Smashwords Censorship: Unintended Consequences

Smashwords distributes eBooks created by self publishing authors to the various proprietary eBook platforms.

Recently PayPal has told Smashwords that it must:

“..remove fiction that contains themes of bestiality, rape and incest”

Smashwords Member Alert – March 5, 2012

Is censorship ever advisable?

Ratings systems have long proved an effective method for preventing people from stumbling on material that they would find offensive. I grew up in a small rural community with a very strong religious presence. Still, our local video store had a back room where those so inclined could access material that might otherwise offend. There were also adult magazines nestled on the top shelves at the back of magazine racks in local variety stores. I know that because I clerked in such a store in high school, and I remember my profound shock the first time an Old Order Mennonite man arrived at the store in a horse drawn buggy and proceeded to purchase the latest issue of “Hustler.” But although I am quite sure that the elders of his church would not have been pleased, in a free society, adults must be accorded the right to choose for themselves.

Else we’ll certainly end up in a world very much like the one George Orwell tried to warn us against.

thumbnail ebook cover

Although not classed as erotica, my own debut novel, Inconstant Moon, actually deals pretty prominently with the crime of rape.  If I hadn’t already taken it off Smashwords myself (because I will not deal with PayPal) it could very easily have been one of the titles censored.

TechDirt considers that Paypal is just following orders Paypal Pressured To Play Morality Cop And Forces Smashwords To Censor Authors, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation is planning a legal challenge.

But in an email to Smashwords authors, founder Mark Corker indicates he is negotiating with PayPal, and although

“Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor. That’s not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind this, they’ll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere. PayPal works well for us. In addition to running all credit card processing at the store, PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S. My conversations with PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.”

— Mark Corker,  Smashwords Author/Publisher Update – March 2, 2012

So  readers and writers have been duly warned that Smashwords will cave to PayPal demands rather than switch payment providers should negotiations fail.   That’s a business decision, and Smashwords can legally make it, but make no mistake: PayPal will not be the entity censoring eBooks, that task will fall to Smashwords.

Unintended Consequences

Copyright "c"

Smashwords is an internet company operating in the United States, and as such is subject to the DMCA.

Under the DMCA, You Tube is not liable for copyright infringing material that users upload, because YouTube doesn’t create the videos, it simply distributes them online. So much material is uploaded to YouTube, the cost of YouTube having to police the content of its users would instantly put YouTube out of business. Thus the DMCA allows Internet companies like YouTube an exemption from responsibility for the content they distribute, because these companies can’t reasonably assess such content for legal infractions.

The DMCA defines such a distributor as a “safe haven” so long as it complies with the DMCA.   So YouTube only takes down material when it receives a specific DMCA take down notice.

Smashwords relies on its automated processes to do what it does, and so far, no human has had to go through and vet every submission. But by accepting this PayPal censorship directive, Smashwords would assume responsibility for the content of the books it distributes.

Seems to me, the unintended consequence of a Smashwords decision to censor the books it distributes would remove the “safe haven status” Smashwords enjoys under the DMCA. Which would mean that Smashwords will have no choice but to police every title it distributes, or else be legally liable for any alleged copyright infringements.


Inconstant Moon: Halfway!

a graphic banner reads Inconstant Moon. rendered in the Rebel Caps font with a gibbous moon nestled between the words

a blue balloin that says WOOT

The 70th chapter of “Inconstant Moon,” went online today, marking the half way point in my serialization; all told there are 140 chapters.

I’m pleased to have kept to my proposed schedule, posting one chapter per day. I’ve been latish a couple of times, and once I posted twice in one day because the chapter was so short. But it’s going pretty well.

Every chapter posted includes an illustration. Of course, Christie University is a fictional institution not based on an actual school, but an amalgam that would best serve the story. Which means I can’t include actual photographs from the Christie campus, located in an equally fictitious town that grew up around a sanatorium-turned-hospital “somewhere in Ontario”.

So the photographs used as illustrations come from a variety of places. Some were taken at various real universities, others  photographed in places far removed from any institution of learning. Today’s “Chicken Entrée” wasn’t a product of the Christie cafeteria, rather a lovely meal I had at “the Egg Roll King” Vietnamese restaurant in Kitchener.

Chicken balls, chicken fried Rice etc... really from the Egg Roll King

Some of the photographs are reproduced as is, others have been digitally altered or enhanced. I confess I’ve had some fun with this. A well known author quietly appears unobtrusively in a “where’s waldo” kind of moment.  One “special feature” I’m planning for the serialization blog is a page about the illustrations (probably under the “setting” tab).

Special Features

A personalized "blank" silhouette avatar showing a ponytailed girl in profile.

Along with serializing my novel, I’ve been planning from the start to create pages for each of the “Inconstant Moon” main characters as one of the main special features. I expect to provide a new one at a rate of once per week.

This week has seen the launch of the first one, for the character Amelia. I could proceed alphabetically or alternate weekly by gender.

technical difficulties

Although I’m creative, not technical, I have learned over the years that motivation and persistence can help me master tech well enough for my own purposes. (The entire StopUBB blog for instance.)

As a self publisher, my motivation for learning to create and distribute eBooks is really quite strong. Further, I think it ought to be possible, not only to master the technology, but to do so in as reasonable manner as possible.   At the same time, it is important to me to control the process well enough so I can produce books of a professional quality, regardless of whether they are print or digital.

finding my way through the eBook maze

All the elements of text and the Moon are blown up as much as possible to fill the space

There is a lot of information on how to prepare an eBook, but in spite of this, or perhaps even because of this, I am terribly behind in creating eBook versions. I want a reasonable way to create eBooks within my GNU/linux workspace.

Initially I thought Smashwords might be the way to go, but the Smashwords Style Guide insists on using the proprietary Microsoft Word document creation format.  Even when I did use Windows, I never considered using Word.

I suppose it might be justifiable as a business expense, but the point is, it should not be necessary. And obviously, this isn’t even an option for those of us who don’t use Windows. The Irony is how much of Mark Corker’s style guide is devoted to overcoming problems Word causes in a manuscripts.

I managed a passable Smashwords upload in spite of it, but at the cost of a disproportionate amount of effort, on top of which one is left to the vagaries of the Smashwords one-size-fits-all type of publishing. Too much is left to chance, a variety of things may cause the manuscript to fail to “validate.”

Do I really want to go through this every time I publish a novel?

Smashwords? I Don’t Use PayPal

Although there is currently a version of “Inconstant Moon” available through Smashwords, I am deliberately not promoting it because any funds generated through sales will remain with Smashwords since I refuse to set up a PayPal account. Still, Smashwords allows me to “unpublish” at any point, but I haven’t since I’ve no alternative eBook.   Yet.

In the interim, it gives me the means to distribute free digital copies. If you’re interested in writing a review, let me know and I’ll email you a copy of the Smashwords coupon for a free eBook.

There is another catch, though. In order to collect even a free digital copy from Smashwords, it is first necessary to divulge personal information: you must register with Smashwords. Since I am a firm believer in the value of personal privacy, I think this is rather a high price to pay for a “free” copy.

Another reason I want to be able to make digital copies available on my own site.

Self Publishing

Some might see this as foolishly allowing ethical considerations to get in the way of sound business practices.

The thing is, if we go along with bad business practices, if we accept them, they almost never get better.  When I first started hearing about eBooks, DRM was the default, but the combination of public education and reader and writer resistance has resulted in DRM being offered merely as an option available to self publishers.

Besides, one of the primary reasons I elected to self publish is so I won’t be forced into doing anything I am uncomfortable doing.  Am I really willing to trust control of my income to a powerful corporation with absolute power to change their own rules and freeze my funds at will?

Self publishing should make it possible to come to more equitable agreements than possible with traditional publishing.   It should also be possible to generate the different formats I want to publish my books with the least amount of fuss. Once the basics are worked out, self publishing should serve me, so I’ll be free to spend more time writing than formatting.

Libreleft Books

Since I’m planning on writing novels for a long time, it seemed a good idea to acquire the domain name. At the moment it’s really only a place holder, as I’ve not had time to properly set it up and migrate the existing content from the Libreleft Blog on my personal site.

My first order of business is getting eBook formatting worked out. Once I’ve got the eBook format mastered, will become the place where I’ll share what I learn about self publishing, as well as the permanent home for my SelfPub imprint Libreleft Books.

Image Credits

“Woot” is rendered in the free font “Bloon” from Kingthings

Inconstant moon eBook Cover Art Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) by