Pragmatic Compromises & The Moral Hazard of Expediency

As you can see, my last post generated a huge number of comments from both readers and writers.  I gave Mark Coker a very rough ride and, to his credit, he responded eloquently and in a very gentlemanly fashion. I want to reiterate that I think Smashwords is a vital, valuable and outstanding site for indie authors. And I am glad it will continue with or without my books on it.

What you don’t know is how many emails I received passionately defending Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. And these defenses came from people I admire greatly, like Alessia Brio and Kitty Thomas. Both these admirable women and brave writers have felt the sting of the PayPal whip.

Many people told me that I was aiming my ire at the wrong person. This is a fair point. Perhaps I did shoot the messenger. But I would have preferred a messenger to come sans their own moral judgements about my work. A neutral stance would have been easier to take.

What you also don’t know is that my novel Gaijin has now been removed from Smashwords, and I just received an email from the principal editor of my publisher, Emma Holt at Republica Press, expressing her sorrow in having to do it. More disturbing, I think she and her partner are worn out from the good fight. I’m not sure how much longer my publisher will be in existence.

There are two things, though, I find disturbing:

All this listing of ‘banned’ subjects obscures the fact that many good novels that include those subjects contain a lot of other worthy writing.  Remember that when a book is pigeonholed for containing underage sex, you need to think of some very classic works: Marguerite Duras’ achingly beautiful “The Lover“, the stark and surreal “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass and, of course, the morally haunting “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. When it comes to eroticized rape, “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess narrates the rape through the eyes of Alex, the rapist. Both I, Claudius and Game of Thrones contain erotic portrayals of incest. Equus is a marvelous, disturbing and multi-award-winning  play by Peter Shaffer involving a boy’s erotic obsession with horses.

Of course, PayPal can’t refuse to transact sales of these works. They aren’t filed under the erotica genre and they are classic works, for the most part.

But it is also worth remembering that few of these authors did not pay a price for writing these works. Most were slammed by the critics, accused of writing obscenities by the mainstream press. Most had a hard time finding publication for these works. Being a good writer who writes about difficult subjects has never been an easy path to walk. And perhaps it should not be.  Imagine how many authors wrote books just like this and lost their nerve, destroyed their manuscripts, could not find the courage to push for their publication? Thousands, I imagine.

What we see today are the tough ones. The brave ones who would not back down.

I could slip Gaijin into the Literary category on eBook stores. But the ‘literary’ genre does not provide content warnings.  And I need to know I have done the right thing. I need to know that a woman who may be disturbed by the contents of my novel is forewarned.  I do not think I could live with myself if a survivor of rape bought my book, was unprepared for the content and re-traumatized by what I had written. It doesn’t matter that the book isn’t ‘all about rape’. For someone who had experienced real rape, the story may very well appear to be ‘all about rape’ for them.

I need to remember and accept that doing the right thing has a cost.

But so should circumventing ethics for the sake of expediency. And although I understand pragmatically why AllRomance and Bookstand and Smashwords felt they needed to do what they did,  I’m pretty sure most of them know it was an ethical back-down. And I can’t pat them on the back for it. Yes, they did what they had to do, but I’m not going to feel to badly to know it bit at their consciences to do it. And I won’t be a party to salving that conscience.

Ultimately the villain here is Paypal and the credit card companies. I don’t believe for a moment that the ‘charge-back’ rates are higher on ‘taboo’ erotica than it is on any other genre of books. In fact, because they are so well labelled and readers are so informed of the transgressive nature of what they are purchasing, I’d hazard a guess that the charge-back rates are minimal.

So, there are only two explanations left. Either they are pursuing a moralist agenda to rid the world of material they consider should not be allowed in the public sphere OR they are price-gouging customers who are purchasing sexually-explicit content.

If it is the first, then they are, if not legally, then ethically contravening their own constitution. And they are certainly skating very close to laws with govern the abuse of the marketplace by monopolies.

If the second, they are being evil, manipulative and shaming vulnerable customers into coughing up more money because of the socially problematic nature of what they are purchasing. What they are doing is something very close to blackmail.

But we, as a culture, need to take some responsibility for our own victimization. Because if we refused to be shamed for our interest in sexually transgressive literature, or sexually explicit videos, or sex services, it would not be possible to victimize us. As a culture, it is our own inability to shake off the ridiculous veil of shame that surrounds sex that makes us weak and leaves us open to this sort of despicable treatment.

The final thought I’ve had on this is just how many of the victims of this latest debacle have been women. Women readers, women writers. I know there are some male writers that have also been affected, but the vast majority of us are women. And we are especially socially vulnerable to having our sexuality used against us, to being shamed for our desires, to having our sexual identities decided upon by men. PayPal and the credit card companies may not have thought they were targeting a gender, but they have. The works they have sought to excise overwhelmingly represent the landscape of modern, female sexuality.

I have formally sent a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging the targeted commercial suppression of women’s literature by PayPal on the grounds that it specifically stifles the free speech of a ‘persecuted gender grouping’.

Let us see what comes of it. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps something.

  18 comments for “Pragmatic Compromises & The Moral Hazard of Expediency

  1. February 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    As I have come to expect, you move the debate forward with more eloquent, well-thought out prose. Paypal has always had a moral agenda. They have exerted it before in lesser ways and will continue to tighten the noose until everything they deem ‘offensive’ becomes hard to obtain over the internet. Why? I have no clue, and, frankly, the thought of trying to get into that headspace makes me nauseous. As for Mark Coker – he acted due to business pressure, unfortunately in the process he revealed his own moral prejudices, which gave the whole thing a new, self-righteous tenor that was particularly insulting to those of us who write intelligent edgy erotic literature. Morals are a personal thing, I believe everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and prejudices, however distasteful I may find some of them – but OWN them, don’t sneak them out when you can, smirking and wringing your hands in glee behind the curtain. Be up front with it is all I ask for. Personal responsibility. I’ve spent over half a century fighting against people who have tried to pigeon-hole me and tell me what I can do with my body and my mind. It hasn’t worked, it won’t work now.

  2. Poppet
    February 26, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    I addressed the repercussions of this *content* clause on my own blog today, because then the Bible falls under the axe too (as does the Quran and the Hebrew holy book)- as they all share the Old Testament.

    However, there are alternatives. I for one care not if people want to slam doors in my face, because I am *prone* to simply taking my work and putting it on my website as a free downloadable PDF. They can’t stop me from being read. They can take me down, but then Amazon has never bowed to the Paypal King and continue to offer as an avenue to sell and reach a market.

    I see it as silly business sense to literally hand such a huge market directly to Amazon *exclusively*, because that’s what they’re doing. On my blog (weebly) you will find a list of alternative payment methods in the comment section.

    We are moved, because we wish to defend all literary works that contain *this content*. Regardless of whether it falls under erotica or not. Freedom of speech was hard won. Freedom of emotion and thought (and religion) is such a precious commodity, does one company really think we would allow them to execute our demise so swiftly, in three days, with such obvious premeditated effect?

    Authors, we have options, even if we have no recourse. Together we should stand and remain strong and undaunted by this attack against our freedom. Divided we fall.

    • February 26, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Could you link to your blog please, so we can visit?

  3. February 26, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    did Nabokov provide content warnings?

    is that really ‘the right thing’? I don’t provide content warnings on my work as a rule. In fact, in protest against smashwords I think I will remove all my books from the erotica sections and put them in literary.

    • February 26, 2012 at 11:24 pm

      I am not Nabokov and I’m not you. You do what you please. And I shall do the same.

      • February 26, 2012 at 11:31 pm

        I have. But therefore it is not necessarily ‘the right thing’ is it? just the thing you are doing.

  4. LVLMLeah
    February 26, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    I don’t believe for a moment that the ‘charge-back’ rates are higher on ‘taboo’ erotica than it is on any other genre of books.

    I think this is probably the biggest problem. As one “online sex worker” said in her comment on Dear Author there’s a huge charge back rate on porn because mostly “men” have remorse or fear of being caught or whatever after downloading or being engaged in a porn activities. ( Comment #71 http://dearauthor.com/features/industry-news/saturday-news-no-deals-just-stupidity-and-smashwords-concedes-to-paypal-terms )

    I can see that CC companies loose a lot due to that. However, I think you can’t put an ebook into that same category even if it’s outright porn. Most porn activities cost a lot more money than a $3 book. If $3 shows up on someone’s card, it’s not like $200 for telephone sex or online sex chatting. Ebooks are different. They can be read and deleted easily from the computer or reader, and they can be hidden easy. So the charge backs caused by “shame” or “fear” of being caught doesn’t apply to the same degree with ebooks. Or at least I don’t think so. And I can’t imagine so many people using stolen cards or info buying tons of erotica, another reason for charge backs.

    But they, the CC companies, have decided that because these books are associated with what’s still considered taboo, the porn industry in general, then they are lumping ebooks in with the rest.

    I just don’t believe that there are more charge backs for these kinds of ebooks and if so, then it’s most likely because of poor editing or other such technical issues with the writing.

    • February 26, 2012 at 11:26 pm

      But poor editing and technical issues would apply to many other self-published works. Not just the taboo ones.

  5. February 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Yes, please link, I’d be interested to read what you think
    Pav

  6. February 26, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    RG, Once again you have presented your case in an insightful way that hopefully will cause people to think. I too am lodging formal complaints. Thank you for always seeming to say what I’m thinking.

  7. Ken
    February 27, 2012 at 12:53 am

    And here I think thought this kind of crappie was over. I guess not. I hope in the future when someone discovers early works. Of Republican Press they will not have the problem I did finding copies of the Grove Press reader.

  8. February 27, 2012 at 2:44 am

    This is very eloquently put indeed. I’ve spent much of today feeling bad because I think my post on the subject (http://agnieszkasshoes.blogspot.com/2012/02/dont-blame-smashwords-or-paypal.html) probably went way too far in seeming to exonerate Smashwords’ and Paypal’s heinous decisions when that wasn’t my intent – I wanted rather to make some points I felt had been missed – that whilst our gut reaction is to tell Paypal to butt out, at the same time I at least want banks to take stances on the likes of conflict money and trafficking and sweat shops, and that means allowimg them to butt in also when it’s on something I really want them to keep out of (though I absolutely agree Papal are ridiculous hypocrites); most of all, I feel this is one of those momets for the indie movement where we have to make a choice and we find those around us making choices – and that’s an inevitable consequence of the growth of the indie movement. Having seen him as a champion of boundary pushing, and having defended him many times in the past, I’m saddened that Mark Coker has nailed his colours to the mast of the many in the middle of the bell curve and forced those on its extremes to go elsewhere. I was even more deeply saddened to learn how many authors have modified their content to match the new criteria. I understand it – as you say “you do your thing and I’ll do mine” – but it saddens me nonetheless.

  9. February 27, 2012 at 5:59 am

    Hi RM, I just learned about this through Monocle at our own blog. Unlike you or Monocle, I haven’t yet “published” any of my own fiction. I have no standing. The only equivalence to the “European Court of Human Rights” in America is the ACLU. Anyone with standing could approach the ACLU. That would immediately polarize the issue (if it gains wider publicity) but that will happen anyway. I don’t know if they would take the case, but they might.

    To a certain degree, this is part of the reason I’ve refrained from seeking out E-Book publishers. I’ve felt something like this was inevitable. I think the best path for all of us, and the path I may shortly pursue, is to self-publish. Amazon is still available, though it’s not ideal. You are probably familiar with Anne Rice’s “Beauty Trilogy”. Did you know she has made more money from this trilogy than “Interview with a Vampire”? Paypal’s current policies prohibit anyone from buying or selling these books through Paypal.

  10. February 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    RG – I stand with you on this and find it reprehensible that we are forced to have a discussion about what comes down to the violation of both the first and fourth amendments of the US Constitution. Not only are they censoring free speech, they are also committing unreasonable search and seizure. User accounts are being searched and frozen over what they purchase as well. Add in the fact that they now claim the right to take your social security number and acquire your credit report and “any other information” they deem “reasonable” to confirm a purchase and you have just witnessed the birth of the corporate pan-opticon.

    My books have not personally been affected however, I will lend my voice and support to any protest. This is wrong. Period.

    Regards,

    Gillian

  11. February 28, 2012 at 1:36 am

    RG – To my knowledge, PayPal has not publicly stated its reasons for why it is raising itself up as a censorship enforcement agency. After reading your post, which was very well articulated, I decided to go digging into PayPal’s TOS to see what, if any, explanation they give to recent events. What I found was less than comforting.

    Regarding chargebacks, I completely agree with your assessment of the likelihood they are a true problem. Beyond that, though, you might be interested to note that, according to their TOS, they are under no obligation to issue refunds (which means no chargebacks) for items or products that are prohibited by their acceptable use policy, which completely invalidates the possibility that chargebacks are any sort of reason for PayPal’s actions.

    This is explicitly stated on the PayPal User Agreement -> Section 13. Protection for Buyers -> Section 13.3 Ineligible items -> #8 Items prohibited by the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy (if you are logged in to PayPal, they provide the link to the Acceptable Use Policy page)

    I know this information doesn’t make it any clearer why PayPal is cracking their whips, but the more I read, the less I see of anything even closely resembling explanations that this could truly be just a business decision. PayPal’s stance reads as nothing but a moral judgement, trial, and sentencing in their little puppet court.

    My sympathy and support goes out to all authors stranded in this quagmire. I encourage everyone to not bend one whit on their own stances, preferences, and rights, but offer a plea for understanding that not everyone, including companies, have or feel they have the freedom to simply flip PayPal the bird. To those people and companies, I hope you are pouring your resources into finding an alternative. There may not be a perfect one at the moment, but there are foundations for alternatives already in existence. The erotic-fiction community is not the first to withstand a gross overstepping of their place from PayPal, and will likely not be the last. There are tech start-ups labeling themselves as a PayPal alternative that no doubt will find themselves the center of attention in coming months, and hopefully one of them will be the silver lining we’re all looking for.

  12. Waterguy
    February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am

    RG, you are my hero…

  13. February 29, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Fantastic post. Thank you for filing a complaint.

    Erotica is imaginary sex, doesn’t Paypal have more important things to worry about?

    M

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