuilt that trust.
I often see endless debate among authors as to which is better — Smashwords or Draft2Digital. When I last looked into Draft2Digital a few years ago, they didn’t even accept erotica. Their argument was that there are too many headaches in navigating what third party retailers do and don’t want. I just took a look at their site again and I don’t see any mention of erotica not being allowed, so perhaps they’ve changed their mind. However, I never see or hear of D2D going the extra mile for author rights like the way Smashwords does.
This will impact your sales strategy if you write one of these taboo topics.
Let’s say you write incest, which was available on B&N until very recently. There are readers who used to get all their incest erotica needs met on B&N — now that incest is being removed from their catalogue, readers are going to have a hard time finding what they want. This means that the reader will either settle for non-incest erotica or search for a new retailer that sells what they really want. If they choose to stay on B&N and settle for some non-incest erotica, this will impact your sales as you are missing out on opportunities.
Your job as an author is to find a way to point all your readers to a retailer that allows erotica. My suggestion is to point all your readers to Smashwords as they have the most open guidelines, their guidelines are unlikely to change, and they offer a higher royalty than sales through one of their third party retailers.
So how do you get your readers over to Smashwords? Plaster the message all over your social media channels that all of your books are available at Smashwords. Avoid making derogatory statements about other retailers being prudes. Instead, tease and entice your readers — your stories are “too hot for Barnes & Noble” and are available “exclusively at Smashwords”. That’s likely to have an effect.
You could also write a very dirty erotica that fits in the guidelines of what the other retailers allow — so, make it mainstream but it just feels very sinful (for example, my book, Seduced By My Best Friend’s Dad is a fairly vanilla mainstream erotica story, but it feels dirtier than it is because the “best friend’s dad” is like pseudo-pseudo-incest, without actually violating anyone’s guidelines — and make it clear in your back matter that the rest of your stories are “even dirtier” and the reader should go to your website to find out where to get “exactly what you’re looking for”.
While the war against erotica is not over, we’ve reached a truce.
Unfortunately, the war against erotica will never be over. Reading the comments below the post on Smashwords finds at least one person so far who is outraged that Smashwords would even consider allowing erotica. There are others who feel that this classification system is a step closer to further troubles, that an outright ban by some retailers is going to be the next step.
Is this system perfect? Absolutely not. Does it at least bring some temporary stability? Yes, I believe so.
As an independent author, I need to balance my sense of art with my goals as an independent business-person. I want to tell the stories I want to tell — but I also need to make consistent income. I depend on my monthly royalties to help pay the bills.
When Barnes & Noble temporarily deleted half of their erotica catalogue, I somehow flew under the radar and my books were not touched. However, it was very concerning — Barnes & Noble is a big percentage of my sales. If I were to be kicked out of there, I would lose out on sales and my monthly income would be lower.
If a further ban would be enacted and the big retailers only allowed erotica with certain themes, I would be disappointed, but I would also take it as a challenge. How can I, as an author, write the hottest story imaginable within the small sandbox a retailer is giving me? It’s not the ideal, of course. However, as an independent author who depends on royalty income, accepting that challenge is how one survives.
Additionally, if a further ban would happen and all taboo themes would be removed, then that could be the opportunity for smaller retailers like Excitica to shine. If there’s a market for it, someone will make money off of it.
Nowadays, an independent author has to be nimble to keep up with changes in the industry. Sometimes it means taking a hit, but other times it means taking advantage of an opportunity.
For now, though, I’m pleased with the stability Smashwords has brought to my “workplace”.