Two Legs Bad: An Open Letter to Mark Coker #smashwords #censorship #erotica

This post is a public response to an email sent by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, asking all erotic writers to take down any books that contravene their Terms of Service

Dear Mark,

I thank you for taking the time to write all published erotica writers offering their work for sale on Smashwords. I thank you for the effort you took in explaining why Smashwords has decided to allow a plutocracy to determine what is or is not publishable on your groundbreaking and exceptional site.

I applaud your passionate defense of creative freedom amongst erotica writers, as long as it is eroticism that you personally find acceptable.

Let me offer you some thoughts in return for your very generous ones.

First, let us be clear about the law.  There is no legal issue with literary representations of any form of sexuality besides pedophilia. None. You and Paypal may feel morally discomforted by what, in literature, some people find arousing, but let us be clear: fictional, textual depictions of pedophilia are the only content that is specifically prohibited by law. All other forms of explicit material must bear the legal test of containing ‘no artistic merit’ in order to be considered an ‘obscene publication’. As a writer, although I find the standard to be highly subjective, is one I can live with comfortably. My work has literary artistic merit. So let us be clear, since Smashwords has always prohibited the publication of material containing underage sex. This is not a legal decision, it is a moralistic and financial one.

You wrote: “PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned categories of books.”

No, sir. Smashwords is requiring the removal of these books to maintain its relationship with Paypal. Please let us be clear on this. I am sure your aspirations regarding the founding of Smashwords were and are very noble. But it is YOU who have decided to let a financial services provider dictate your TOS and therefore impose censorship on the authors who post their works on your site.

Secondly, you, like so many other people seem to have intellectual difficulty in distinguishing between the textual, fictional representation of something and reality. The language you use in your letter is evidence of a conceptual inability to do so. You are not alone in this: forces within our society who wish to ‘protect us’ from ourselves have used this blurring of the fictional with the concrete to great effect, whipping people who also can’t distinguish the fundamental difference up into froths of moral outrage.

So, although I thoroughly condemn incest, bestiality, rape and necrophilia, I am quite capable of distinguishing between those acts in reality and fictionalized texts that contain descriptions of them. Scenarios played out within the pages of a fictional text are NOT crimes, sir. Although for the last 50 years, scientists with deplorably transparent agendas have sought to prove a link between textual depictions of sexual violence and sex crimes in the real world, they have not succeeded in doing so. In fact, quite the opposite. Cultures that tolerate highly sexualized, graphic depictions of rape, such as Japan, have some of the lowest rates of rape in the world. While countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, with only a debated 67.2% literacy rate, little access to erotic fiction, no significant pornography industry and low internet access, have among the highest incidence of violent rape in the world.

Or, if sexual torture is your concern, it is good to remember that Egypt, with an outright ban on erotic fiction, has the highest rate of female circumcision in the world. And if a clitorectomy doesn’t count as sexual torture, I’m not sure what does.

So please do not make a pretense of care for social order or good corporate citizenship. These arguments hold no water and they never have. They have been assumed to have validity by dint of constant and irrational repetition.

Literature has always been the place where humans have been able to safely explore the darker sides of our natures, especially our sexual natures. And although I do not find fiction containing incest, bestiality or necrophilia erotic, I find that as an adult, I can simply choose not to buy or read fiction containing eroticised subjects that I find offensive, or disturbing or amoral.

You, sir, do me a deep disservice by patronizingly assuming I cannot choose my reading material for myself. Yes, you. Like the Church in the Middle Ages who felt women should read nothing but religious texts if anything, like the pseudo-scientists of the Victorian era who warned that Gothic novels were dangerous and  ‘too unsettling’ for a woman’s sensibilities. Like the sexist, elitist male literary critics who have so derided the romance novel… You are there, numbered amongst the age-old Masculinist Hegemony who have sought for millenia to prohibited me from finding my personal expression as a writer and as a reader.

Just about now I am sure you are scratching your head and wondering what this has to do with feminism. Well, it may be because the huge majority of erotica writer are women, and so are their readers. Please read on.

You wrote:

Although our Terms of Service prohibits books that advocate violence
against others, we did not specifically identify rape.  This was an oversight
on our part.  Now we have clarified the policy.  We do not want books that contain
rape for the purpose of titillation.  At Smashwords, rape has no longer has a
place in erotica.  It has no place anywhere else if the purpose is to titillate.
 Non-consensual BDSM – or any other form of non-consensual violence against another person – is prohibited.

Fictional depictions of violence do not ‘advocate violence’, and fictional depictions of rape do not advocate rape. If someone submits a non-fiction text for sale with you, advocating either, I will be the first person to agree that you should not sell it. However, fiction, sir, is FICTION. And although I understand how you, as a male, may be puzzled as to why eroticized fictional depictions of rape are erotic to some women, I am disappointed that you did not think a little more clearly about the matter.

40% of women have non-consensual sexual fantasies. I’m not pulling this figure out of my ass, sir. There is an excellent study (unlike some of the shoddy pseudo-scientific studies seeking to link erotica with sexual violence) by Joseph W. Critelli and Jenny M. Bivona “Women’s erotic rape fantasies: an evaluation of theory and research” which estimates that in fact, the numbers are slightly higher.

There have been some intriguing attempts to answer the question of why so many women have these fantasies and a considerable number of feminist critics who have sought to humiliate the women who have them, but nonetheless, for whatever reason, we do.  And I claim it as my right, as a writer and as a woman, to explore this phenomenon in my fiction.

The fact that you would seek to stand among the moralizing, intolerant, sexist multitudes who would participate in censoring me is shameful. Because you… the person who started Smashwords, the person who wrote: “We read fiction to be moved, and to feel. Sometimes we want to feel touched, moved, or disturbed.  A reader should have the right to feel moved however they desire to be moved” has just denied me the right to do so – as a writer, as a woman, as a reader.

The publishers who published Nabakov did not sanction pedophilia. The publishers who published Yukio Mishima, or deSade, or Henry Miller did not sanction the morality in reality of what was contained fictionally in their novels. They sanctioned the prerogative of literature to fully explore humanity, no matter how dark the fictionalized explorations might be.  They sanctioned the author’s right to explore it and the reader’s right to explore it in his or her turn.

Smashwords, sir, is NO GROVE PRESS.

But of all the hidden insults in your letter, the worst by far is your request for me to take down my own work. Sir, if you wish to censor me, you will have to do so yourself. How dare you tell me you will censor me and then have the gall to demand I save you the trouble by doing it myself. That is akin to forcing an prisoner awaiting execution to dig his own grave and put on his own blindfold.

I will not participate in my own repression. I refuse to act as my own censor.

That, sir, is a refusal to take responsibility for the deeply unethical thing you do. If you have decided that what I write requires censoring, then at least have the courage to wield the axe yourself.

You wrote: “From an imagination perspective, erotica is little different from a literary novel that puts us inside the mind of farm animals (1984)

Sir, I think you are referring to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, not Nineteen Eighty-Four. And considering the compelling philosophical principles both those novels explored and the intellectual freedom that they so passionately and eloquently sought to defend,  the fact that you have mistaken one for the other may go some way to explaining why you thought your letter was appropriate.

Welcome to Oceania, Citizen Coker.
Your Newspeak is exemplary.
There’s a place for you in the Party.

  120 comments for “Two Legs Bad: An Open Letter to Mark Coker #smashwords #censorship #erotica

  1. February 25, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    I never got the letter – is it because my books are free?

    • February 25, 2012 at 6:14 pm

      Hmmm… Maybe. If that is the case, that is good news. I have no problem at all with making Gaijin a free book.

      • February 26, 2012 at 3:18 am

        That was eloquently and powerfully explained and thank you for doing so. I read Coker’s letter the other day in dismay and disbelief. A sad reflection on the mentality of so many.

  2. February 25, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Thank you for putting so very eloquently what I have been sputtering over for the last hour!

    • February 25, 2012 at 6:07 pm

      I’ve been spluttering over it for about 6 hours. And look, I know Mark Coker is not specifically a bad guy. But Jesus, don’t ask me to censor myself, even politely. That’s just downright RUDE.

  3. DJ Young
    February 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Soft minds caving to plutocratic pressures. Who would have thought?

    One thing I just can’t get over: how impressive human stupidity truly is.

    The desperation among the right wing set is such a sad thing: they cannot accept the end of their dominance with anything but insane and arrogant attempts at imposing their moral order in ways that were challenged and defeated ages ago. That so many have fallen into paranoia and delusion (with sometimes violent results), all founded on their fears of a non-Christian planet where gays can marry, atheists are everywhere and capitalism becomes a capitol offence (revolutionaries occupying the streets, o the horror) – no wonder they think the world is about to end. The need to censor is always with them – nothing is more dangerous than words, after all.

    It’s reassuring that there are writers such as yourself who know how to use them wisely.

    Oh look. I rambled all over your blog again. Must stop that.

    • February 25, 2012 at 6:13 pm

      Please feel free to ramble all over my blog any time you like.

      The strange thing is, I really don’t think there’s any historical data to prove that fiction has had much of an impact on the world at all. I guess it’s a strange, backhanded compliment that there are forces in places of power that feel anything I write has any power at all.

      • DJ Young
        February 25, 2012 at 6:26 pm

        That’s a curious thought – that fiction has had no impact. One might argue there are certain religious texts that have had an enormous effect on global history – not always for the better.

        I’m not sure what historical data you would need other than human existence – we are the product of so many fictions, some generous, others malicious. We live with fiction every day – from political speech to the so-called news. Fiction is a great tool for manipulating others, creating hysteria and drama where it never existed before. The creation of enemies though, that is truly one of humankind’s most enduring traits. It usually backfires, of course.

        Such nonsense like this business with Paypal and Smashwords will (hopefully) bring more attention they didn’t intend (and, hopefully, more readers). The trouble with these nitwits is, they never realize the enemy they create is themselves.

        • February 25, 2012 at 8:30 pm

          i disagree that the urge to censor is just right wing I think that over simplifies things.

          I am ‘censored’ in a variety of ways by people you would probably describe as left wing.

          as for gay marriage, I don’t agree with it really. Maybe that is why my books are not being censored? 😀

          • February 25, 2012 at 8:47 pm

            The arrogance to believe that people need to be protected from ideas is by no means a partisan sickness. It infects every side of the aisle.

        • DJ Young
          February 26, 2012 at 12:11 am

          There is certainly no end of idiocy from either left or right wing – my commentary is a reflection of my own personal experience with such types (the attacks I’ve experienced have been almost exclusively from the right-side, but I’m gay and do believe gays should have the equal right to marry, so that might be the problem – though it hardly sums it up. Perhaps it’s because I’m an atheist as well? No, well, semantics, etc.).

          I’m also a terrible snark with a terrible agenda against all things that tend toward what we call the ‘right wing’, which includes, in this US and elsewhere, our so-called left wing. The ‘right wing’ being an unfortunate catch-all term easily used in comments such as this (where I do not have the time nor the inclination) to write the novel-length rant excoriating those who seek to undermine the rights of others based upon – amongst other things – religious ‘privilege’ – something the American right-wing, in all its lovely extremes has used to help define their existence.

    • Adam
      February 25, 2012 at 8:28 pm


      I can’t get inside this guy’s head but I doubt this has anything to do with the “right wing” ala kooks like Santorum. Seems more like MacDworkin style censorship.

  4. February 25, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    What really worries me is the absolute refusal by so many erotic authors to see the disturbing trend this sets into motion. So many of them are saying “Well, I would never write that” or, even scarier “well, that is trashy, it should be banned” – and they will cry a river when restrictions tighten further. I’ve spent my entire life fighting for my rights, I refuse to censor myself or my work – full stop. I am an intelligent adult, I know the difference between fantasy and reality and I can choose for myself what I like and don’t like.

    • February 25, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      Yes, Sessha, it really worries me too. But economics is often a great wedge with which to break up solidarity. Personally, I find all those pseudo-incest books rather awful, but I’d bloody fight with tooth and nail for the authors’ rights to publish them and for people’s right to read them.

      • DJ Young
        February 25, 2012 at 6:31 pm

        Modifying, creating and policing behavior has always been the true impact of capitalism – Disney does it, Google does it, our government, etc., ad nauseum. We all follow someone’s ‘terms of service’ – until the typical arrogant overreach begs for a brick through its plate glass demagoguery.

    • Eve
      February 29, 2012 at 2:25 am

      You do not have to censor yourself. However, PayPal (or Smashwords for that matter) is not obligated to publish or sell your book, for free or otherwise. Coker could, I presume, reject a book for any reason including “I don’t want it.” Smashwords is his concern, not a public institution. We have a right to free speech, and I’m glad to see people using it to protest PayPal and whatever else, but no one is obligated to disseminate your speech. That’s up to you. If you don’t want to deal with PayPal, open your own website, accept checks or money orders via snail mail, then send the product when the check or money order clears — it’s an option.

      Also, this is from PayPal’s Acceptable Use policy, which everyone who has an account agrees to (I don’t have an account), whether they read it or not (full text here:

      “You may not use the PayPal service for activities that:

      violate any law, statute, ordinance or regulation.

      relate to transactions involving (a) narcotics, steroids, certain controlled substances or other products that present a risk to consumer safety, (b) drug paraphernalia, (c) items that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity, (d) stolen goods including digital and virtual goods (e) items that promote hate, violence, racial intolerance, or the financial exploitation of a crime, (f) items that are considered obscene, (g) items that infringe or violate any copyright, trademark, right of publicity or privacy or any other proprietary right under the laws of any jurisdiction, (h) certain sexually oriented materials or services, (i) ammunition, firearms, or certain firearm parts or accessories, or (j) ,certain weapons or knives regulated under applicable law.”

      PayPal appears to be enforcing a policy they have on the books; why they didn’t do it before I don’t know, but if you have an account, you agreed to this.

  5. February 25, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    I find it baffling how consistently people insist that “things I don’t want to see” means “things nobody wants to see” and then takes action to turn that into “things nobody can see.”

    Your recent writings about fiction as a place — rather, as THE place — to explore our darkness, our fears, our perversions, has really resonated with me. It seems so obvious once stated so clearly, but I’d never considered it before. I knew how important it was to defend the rights of others to speak and write things that made me uncomfortable, or that I didn’t like; I couldn’t articulate WHY I felt it so strongly.

    Thank you again for your work, both as an interesting author and an inspirational activist!**

    **I hesitated writing that last word, but it felt like the right one to use… it’s intended as a compliment!

  6. February 25, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I understand your outrage. I disagree with its target. Mark Coker has been more of a friend and ally to the erotica community — all of it, not just his personal triggers — since Smashwords launched.

    He is, as are other vendors, being squeezed by PayPal. He can’t help us at all if he’s closed down because he can’t process credit card transactions. If you don’t believe that he is looking for alternatives, then you’ve condescended to him as much as you feel he’s done to you. Such an enormous restructuring of a business cannot happen within the time frame of PayPal’s threats.

    The market, however, will win out. It always does. It might take a few months or a year, but a different payment processor will take the fore. Vendors will modify their shopping carts to accommodate it. If Visa/MasterCard are ultimately behind this (as some allege), then higher fees for “high risk” transactions (like they already charge for phone sex or subscription porn sites) may be imposed.

    I applaud your artistic integrity. I don’t plan to tweak my work to fit someone else’s arbitrary definition of acceptable sex, either. Although there’s a significant learning curve involved, I am exploring a standalone store for myself — and another for Coming Together — using alternative payment processor(s).

    You will also see author cooperatives springing up, creating indie bookstores. I know of at least two in the works.

    So, again, I understand your outrage. Your energy and righteous indignation, however, could be more effective if targeted at a true enemy of erotic expression.

    • February 25, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      If Mark Coker wrote me a letter saying: “you should be able to write whatever you want but paypal is making it impossible for me to do transactions because they refuse to process transactions when the site hosts literature with certain subject matter and, so, until I can find an alternative I need to ask you to take them down”, that would have been completely understandable, Alessia, but that is not the letter he wrote.

      He wrote a letter that sought to justify the censorship. He wrote a letter that, in particular, said that the content I dealt with in my erotica HAD NO PLACE WHATSOEVER. These weren’t Paypal’s words, Alessia, they were his.

      So, sorry, but yeah, he’s part of the problem. You, like many other erotica writers, feel that because what you write is not problematic for Smashwords, you can paint him as the victim in the middle. It’s an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude. We’ll see what happens when even depictions of consensual BDSM find disfavour with Paypal. Because I can assure you, if they flex their muscles over and over again, and people keep jumping to accommodate their foibles, they will simply keep exercising them. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      • February 26, 2012 at 5:40 am


        I spent time thinking about the BDSM portion last night and went to re-read Smashword’s policy and I have to say that I am disturbed. If you take the words at their literal meaning in the following paragraph then there are few if any works containing BDSM that could be acceptable despite what Mark says in the email that he sent out.

        “• advocate or condones violence against another person, whether or not the other party is a willing participant”

        Thank you for saying a few things I couldn’t articulate before, a bottle of Moscato does that, and for also being brave enough to say what others don’t want to acknowledge.

  7. February 25, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Not problematic? You’re making a huge assumption there. Two of Coming Together’s best selling titles were nixed. Those were the blatantly titled/covered ones. There are more that will fall under close inspection.

    ALL of my for-profit work under another pen name was nixed. All of it.

    Rail at Mark if you wish. Rail at ARe/OmniLit and Siren/BookStrand as well, since they caved far earlier and with far more condescension than Smashwords. If you can spare a little of that rage, however, perhaps you would consider directing it at PayPal and the forces driving it to impose its morality on us.

    • February 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      I do apologize, Alessia. I did make an assumption and I was wrong to do so. I would rail at ARe/OmniLit and Bookstand, but they don’t carry my books anyway, and none of them wrote me a letter seeking to justify their decision.

      I understand when a business makes a decision vital to its survival. I don’t understand when someone who says they believe in freedom of expression then goes on to tell you that want you write ‘has no place, anywhere’.

      There is no point in raging against paypal. The ideologies driving the top of that company are so fundamentally authoritarian, there is no language I speak that they will understand.

      What I would most like Mark to do is create a separate bookstore where not-for-sale and uncensored books are offered for free. I’d be happy to see my work there.

  8. February 25, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    This was great; very articulate and appropriately outraged. Your points about non-consensual material were especially cutting and apt. How nice of Mr. Coker to inform 40% of women that their fantasies are vile and disgusting!

    I’m curious about your statement that literary representations of pedophilia are illegal. I haven’t been able to find anything that says this is so. If it were, wouldn’t the publishers of Lolita (and god knows how many other “mainstream” books that don’t suffer the corporate censorship and persecution that we indies do) be in jail now?

    • February 25, 2012 at 8:45 pm

      My understanding is that ANY representation of sex with children in any medium is against the law.

      • February 25, 2012 at 9:43 pm

        Well, like I said, I don’t see how that can be the case, considering Lolita, etc.

        • February 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm

          Lolita is in the Canon of classic literature. The bible has numerous incidents of ‘underage’ marriage, but that can’t be banned, can it. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was betrothed at the age of 12. She had Jesus approximately a year later. Which technically makes God a pedophile.

        • February 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm

          Sure, Lolita is a classic, but I don’t think there’s a law on the books that says “material like this is illegal, unless the book in question is a classic.” And there’s lots of not-so-classic literature out there with sexually active underaged people.

          • February 25, 2012 at 10:02 pm

            The issue is not whether something IS prosecutable, but whether there is the will to prosecute it. People who attempt to prosecute books that are in the canon end up looking parochial and stupid. It’s much easier to go after a new book, with an author with no reputation, and ruin them. That sends the signal out big and wide, censor yourselves or be ruined.

    • February 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      I think it all boils down to the genre label applied to the book: is it erotica? Then depictions of underage sex, in whatever context, is fair game for labeling as obscene. Ditto with rape, BDSM, whatever. Labeling is powerful, it sets the stage for how the work is to be received. It’s not just books, either–God, that horror of a movie “A Serbian Film”, which contains some things that no erotica writer in her/his right mind would EVER experiment with (“newborn porn” anyone??), is marketed as an indie art film, and even though it’s still heavily condemned, it’s actually earning money and good reviews!!! If it had been labeled as horror or erotica from the get-go, it would have been relegated to the back pages of porn mags, and the bad ones, at that. Same with erotic fiction. If it’s literary fiction, no big deal. Think about it: Lolita. Or many of the works of Anais Nin. These and others are writers whose work has become literary fiction–even though both Nin and Nabokov were originally deemed smut peddlers and incurred the wrath of the morality police of their time. This persists nowadays, despite our supposed social progress: it’s fine for lit fic or other genres to depict rape, pedophilia, violence, whatever–but once the label of “erotica” is applied to a work, it becomes suspect and is relegated to the basement of literature, unworthy of critical attention for its intrinsic worth. All because it’s about sex, unabashedly and unreservedly about sex, regardless of how well it’s written or how meritorious the storyline and execution and originality.

      I note that in Mark Coker’s letter he admonishes authors not to try to “game” the system by switching the work’s genre label from erotica to something else, and that right there is the last nail in the coffin in terms of how he and society in general view erotica–as without merit. Regardless of how much Coker has supposedly supported erotica writers/work before, he shows his true feelings about it with the barnyard animals comment–it’s obvious that his support of erotica has been ALL about the money he’s made from being one of the few reliable outlets for erotica for so long. If he truly supported it, he would have said such in his letter to the authors, as RG points out…not rambled on, trying to morally justify and guilt-trip us into agreeing to censor ourselves.

      It sucks. Erotica is something people want, something people look for, something people buy and enjoy in their own ways. Sure, I can decide to label my work as something else, to avoid (for the moment…) these new “rules.” But the erotica readers who might enjoy my work but not look for it in, say, the historical fiction or lit fic, genre categories, might miss out. And besides the hit to our pocketbooks that this will cause, with each little cut they make into our civil liberties and freedom of expression, we inch closer to the 1984 that Coker erroneously references.

      OK, rant over.

      • February 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm

        Hello Jessica,
        I’m actually going stick up for the guy here. Not because I don’t agree that attempting to justify the forbidding of ‘beyond the pale’ subjects was a bad move, but because he, like a lot of other people who haven’t taken the time to think very deeply about it, made judgements based on some heinous, imagined text. When people think of labels like incest, bestiality, underage and rape, they often immediately write said imagined book in their heads. It’s titled something like ‘I did Daddy, the horse, my younger sister and raped the gardener.’ Well, there is no such book (hopefully). If there is, it’s probably got a very limited audience. It’s also probably badly written or French.

        To be honest, MOST people react this way when asked, don’t you think books that eroticize sex with under age persons, rape, bestiality or incest should be banned? Yes, yikes! Of course they should. Even writers who have never ventured into transgressive areas are surprisingly unthoughtful in their first responses to that question.

        I think we’re dealing with two related issues here. One is the function of literature within a culture. The other is the abuse of monopolistic power. I’m not sure that I can do anything about the later, but you and I and many other writers can and should take the responsibility of educating our peers and the public in general about the value of having a cultural landscape that allows for free expression in the realm of fiction.

  9. Adam
    February 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    So now he wouldn’t publish a new collection by Nancy Friday. Unreal.

    Also, guns have no place in crime fiction since gun violence is bad.

    The guy literally doesn’t know what 1984 is about. I wouldn’t expect an intelligent response.

    • February 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Sure, he’d publish Nancy Friday. It’s not shelved in the erotica section. Nor will Lolita or Nin’s discussions of incest get removed. They’re shelved in the literature section. The PayPal targeting is quite specifically against books that admit they’re aiming at sexual arousal.

      • February 25, 2012 at 9:57 pm

        It will be interesting to see if a new genre is created: Mainstream Erotic Fiction(?) Or maybe the current mainstream market, or cult fiction market, will be soon inundated with erotica titles? Because erotica writers will certainly not stop writing their stories, nor publishing them. Then will PayPal be gunning for the cult fiction genre (or wherever erotica ends up?). Time will tell, I guess…

        • February 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm

          Actually, I am pretty comfortable having erotic literature under literary fiction.

        • February 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm

          I tried initially to sell mine as literary fiction – but the explicit sex got it bounced back into my face (not the rape or assault that has me banned now).

          • February 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm

            What you get it published as, and what it appears as on Smashwords or Amazon is completely different.

        • February 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm

          true, I hadn’t thought of that . . . I’d be totally happy shelved as literary fiction 😉

        • February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm

          I wonder, the “Earth’s Children” series by Jean M. Auel springs to mind–the depictions of sex are extremely graphic (though tasteful, since I guess the words “cock” and “pussy” hadn’t been invented in the Neolithic Era…). Will PayPal block Auel’s sales now? I know her stuff is listed under historical or lit fiction. I’m sure there are many, many other books/series that are in the same situation. Does PayPal have people crawling the electronic bookshelves of Amazon et al, looking for bestiality and rape and incest scenes? Wow, what a job…

  10. sin
    February 25, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Brilliant. Thank you for saying what I have been having trouble finding words for.

  11. February 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Nicely put, I shall post a trackbck to your post when I write my own response.

  12. Isadora Rose
    February 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Congratulations on expressing so eloquently your thoughts in response to Smashwords’s decision – as an author now faced with the choice between removing my two best-selling (and, by implication, most popular) titles or leaving Smashwords, I’ve found myself growing steadily more angry today since reading the email. I’m finding that I’m probably going to go with the latter option, albeit with no little regret. I’ve been a huge supporter of Smashwords since the beginning, but I have no wish to line the pockets of a business that intends to censor authors and patronise readers by making decisions for them on what they should and should not read.

  13. February 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I have mixed feelings about Mark. On one hand, Paypal strategically handled this in a way that made it impossible for him to shift to another payment processor. On the flip side – no business should make themselves vulnerable to one vendor.

    Last year, before uploading my books to Smashwords, I contacted Mark about Paypal and its history on censorship. I remembered the ebookAd fiasco a number of years ago, and how Paypal effectively closed down the site for a while, due to the adult content. Reportedly, Paypal seized the website’s funds, making it impossible for eBookad to pay writers. I have no idea how much of that was inflated at the time, in regards to Paypal taking funds, resulting in nonpayment to some writers.

    Mark responded to my inquiry, assuring me there really wasn’t as issue, as his site wasn’t just about adult content, it had a wide range of topics. I assumed he had already worked this out with Paypal, especially considering how Smashwords was much larger and high profile when compared to eBookAd.

    What is next, will Paypal decide it has the right to close member accounts when they post negative online content about Paypal? After all, they are a business and have the “right” to choose who to do business with. Perhaps I might agree with that opinion if they weren’t such a large and dominate player, without completion. Their monopoly-like status gives them far too much power.

    While some will argue freedom of speech does not apply to corporations, only to government entities, I disagree in this instance, especially when such large entities are major players in today’s presidential election. Isn’t it ironic that Paypal’s founder is a major contributor to Ron Paul, who is supposedly a major proponent to free enterprise?

    I find it interesting that in our current political climate the conservative right is willing to shout from the rooftops about protecting our Constitutional rights to bear arms and freedom of religion. When it comes to freedom of speech, they are deafeningly silent. Of all our liberties, freedom of speech is the most important, for without it, how to we speak up to protest when they come for our other liberties?

  14. February 25, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    My own publisher is looking for alternatives in case PayPal decides to pull their chains. This is a sad, sad development. I have not written anything within those “restrictions” but they’re knocking awfully close to my door.

    Excellent letter. I wish you could write one and send to PayPal as well. Yes, Mark made a big mistake with his letter, like Bookstrand and ARe, but it’s PayPal who’s doing the monopolizing and bullying. But I wholeheartedly agree that all three sellers should have handled things differently (though ARe seems to be handling it the best).

    There’s a petition going on this: Please, if you (reading this) has any respect for freedom of speech/print/choice, sign this before they start knocking on your own door.

    • February 25, 2012 at 11:43 pm

      I have signed the petition already, Erica.

      There is no point in writing and sending a letter like this to paypal. PayPal has no pretensions of ethical behaviour or feels under any obligation to protect freedom of speech. They are a huge corporation with a very moralistic agenda. They don’t speak the same language as this letter. They will find legal, moral, economic reasons to defend what they are doing, and they will believe it wholeheartedly.

      However, people who have been, at some time in their lives, dedicated to the production of literature and have some tiny speck of aspiration of literary meaningfulness, may have sometime valued the freedom that earlier, braver publishers achieved for the cultural landscape of the 20th Century. Perhaps we share some common language.

      Paypal thrives because company after company caves to them. That is the reality. If eight, ten, fifteen ebook companies were to band together, refuse to cooperate and go to the media together, accusing Paypal of trying to censor the publishing industry by bullying its retailers economically, they would look pretty fucking bad. They would have to answer for themselves. They would have to actually justify, legally, their supposed moral qualms.

      But each of these companies has simply covered its own ass. And so Paypal wins. Period.

      Tyranny by online transaction.

      • February 26, 2012 at 12:06 am

        RG said: “If eight, ten, fifteen ebook companies were to band together, refuse to cooperate and go to the media together, accusing Paypal of trying to censor the publishing industry by bullying its retailers economically, they would look pretty fucking bad.”

        YES, YES, YES. And why aren’t they doing it? Because PayPal have given all concerned so little notice (3 or 4 days?) to comply with their terms … which in itself MUST be illegal, surely?

        Unfortunately, that short notice plus the legal fees would most probably ruin these businesses if they took a stance, unless someone who could afford to were willing to sponsor the law suit. I’m not saying this in defence of anyone’s actions, rather just stating it as a sad, sad fact. It’s bullying at its worst. And once bullies know that they can beat down on one person, they’ll bully everyone in a similar situation, and then they’ll start to push their boundaries to see who else they can bully.

        Removing bullies of their power is the only thing that works. I can’t financially cut my nose off to spite my face, but I’m looking at ways I can integrate Google Merchant services (and similar) so that I’m not relying solely on PayPal, which at the moment, I sort of am via various distribution centres, book retailers, etc. I can then begin to use PayPal less and less, and if and when the rug’s ever pulled out from under my feet, I can wave them goodbye with a big grin.

        • February 26, 2012 at 12:10 am

          One BIG factor is that PayPal is threatening to confiscate the money these publishers have in their accounts. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’re working on finding a different way, but have to resort to these measures for now. Or at least I hope that’s the case.

    • February 26, 2012 at 3:25 am

      Yes, NBP has made a move around it and will be offering the publication freedoms to other publishers and even indie authors. While we like having authors signed with us, we feel the bigger issue is not allowing censorship, no matter if the material is something we would read or not. The choice should be left to each individual reader.

      Our changes take effect this coming week.

  15. February 25, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Nailed it. Thanks for writing this – one of the best, most important posts (and I read a lot of political posts) I’ve read a long while.

  16. Jean-Luc Cheri
    February 25, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    RemittanceGirl, it is my understanding that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down all child-porn laws that came before them, if the material being prohibited didn’t involve a real-live child in its creation. Which would obviously include written erotica. Which law were you referring to when you said that pedophillia was illegal in written form?

    • February 25, 2012 at 11:44 pm

      It is very likely that cases have not come before the supreme court. I believe there have been prosecutions of people in possession of manga depicting cartoon ‘children’ in sexual situations.

      • February 26, 2012 at 12:31 am

        That’s interesting, but note that the article refers to the “Protect Law,” which holds that “a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting” showing children in sexual situations can be ruled illegal if local community standards consider it “obscene.”

        No law has been passed (YET!!) that makes any brand of written fiction illegal.

        • Jean-Luc Cheri
          February 26, 2012 at 1:09 am

          That’s true, and the PROTECT Act of 2003 was a response to the Supreme Court striking down the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, where the court ruled that “the CPPA prohibits speech that records no crime and creates no victims by its production. Virtual child pornography is not ‘intrinsically related’ to the sexual abuse of children.”

          The Manga case was taken to the Supreme Court, but they refused to hear it, possibly because the guy had real child porn in his possession also, and they didn’t want their test case to involve a person like that. That’s just speculation though. But I find it hard to believe the Court would change their mind on this issue. They’ve never been in favor of thought crimes.

          But yes, I can’t find any law that makes owning written pedophillia illegal.

          • February 26, 2012 at 1:31 am

            I’m sorry, but there is no record that the guy had ANY actual child pornography in his possession. The court did not hear it because it didn’t make it past the court of appeals.

            The point in the case is that, until this one, the charge had to prove that a child was harmed in the making of the work. This is a landmark case because the subject was entirely graphically fictional. It is a short step from a graphically fictional character being deemed obscenity to have a textually represented one be deemed so. There is, arguably a precedent set here and a reason to consider extrapolations on the reasoning behind the conviction and how it might be used as guiding case-law in the future on textual cases. So, although owning or writing or selling written fictional pedophilia may not as yet be illegal, I can certainly see why people might fear prosecution. This has drawn a bright line around any erotic material involving children in any media.

            However, there are literally thousands of written fictional works that depict incest, bestiality and rape, including some of the best-selling romance novels of the 1970s. Determining whether any given depiction of rape was written ‘with the intent to titillate’ would almost legally impossible to prove.

  17. February 25, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    That was a passionate and heart-felt letter. I think it’s terrible that Paypal are able to dictate what people either read or write. Who are they to be a moral compass? I have one title which may be borderline, but there is no way I’m going to willingly take it down. As you pointed out, if someone is going to censor me, they’re going to have to do it themselves.

  18. February 25, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

    • February 26, 2012 at 12:43 am

      Can we please stop with this nonsense? The fact that this quote has been overused in so many completely irrelevant ways over the past fifty years aside, please try and remember we’re trying to talk about our rights to publish erotica. We’re not talking about genocide, we’re not talking about strife, we’re not talking about the holocaust and we’re not talking about any situation anywhere near as serious on a global or human scale as the one which that quote is specifically about.

      You – and everyone who uses that quote in response to this situation, of which there are many – are doing nothing but a disservice to everyone who is actually keeping a level head and working to understand not only why this is happening but how we can, as erotica writers, continue to do what we enjoy doing.

      Is the situation serious? Sure. There are a lot of people who are losing a lot of money because one organization has decided they’d like to police literature. Is the situation so serious that it warrants commandeering a quote about one of the greatest atrocities in human history? Absolutely not.

      • February 26, 2012 at 1:16 am

        I must admit, I agree.

      • February 26, 2012 at 1:36 am

        Toby, with all due respect to your opinion and recognizing that the above quote does evoke strong sentiment, I don’t believe this controversy is solely about the rights of erotic writers. I think that barely skims the surface of the issue. Viewed from the standpoint of a noticeable right-wing swing in our national politics, complete with many if not most of the historic components of Fascism (about which many of my friends in Europe are also worried, by the way), I think you have to be concerned about the erosion of our freedoms, of which freedom of speech and expression is certainly one of the most important. Abuses of those freedoms do not happen in a vacuum; the people who abuse them have to feel emboldened by the society around them in order to do what they do. Actions like the one taken by PayPal are part and parcel of what gives them their power to destroy societies. I know it’s scary to look at. I know it’s easier to say, “Oh, for God’s sake don’t pull out that old chestnut again.” But I do NOT think I’m wrong. Feel free to disagree; I am entirely comfortable with your right to do so. There are people who would not want to grant you that right, however, and de facto censorship of any written medium has historically been much more dangerous to society than anything ever written. That’s what I’m talking about.

        • February 26, 2012 at 1:48 am

          Miriam, I do understand the strength of your feelings on the matter. And I do agree with you that this trend we are seeing reaches far more broadly into our society and your cultural landscape that simply a few censored erotica writers. Not only this, but I understand the spirit of the quote: that if people just keep ignoring the censorship when it doesn’t pertain specifically to what they write, or caving for the sake of economic expediency, this trend will take us to a culturally and socially much darker place.
          At the same time, the quote is an extremely emotive and loaded one.

        • February 26, 2012 at 2:25 am

          While issues of free speech and personal freedoms are important, this quote is not addressing that. It’s addressing genocide. Period. When people came for the Socials, Jews, etc. “came for” meant “rounded up and killed”. Period. The quote is considered one of the major representations and expressions of the Holocaust. Period. The man who stated that quote was eventually sent to Dachau, although he survived the war.

          I don’t know how far removed you are from the atrocities of the Holocaust, but I come from a German family, and I grew up with the letters, the stories, the knowledge of what the holocaust did. And the use of this quote in this context is inappropriate, and, frankly, disgusting.

          There are better ways to make your point. Clearly you’re capable of expanding your thoughts, so I’m sure you can think of another way to express yourself than trying to appropriate a quote as drenched in meaning as this one.

          • February 26, 2012 at 2:39 am

            Okay, can I express just how much I’d like this conversation not to devolve into discussions of the holocaust. I don’t think that was the way Miriam meant it – I think she meant to say that inaction seldom leads to a good outcome. And yes, we all acknowledge what a loaded quote it is.

            I once had a professor in rhetoric who warned me that, once you start likening anyone to Hitler or any situation to the Holocaust, the whole debate goes for shit.

      • February 26, 2012 at 1:42 am

        I agree with what you’re saying, but I still think that quote is good. It’s basically saying that if people stand by and don’t object to what is being done NOW, there will come a time where they’ll be under fire and no one will be in the position to object. It has nothing to do with “atrocities in human history”. I don’t believe Miriam meant to sound demeaning – I didn’t even take it that way.

        • February 26, 2012 at 3:50 am

          In every debate there comes a point where someone declares, how dare you compare YOUR pain to MY pain? I used the quote on my own blog to describe my feelings about erotica writers who are applauding Coker’s letter. If anyone wants to find use of the quote offensive, enjoy. It’s not every weekend you find the Holocaust purportedly dissed by a bunch of people arguing for free speech. Maybe there should be a a committee to decide who can use emotionally loaded and evocative quotes, and under what circumstances?

  19. Amanda
    February 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    Why doesn’t SmashWords continue to publish our stories via the other channels? It’s one thing to lose sales on SW (which for many of us, isn’t that big of a loss) but why not continue to publish on our behalf through the major retailers? They allow these titles and SmashWords could continue to make money AND still be one of the ONLY resources that us Internationals’ have to get our books on Barnes & Noble.

    • February 26, 2012 at 3:55 am

      Maybe because they don’t want to, and they actually feel good about this decision? Given all the applause from more “mainstream” (m/f) authors, perhaps they expected no backlash at all?

  20. February 26, 2012 at 12:05 am

    No Boundaries Press is working on a way to get these titles sold. People won’t have to sign with them for publications, they’re working on a way to sell for other publishers (and self-publishers, I presume):

  21. February 26, 2012 at 12:32 am

    You wield a mighty imagination when you interpret my words. I suppose that’s the magic of writing. Words touch each of us differently. I’m sorry you found my letter insulting, sexist or disingenuous. I did not write it in that spirit, so I apologize to anyone who shared your reaction.

    I made my best effort to openly and honestly share the reasoning behind my decision. Attack me for the imperfection of my decision and I shall not disagree with you. You’re mistaken, however, to question my commitment to writers and readers.

    I founded Smashwords as a business with a higher social purpose. Four years ago when we launched, I communicated our mission was to change how books are published, marketed and sold. We now have over 100,000 titles in our catalog, and I’m pleased we have enabled thousands of writers to reach millions of readers. Despite our progress, much work remains.

    The world is in flux. Society at large does not yet grok the implications of the indie ebook revolution. This revolution will force people to debate the value of free speech and the importance of freedom of expression and imagination. PayPal’s recent enforcement against some categories of erotica are but one example of this flux.

    This ugly chapter does not mark the end of the story still to unfold. It’s a setback, no doubt, but it doesn’t change my ongoing commitment to create new opportunities for writers to reach readers with their words. Smashwords as a business must pick its battles. Yesterday, I made the decision to lose a battle rather than expose our business and our authors to the greater loss of losing the war. The campaign continues, and we survive to fight another day.

    I sincerely regret that some of our writers must bear the brunt of this decision. I’m confident new outlets will spring up to serve those markets we don’t. Thanks for pointing out my embarrassing mistake re: Orwell. I corrected the error in the archived version of the letter, which is posted at

    • February 26, 2012 at 1:10 am

      Thank you for taking the time to respond, Mr. Coker.

      However, I don’t believe that it took much imagination on my part to read exactly what you wrote. You stated that the contents of what I write had NO PLACE ANYWHERE. These weren’t paypal’s words, they were yours. The fact that I, like many other women, ponder and write about fictional sexual content that you find morally objectionable is one thing, but the fact that you would so wholeheartedly condemn its existence is something else.

      Had you read what I write and opined that it had no artistic merit, no literary raison d’etre, I would accept. Had you simply stated that censorship has no place in literature and your need to respond this way was entirely motivated by business necessity, I would accept.

      But you chose to make a moral statement on the textual representation of a sexual fantasy that many women have, that may arguably be the psyco-sexual result of hundreds of years of sexual dominance and repression… that you seem not to grasp how literature helps us to examine and come to terms with not the easy, but also the hardest, most puzzling parts of our nature, tells me that you, like many other people in the publishing world today, have a very simplistic understanding what creative literary freedom really entails.

      I am glad Smashwords exists. I wish you, your company, and the authors who still have a place on your site the very best. But I will not thank you for throwing me, or other writers like me, to the wolves.

      I believe, to borrow your battle metaphor, we are the victims of friendly fire.

      • February 26, 2012 at 1:30 am

        “You stated that the contents of what I write had NO PLACE ANYWHERE.” She’s got you there, Mark. You were being simplistically, unnecessarily, and inappropriately moralizing.

        Despite all the hundreds upon hundreds of volumes of the most extreme, out-there, hardcore porn and erotica Smashwords carried (until now), it’s obvious that Mark has never given any serious thought to the issue of erotica. He just blathers out the old, thought-free line: I find this stuff to be icky; therefor A) Only icky, evil people would want to read it, and B) Those who do read it will be inspired to do icky, evil things.

        I wrote a little blog post about this myself a while back:

        • February 26, 2012 at 1:40 am

          To be fair to Mark, Esmeralda, most men find women’s rape fantasies very hard to understand. If they have been brought up correctly, they wholeheartedly condemn rape as a criminal act in the real world. Because they don’t have these fantasies, they really have little idea of how fictional or non-consensual fantasy differs, how women distinguish the difference in their minds. They simply aren’t IN OUR HEADS.

          This is why it’s so important to give sane, adult humans the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their fantasies or their fictional writing or reading. Frankly, I find a lot of erotic fiction icky. But hey, I don’t have to write it or buy it or read it. It’s a personal freedom to choose.

          BTW, great post on your blog. Thanks for linking to it.

        • February 26, 2012 at 3:17 am

          Hey, EG, you have no idea how much I’ve thought about it, how I’ve worked to protect it, the punches I have taken for it, or what I’ve done behind the scenes and will continue to do behind the scenes to protect our erotica authors. I won’t always succeed. As I tried to express in my letter, I’m sincerely sorry it turned out this way.

        • February 26, 2012 at 4:18 am

          “you have no idea how much I’ve thought about it, how I’ve worked to protect it, the punches I have taken for it, or what I’ve done behind the scenes and will continue to do behind the scenes to protect our erotica authors.”

          Well, *some* of your erotica authors, anyway. The rest you’re pretty much abandoning. And those you are protecting – will you continue to if Paypal decides spanking, or gangbangs, or adulterous sex are too prurient to allow to be bought through them? Your words are cold comfort.

          I don’t have any titles at SW, and it’s unlikely I will, until and unless you find a way to make good on your own claim to respect free expression, and not be bullied by a financial service dressed as a morality cop.

          I dearly hope that the concept raised by several here – an alternative to challenge paypal – becomes a reality, and soon, and that Smashwords – and the other publishers currently being economically bullied – will have the integrity to use it.

  22. February 26, 2012 at 2:18 am

    Um, not to mention that such censorship is a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution, and that these matters have already been fought and WON by authors, artists, publishers, and filmmakers for decades now.

    So I’d suggest getting with the program, Mark. (Or at least the 21st century would be nice.)

    SEE's_Lover (scroll page to “controversy)

    SEE ALSO landmark Grove Press litigation regarding “Naked Lunch” 378 U.S. Ct. 577, 578 – censorship ruling overturned by US Supreme Court by writ of certiorari – 1964 + the Grove Press case wiki-link @

    (And so on.)

    • February 26, 2012 at 2:33 am

      The problem is that it isn’t a governmental body doing the censoring. No one is actually prohibiting my publication of my work, they are simply economically making the sale of it impossible. No private company, no commercial entity is legally required to stock a product or to sell it, or to treat all products evenhandedly.

      However, if a number of ebook retailers were to get together, I do believe there might possibly be a case for an anti-trust (competition law) case against paypal. Essentially, they are using their monopoly in the marketplace to coerce businesses who must depend on them to significantly alter their own corporate practices in terms of what they carry and sell.

      What was highly significant is that when Paypal cut off donations to Wikileaks, with the approval and support of the US government, it gave them grounds on which to believe they could carry out any number of other acts of economic censorship with impunity.

      My guess is that it will either take a) an alternative online financial services provider to come along and provide credible and robust competition or b) a class action lawsuit to rein them in now.

      • February 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm

        I agree completely, and have shared your post multiple times. The literary depiction of any of these ‘hot buttons’ is the right of literature, and is in no way illegal. What’s next? My local bank denying my check written for cigarettes or ‘unhealthy foods’?

        I have been a Paypal account holder sine 1992, and as a former eBay PowerSeller and long-time adversary of PayPal, I can tell you with absolute certainty these guys are sharks.

        At what point in the purchase process will they deny the buyer the right to spend their funds, their way? Why, the way that nets them the most charge backs, of course, they way granting them the ability to freeze and seize your funds in their care, and hold them indefinitely, collecting interest while giving their so-called business partner–you, me, and Smashwords, in this instance–the longest possible run-around.

        Mr. Coker better be prepared to send out notices explaining how he’d love to forward our royalties, but he’s waiting for PayPal to un-freeze his funds.

        Of course, that’s only the practical side to this outrage.

        • February 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm

          It’s interesting to get a more business oriented perspective on this. I had heard, through ERWA, that paypal had the habit of seizing and freezing monies of some erotica writers who had work for sale through porn resellers, but I had no idea that this practice was common across the whole client base. jesus.

          Well, it doesn’t surprise me really. Unethical people usually act unethically in all their dealings, not just in one area.

  23. February 26, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Funny I got the email AFTER I had already unpublished two of my erotica books from Smashwords in favor of KDP select. I was planning to republish them to Smashwords once my KDP time expired but now I feel its better to keep my erotica titles unpublished on Smashwords and remain on where I get my larger sales from anyway. Smashwords still owe me money and I will not take kindly to them or Paypal keeping the money I rightfully earned based on their own moral objections. I find it suspicious that they would want to keep the funds from “obscene” literature while wagging their fingers in the author’s direction. I wonder what’s next? Paypal is going to decide that gay novels should be banned and Smashwords will just send out another mass notice to remove gay content?? You give companies like Paypal an inch then what’s stopping them from taking a mile?

    And yes Mr. Coker you did in fact claim that certain content doesn’t belong anywhere else.

  24. February 26, 2012 at 4:03 am

    I don’t write erotica so this doesn’t directly affect me. But I’ve said publicly before and I’ll say it again. Any sort of censorship is the thin edge of the wedge. Where does it stop? No one – no one – has the right to tell me what I can and cannot read.

    I simply wish to join the chorus and commend your restrained and eloquently expressed letter. Also, I commend Mr Coker for having the balls to respond.

    As for Paypal – will they also ban the use of their services for those who wish to purchase dildoes? Or handcuffs?

  25. February 26, 2012 at 4:07 am

    This is a brilliant post. Utterly puts mine in the shade. I have posted it everywhere.

  26. February 26, 2012 at 4:10 am

    and yet, when someone suggests a rational solution – a separate category for those who want to promote bestiality, rape, incest and the sexualization of children – they get shouted down.
    No writer wants censorship or book banning, but neither does anyone truly think that such content should be on the bookshelves in our local bookstore. Yet the very suggestion that there should be a separate area for this type of erotic content is shouted down as the same kind of censorship and book banning.

    • February 26, 2012 at 11:31 am

      I don’t hear anyone putting down the idea of a separate category, but here’s the issue: what purpose does it serve? Did you imagine that a reader, purchasing a book entitled ‘I Did Daddy’ doesn’t know what they’re buying? The erotica genre uses tags heavily, voluntarily. As a group of writers, we are very sensitive to ensure that readers KNOW what they’re getting.

      Genres should act as a guide to reader expectation. But I’m fairly certain that some writers in the ‘banned’ group feel that calls to form a new ‘dirty’ genre, are a way to ghettoize them and make erotica safe for the rest of you. And I can see their point. It doesn’t serve to INFORM readers, it serves to ghettoize writers.

      You said “but neither does anyone truly think that such content should be on the bookshelves in our local bookstore”.

      Well, I’m sorry Valerie, but I think it does. de Sade is on the shelf in your local bookstore, and god knows, the content of his novels makes the stuff we’re making a fuss about today PALE in comparison. Anais Nin is on the shelf of your local bookstore, and she wrote about fucking her father – not a step-father, dear – her actual father.

      It is a significant comment on the lack of clarity with which we are thinking about these issues, that most of the erotica in the historical canon is edgier than most of what is published today. Much of it would never get published today.

      What if I were to confront you with another proposition, I’ll move under Literary Fiction where all the other shocking, morally challenging stuff is, and leave the badly-written, sentimentalist, formulaic, crap genre to you?

      Would you find that offensive? Yes. Well, now you know how we feel about being told to get out of your genre.

  27. February 26, 2012 at 4:30 am

    Kudos! Great letter and thank you for writing it AND posting it here.

    Well said.

  28. February 26, 2012 at 5:08 am

    Hey you, I’ve made a reading challenge and goodreads group
    Would love to have you join me.
    Your book Gaijin has already been recommended 🙂

  29. February 26, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Just letting you know that I’ve linked this entry to mine:

    Thanks so much for opening my eyes on various matters regarding this.

  30. Adam
    February 26, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Unless PayPal put a gun to his head while he wrote this, he is totally responsible for his Andrea Dworkin moralizing.

    I guess it’s easier to attack a faceless company like PayPal than a small business.

    I’m sure PayPal reps trot out the same defense for their actions – “oh, our hands were tied. We have to err on the side of caution or end up afoul of the law.”

    • February 27, 2012 at 5:26 am

      Huh, they’d better not say that. BDSM is off-limits too.

  31. February 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    excellently argued and so true.
    What we could say about the morality of banking, talk about the ‘pot calling the kettle black.’

  32. February 26, 2012 at 7:35 pm
    • February 26, 2012 at 7:40 pm

      WOw, what a post. This is a great read! Thank you so much for linking it.

  33. February 26, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Excellent letter,
    If he could not feel the passion behind those words then he is dead inside.
    Now with all this Paypal crap happening, I’m wondering when they will decide VC Andrews, Flowers In The Attic series is immorally wrong?

    • February 26, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      Ha! And what about the classic romance ‘The Flame and the Flower’?

  34. February 27, 2012 at 1:47 am

    But PayPay *was* putting a gun to Coker’s head, albeit a financial one. If you make your living as a writer, Mark makes his as a publisher, and if his money is so entangled with PayPal that he dies if they cut the line, that’s a hard reality. It’s all well and good to say, “Well, he should just tell PayPal to go fuck itself!” but if the result is the death of his company, the moral victory is all seeds and stems, isn’t it?

    Should he have put all his eggs in the PayPal basket? Probably not, though I suspect it seemed like a good idea at the time. And maybe there are other avenues available, though I also suspect you are looking at a Gordian Knot twined exceedingly complex.

    The problem with mounting a high horse is that it is hard to climb onto, and dangerous if you fall off.

    We all draw the line where we will. If I have a rape scene in my novel that goes to the development of the character’s entire psyche, is not at all titillating, but it isn’t allowed, then my book doesn’t fly. That would piss me off.

    And, how old were Romeo and Juliet again?

    But still — there is that can’-yell-fire-in-a-crowded-theatre thing that gainsays the rule — freedom of speech has never been absolute, and this isn’t unconstitutional — it’s not the government squelching bookery, it’s a corporate entity.

    • February 27, 2012 at 8:42 am

      The world is full of moral compromise. It would have been very surprising if Mark Coker did anything other than what he has done. But that does not mean he deserves anyone’s moral approbation. I’m sorry, but since when did financial security become an acceptable ethical excuse for participating in what you know to be WRONG?

      As to where we draw the line. We each draw the line for ourselves. But one would hope that for cultural product as a whole, we draw the line exceedingly wide, because ultimately, literature and its contents are a complex and shaded thing. It is easy to use labels as a bludgeon, just as PayPal has done.

      It’s worth remembering that it is the READER who determines what is erotic in a story, not the writer. I am quite sure that someone, somewhere is beating off furiously to your most descriptively gory scene. And that might give you discomfort, as a writer. But ultimately, what is played out within the pages of a book, words on the page, or in the realm of the imagination IS NOT FACT. These things are fiction and fantasy and equating them with reality is irrational and ridiculous. So equating this issue with the ‘yelling fire in a crowded theatre’ lacks logical foundation.

      If fictionality led to the playing out of fiction in the real world, countries with the highest literacy rates would be the most violent, but in fact, quite the opposite is true. High literacy rates is one of the hallmarks of the most ordered of civil societies.

      • Steve Perry
        February 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm

        “I’m sorry, but since when did financial security become an acceptable ethical excuse for participating in what you know to be WRONG?”

        Must be nice to have such a certain moral compass. You’ve never done anything at work you thought was wrong but kept working there? Say hello to JC when you see him, hey?

        • February 27, 2012 at 1:24 pm

          I think you’re missing my point. Assuredly we have ALL made decisions for pragmatic reasons we knew to be ethically wrong. But do we deserve a pat on the back for it? Or get away without having it pointed out to us that we DID choose our pocketbooks over our ethics?

          Since when was ‘practical need’ synonymous with moral absolution?

          Just because someone’s actions are understandable doesn’t make them ethically right. The balance of a sane and civilized world depends on the fact that we can make a clear distinction between the two. And we must be prepared to accept the guilt that comes with having acted unethically out of self-interest.

          In Coker’s case, he argues that he put aside the interest of a few in order to protect the interests of the many. This is the argument that the United States Government used when it imprisoned Japanese American citizens during WWII. It was an act Roosevelt signed into law and the Supreme Court upheld in 1944 in Korematsu vs the United States. This has its philosophical basis in Utilitarianism.

          But it has been generally acknowledged that there are serious flaws in this philosophy. In 1988, Congress and Ronald Regan signed legislation that apologized for the internment, being a product of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. Its not that there was NO threat to the majority. There assuredly was. It was that the act, no matter how apparently necessary at the time, was unethical.

          As an aside, I’m fairly confident that I will not be meeting Jesus Christ anytime soon, due to the fact that I’m a Jew and an Atheist. He tends to keep his distance from us.

        • February 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm

          No, I take your point, and you are right — pragmatic action doesn’t necessarily excuse an ethical misstep. But as somebody who is unqualified to throw stones myself, I am not so quick to grab them in this case. Some of your readers seem to be painting Mark Coker as the AntiChrist, and I don’t think so. The man is between a rock and hard place, and those who would have him take a moral stance that cost him and his employees and a shitload of other writers their livings must live somewhere between Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

          Moral outrage is all well and good, but reality will have its due.

          According to the letter, some of my material will fail the PayPal Test, even if it isn’t marked “Erotica.” That pisses me off. But It does sound like it’s the messenger being shot here, and while you have acknowledged that aspect of it, there are a lot of folks who haven’t made that distinction.
          Somebody needs to make it for them.

          • February 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm

            I agree with you wholeheartedly. Mark Coker is most definitely not the true villain here. And, if you look at my post subsequent to this one, I acknowledge that, although I feel I have a right to point out that Smashwords has acted unethically, it was not without regret.

            Sadly, we are in the midst of a society seemingly unable to cope with areas of ethical complexity, unprepared to live with any greyness at all. And strangely enough, I think this brings us full circle to literature. Because it is one of the best tools I know of to teach people how to cope with moral ambiguity. And ironically, some of the most morally ambiguous novels are wonderful safe and fertile places to learn how to suspend immediate judgement and think critically.

  35. Carole-Ann
    February 27, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Excellent letter, and superb comments throughout! Thank you!

    As I’m a reader only, I cannot express my worries for what authors of erotica are going through; but I hope to give my support instead 🙂

    One slight point that Mark Coker made in his open letter: he mentioned that those “hot buttons” would make no difference if contained in a NON-EROTIC work; and that NON-EROTIC writers need not worry. And so my query: what’s the difference between erotic and non-erotic works if ‘sex’ is involved (not to mention those hot buttons)? 🙂

    • February 27, 2012 at 8:45 am

      I am assuming that labeling a work as ‘erotica’ indicates to the reader that they can feel free to perceive these acts erotically. Of course, this is ridiculous, readers will perceive whatever they want as erotically stimulating. I myself have had a good wank to all sorts of books that weren’t classified as erotica.

      Conversely, I have plowed through many a book labeled ‘erotica’ and found nothing whatsoever erotic about them. Just as you have, I’m sure.

      It’s absurd. Period.

  36. February 27, 2012 at 3:13 am

    Fantastic letter. Smashwords purported to stand for something, but I guess we all missed the fine print – only when convenient. I respect your decision to stay and force them to censor you, although I chose to unpublish all my books from Smashwords, even ones that would not have been affected. I wasn’t there for the money. I was there because I liked what they were doing.

    What is the point of Smashwords after this? Amazon has always been the better money maker. Smashwords was supposed to be the dreamer, the underdog. Now it’s exposed as being short-sighted, money-hungry, and weak-willed. I’ll pass.

    • February 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

      I actually think this is a little harsh. I do think Smashwords has a very strong remit to support indie writers. But everyone’s idealism has its limits, and I guess we’ve seen what Coker’s limits are. It might have been more ethical for him to refuse to remove the ‘offending’ books and go under, but how would the larger, non-controversial group of authors feel about that?

      It’s not an easy thing. It’s a double edged sword. People have to do what will allow them to sleep at night, and I suppose that is what Coker did. He decided that the survival of Smashwords as an entity would give him the opportunity, at some later date, to find other payment strategies.

      However, every company who continued to rely solely on PayPal once they closed the Wikileaks account and froze their assets, was short sighted and stupid. Companies that decide who they will service based on political motivations can be reliably depended upon to carry on being ‘unneutral’ in their dealings.

      • February 27, 2012 at 10:25 am

        I don’t meant to be harsh. It’s not like I hate the guy personally, but I do think that it was short-sighted and will actually come back to bite the company. Here’s why.

        The question ‘why Smashwords?’ isn’t hypothetical. If I write a free story, I can post it on literotica or figment and there’s a great community and recommendation backend that finds me readers who enjoy my work and comment. That doesn’t happen much on Smashwords.

        If I have a paid story, Amazon is the clear winner, with B&N far behind, and everything else down near zero. For every $1K I earn at Amazon, I can get maybe 5 bucks through Smashwords (and that’s including the premium distribution through Sony, etc). What I have spoken with other indie authors, this appears to be typical.

        It’s not delivering an active community for free, it’s not delivering sales for paid. So what is the point?

        The KDP Select program is encouraging authors to pull from other places. B&N already has a similar program on an exclusive basis. These big stores want exclusivity, and they can back it up with $$$, and authors will need a compelling reason not to do so. They are making Amazon’s job too easy by pushing erotica authors away.

        If Smashwords had said, we stand up for authors, we fight censorship, that would have been my reason. It would have been enough. They didn’t say that, and I really can’t think of anything they can offer me, my books or my readers to stay. I’m not trying to be mean about it, but I’m honestly drawing a blank.

        • February 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm

          Very good point and very true. I don’t think any one can complain about Amazon KDP select when companies like Smashwords make their job so easy to do. Amazon has not told me to censor my book covers like Smashwords has and nor have they told me to remove my books from their site because of the material. I make more money on and they pay faster, and so far KDP select has been very good to me. Except to publish my free non sexual shorts I don’t see much reason to make Smashwords a top publishing priority.

        • February 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm

          @Rochrok: Don’t think that Amazon is any kind of bastion of non-censorship. A little over a year ago they instituted a censorship policy at their KDP store, banning most (though not all) of the same kinds of material PayPal is now banning. Other major outlets for self-published eBooks, notably Barnes & Noble and Apple’s iBooks, don’t (yet) ban anything except underaged material.


        • February 28, 2012 at 12:29 am

          Esmeralda Greene, Thanks for the reply I had no idea Amazon was also censoring books the same as pay pal. So far I’ve had no problems with them but I guess it’s because my books don’t contain incest…at least not yet lol! I hope they don’t give me any trouble later on.

  37. February 27, 2012 at 4:01 am

    Thank you so much for your words on this. It’s excellent analysis that clarifies so much of what I’ve found so deeply upsetting about this situation. I’ve received Coker’s letter too, probably because the stories I have up on Smashwords, though free, are listed under erotica. One of them falls under the new prohibitions.

    I’m still so frustrated I just want to scream. Our whole frigging culture caters to male heterosexual fantasies. Women find a workaround to all of that, in fiction, online, independently, and still they try to shut us down.

  38. Ann
    February 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    What some may not have noticed is that these restrictions kill off 70-80% of self-published YA as well. According to Smashwords staff youths may not even think of sex in a YA novel, much less have it.

    • February 27, 2012 at 6:21 pm

      OMG, I hadn’t thought of that, but of course, it is true. Any YA that contains any sex at all is completely out of bounds. Good lord!

      Well, of course we know that no one under the age of 18 ever has sex or masturbates, ever. They’re too busy watching James Deen porn.

    • February 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm

      Right, My series contains sex between high school students so I guess I write underage porn to them. Maybe I should have had my characters hold hands and sit at the milk shoppe. LOL!

  39. nilla
    February 27, 2012 at 8:40 pm


    I sit here, dismayed at this … sea change. When did we suddenly time-travel back to Victorian era mores and values?

    Are people REALLY this afraid of sexuality, sensuality, and the exploration of the deeper side of our sexual minds?

    Your letter is brilliant. I felt the anger and outrage, and I am so impressed with the keystrokes that sound like gunfire, poking holes in his suppositions.

    When did our “rights” become a war of opression? Geezuz.


  40. Waterguy
    February 28, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Madam, please allow me to allow you to speak for me. Any other response to this guy would be a disservice. This my dear, is why I love you.

  41. February 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Thank you for your brilliance. As an erotic author with a published book that contains a mythical creature known as a satyr, I am on their crosshairs. The satyr in my novella keeps both his HOOVES on and the furry pants do indeed stay on.

    • February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

      How utterly delicious. How Classical! I do think that one of the ‘button’ subjects, fictional bestiality, really needs to be discussed and defended, because throughout history, storytellers, writers and artists have used the metaphor of congress between animals and humans to examine the part of ourselves that we consider the more naturalistic. There are literally thousands of positively represented myths, legends and folklore of tales of marriages between humans and bears, swans, eagles, snakes, jaguars… For many tribal cultures these are essentially spiritual stories. The Dionysian paradigm, the cult of Pan, has a tremendously old history – first recorded in Ancient Greece – which flavours a lot of writing to the present day. The frenzy, the state of innocence from ordered society, the Bacchanalia.

      It would be a great shame to lose all that because of the misuse of a bloody label.

      • February 28, 2012 at 10:43 pm

        I was so furious last night about this asinine policy that I botched my own comment. Some of the issues that come immediately to mind go way beyond Paypal and Smashwords. What kind of internet do we want? What kind of choices should be available? When I find a book distasteful, it is fairly easy for me to make a choice not to purchase it. I don’t need a credit card processing company to dictate which books are good or bad for me. We can all agree that reading fictional depictions of incest and rape will not suddenly cause us to commit these crimes. Smashwords already had the safe search on/off feature that didn’t even DISPLAY erotic titles of any kind. Is this not enough? I am disheartened and sad and presently looking for other avenues. I will not roll over on this. Having grown up in a communist country I know too well just where this slope is leading.

        • February 29, 2012 at 8:04 am

          Narcisse, I am so glad you said this. I also come from a different background than the average American and the complacency I so often see shocks and deeply disturbs me. People think I am over-reacting and that “it can never happen here.” It-can-happen-anywhere. I don’t believe there was ever a book written that was as dangerous as the means employed to suppress it. Thank you for speaking out.

  42. Candie Evans
    February 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Follow the money trail. Has anybody thought that maybe this all stems from the Big 6? Who controls the largest share? Who keeps poo-pooing ebooks outselling print? CC companies still process the “porn”, “obscene”, “phone sex” so there’s something more behind this. Political, maybe, but again there’s more to it. Conspiracy? Maybe. Maybe not. But, makes you think. Erotic/Erotica and all the subgenres are some of the hottest selling books in ebooks. Make them inaccessible, and guess what? The small indie publishers which have popped up almost overnight aren’t big enough to fight, they’ll fold, followed by others. Hmm, interesting premise I’d say. Most erotica authors write under a pen name because they don’t want anyone to know. Who better to start with because not everyone wants to be “outted” so won’t fight publicly on this matter. That’s what whoever is ultimately behind this is counting on. Just my two cents.

    • February 28, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      God, you’d think if the Big 6 were that fucking organized, they’d have turned their own industries around by now. Publishing as we know it is a guttering candle, and the biggest part of its fall can be laid directly at the doorstep of this companies who wanted to keep on depending on Dan Brown for their income, refused to bring new and controversial authors to the marketplace, and forced them into the indie world and fought the concept of e-books tooth and nail as we all were considering which tabled or ereader to purchase.

      I’d love to think they were actually clever and strategic enough to orchestrate this, but somehow I doubt it.

  43. March 1, 2012 at 1:26 am

    I linked to this post in one of my own, RG, and currently I’m running a contest to encourage people to sign the petition. Here’s the link if anyone’s interested:

  44. March 1, 2012 at 6:33 am

    It’s important to note that it’s NOT just Paypal. I’ve only seen one article that mentioned (in passing) other CC companies putting the same pressure on publishers, but I know from recent experience that content questions are standard when discussing opening an account.

    I suspect this is a reaction to increasing government pressure (think SOPA clauses re. financial transactions) but since all the journalists are indulging in the easy prey of a PayPal beatdown, nobody seems to bother to ask any of these institutions WHY they’re doing this.

    I sure wish they would. I suspect there’s a rat much bigger than Paypal behind it.

    As for Coker, I have no love lost for Smashword’s model, but there are plenty of vendors who would be thrilled to have his business, and would expedite the transition. There must be a reason he didn’t do that…maybe they have similar rules?

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