Smashwords Succumbs to Censorship

The forces of Puritanism struck another blow yesterday. Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, sent out an email to all authors, publishers, and agents.

Paypal, Smashwords' payment processor, has issued an ultimatum. Someone at Paypal is grossed out by certain types of erotica sold via Smashwords, so those ebooks have to be pulled or Paypal will drop Smashwords as a customer. And the ebooks have to be pulled by Monday, or else.

The full email is at the end if this post. I'm not going to debate the validity of removing the content; in fact, I'm not even going to mention what has to be removed. Naming the categories would detract from my principled objection. It would also make a number of readers feel that this censorship is perfectly okay because the content was gross or objectionable.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This quote, widely attributed to Voltaire, is probably apocryphal. But it is true, none the less.

The whole point of the first amendment is that people can say (or write) whatever the hell they want. If you really believe in the concept of free speech, you'll look past what ever ickyness you feel towards the topics. There's a time where principle outweighs personal preference, and this is one of them.

Update: A couple people pointed out on Twitter that the 1st amendment doesn't apply here because it only applies to gov't censoring speech. This is true, but it doesn't make the principle any less valid.

Second Update (Tuesday night): Mark Coker has sent out a second email with a revised ultimatum from Paypal.


February 24, 2012

Re: Your Smashwords account at[[username]]

Dear Smashwords Authors, Publishers and Literary Agents,

This email is being sent to all authors, publishers and agents who have published erotica at Smashwords. We will also post this message to Site Updates and the Press Room.

According to our records, you pubish [[count_published_erotica_books]] erotica-categorized title(s) out of [[count_published_books]] title(s) now live in the Smashwords system. This message may or may not pertain to you.

Today we are modifying our Terms of Service to clarify our policies regarding erotic fiction that contains bestiality, rape and incest. If you write in any of these categories, please carefully read the instructions below and remove such content from Smashwords. If you don’t write in these categories, you can disregard this message.

PayPal is requiring Smashwords to immediately begin removing the above-mentioned categories of books. Please review your title(s) and proactively remove and archive such works if you are affected.

I apologize for the short notice, and I’m especially sorry for any financial or emotional hardship this may cause the authors and publishers affected by this change.

As you may have heard, in the last couple weeks PayPal began aggressively enforcing a prohibition against online retailers selling certain types of "obscene" content. For good background on the issue, see this Selena Kitt post here - or here - or this Kindleboards thread here -,104604.0.html

On Saturday, February 18, PayPal’s enforcement division contacted Smashwords with an ultimatum. As with the other ebook retailers affected by this enforcement, PayPal gave us only a few days to achieve compliance otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal services. I've had multiple conversations with PayPal over the last several days to better understand their requirements. Their team has been helpful, forthcoming and supportive of the Smashwords mission. I appreciate their willingness to engage in dialogue. Although they have tried their best to delineate their policies, gray areas remain.

Their hot buttons are bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica.

The underage erotica is not a problem for us. We already have some of the industry’s strictest policies prohibiting underage characters (we don’t even allow non-participating minors to appear in erotica), and our vetting team is always on the lookout for "barely legal" content where supposed adults are placed in underage situations.

The other three areas of bestiality, rape and incest were less well-defined in our Terms of Service ( before today. I’ll tackle these one-by-one below, and I'll provide you a summary of the changes that will go into effect immediately.

*Incest:* Until now, we didn’t have a policy prohibiting incest between consenting adults, or its non-biological variation commonly known as "Pseudo-incest." Neither did our retailer partners. We’ve noticed a surge of PI books over the last few months, and many of them have "Daddy" in the title. I wouldn't be surprised if the surge in "Daddy" titles prompted PayPal to pursue this purge (I don't know). PI usually explores sexual relations between consenting adult stepchildren with their step parents, or between step-siblings. Effectively immediately, we no longer allow incest of any variety in erotica.

Like many writers, censorship of any form greatly concerns me. It is with some reluctance that I have made the decision to prohibit incest-themed erotica at Smashwords. Regardless of your opinion on incest, it’s a slippery slope when we allow others to control what we think and write. Fiction is fantasy. It’s not real. It unfolds in our imagination. I’ve always believed fiction writers and readers should have the freedom to explore diverse topics and situations in the privacy of their own mind. From an imagination perspective, erotica is little different from a literary novel that puts us inside the mind of farm animals (1984), or a thriller novel that puts us inside the mind of a terrorist, or a horror novel that puts us inside the mind of an axe-murderer or their victim. All fiction takes us somewhere. 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.

Incest, however, carries thorny baggage. The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.

*Bestiality:* Until now, we didn’t have a stated policy regarding bestiality. I like animals. Call me old fashioned or hypocritical (I’m not a vegetarian), but I don’t want to be a party to anyone enjoying animals for sexual gratification, for the same reason we’ve never allowed pedophilia books. I don’t want to publish it, sell it, or distribute it. The TOS is now modified to reflect this. Note this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form. Sorry I need to clarify it that way, but we don’t want to see bestiality erotica masquerading as paranormal romance.

*Rape:* 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.

*NEXT STEPS:* If you have titles at Smashwords that are now expressly forbidden, by the end of day Monday (Feb 27), please click to your Dashboard at and click UNPUBLISH then click ARCHIVE. This will also cause our automated systems to remove the titles from retail distribution.

DO NOT try to hide or obfuscate violating content by changing book titles, book descriptions and tags. If we discover such shenanigans, said authors/publishers will risk account deletion and forfeiture of any accrued earnings, per our Terms of Service.

We take violations of the TOS seriously, because such violations jeopardize the opportunities for your fellow authors.

We do not want to see PayPal clamp down further against erotica. We think our authors should be allowed to publish erotica. Erotica, despite the attacks it faces from moralists, is a category worthy of protection. Erotica allows readers to safely explore aspects of sexuality that they might never want to explore in the real world.

The moralists forget that we humans are all sexual creatures, and the biggest sex organ is the brain. If it were not the case, none of us would be here. Erotica authors are facing discrimination, plain and simple. Topics that are perfectly acceptable in mainstream fiction are verboten in erotica. That’s not fair. Our decisions today are imperfect. Please, act responsibly, don’t try to game the system or publish content that pushes the limits of legality. Help us continue to help indie authors around the world to continue to publish and distribute with freedom.

*THINGS TO AVOID:* Avoid using words such as 'bestiality,' 'rape,' 'incest,' 'underage,' or 'barely legal' in book titles, book descriptions or keyword tags, otherwise Smashwords may conclude you’re violating the Terms of Service, or trying to push the limits. If you’re writing non-erotic works, and any of these words are necessary, then you’re okay.

On Tuesday (Feb 28) we will begin removing content that we deem in violation. When we remove a title, you will receive an email notifying you of such, and that email will append this letter along with instructions on how to notify us if we made an error. I promise you, we will make mistakes, so please work with us, take a deep breath and honor us with your patience.

If you believe we removed something in error, please click "Comments/questions," mention the title we removed, provide the hyperlink to said title, and provide your *calm* reasoning for why we should reconsider.

Our support team is backlogged, so it may take several days for them to respond. As we mention in the Terms of Service, we reserve the right to remove anything for any reason. That said, we will also try to make our decisions with care and prudence.

You might wonder if Smashwords should simply switch to a different payment provider. It’s not so easy. PayPal is designed into the wiring of the Smashwords platform. They run the credit card processing for our retail store, and they’re how we pay our authors and publishers. PayPal is also an extremely popular, trusted payment option for our customers. It is not feasible for us to simply switch to another provider, should such a suitable provider even exist, especially with so few days notice.

Please note our Terms of Service is subject to additional modifications as we work to bring Smashwords into compliance with PayPal requirements. Let’s hope today’s actions mark the limit of the slippery slope.

Significant gray area remain. Erotica is still permitted, though if authors try to push the limits of what’s permitted, we risk further clamping down. Please be responsible. Don’t go there. If you’re going to push the limits, push the limits of great writing, not the limits of legality.

Thank you for assisting our compliance efforts on such short notice. We know these decisions will be upsetting to some of our authors and publishers, and for that we apologize. We do believe, however, that these decisions will place us on a stronger footing to represent the best interests all indie authors and publishers from here forward.

Best wishes,

Mark Coker

P.S. Please contact our support team for inquiries regarding this change in our Terms of Service by clicking the "comments/questions" link at the top of any page at Smashwords. If your inquiry regards a specific title, please include the hyperlink to the book page of that specific title.

About Nate Hoffelder (9943 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:He's here to chew bubble gum and fix broken websites, and he is all out of bubble gum. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills at the drop of a hat. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.

77 Comments on Smashwords Succumbs to Censorship

  1. Why does PayPal even care?
    They just provide back end services.
    I could see politicians and morality-mongers going after Smashwords itself but is who out there is going after PayPal?
    I did a quickie online search but other than governments pressuring them to cut of WikiLeaks didn’t find much.
    Anybody else besides Smashwords squeal yet?

    • This is not the first time that Coker has engaged in censorship. While it’s easy to blame PayPal there’s dirt on his own hands and has censored other authors under the cloak of the Smashwords terms of service.

      • Can you back up that accusation with actual facts?

        • His letter details stuff that Smashwords has not permitted before. This is more like an expansion.

          Also, the first amendment pertains to expression not being interfered with by the government, but it doesn’t say a person or group must sell that packaged expression.

          A few of us have listed ALL free books released at Amazon on a given day and included all the Erotica titles, which link to the covers and descriptions, but found that many readers want an area where people opt to see the covers and titles, especially with their children reading lists and product pages with them. Some titles, even, are particularly gross. Many of us are in favor of opt-in areas.

    • This may be dollar censorship not morality censorship. In any civil suit the lawyers go after the deep pockets. So… Some pedophile with a large collection of erotica…has no money… The lawyers then go after anyone associated with the sicko…any company without an enforced TOS against pedophilia will soon be defending themselves in a courtroom with a jury who sees the victim everyday and thinks “How can people make money on this stuff and not be liable for the damage it causes?”
      The morality police is just a jury of peers.

  2. A true threat to freedom of speech, no doubt.

    But it does amuse me to think of outraged moralists fervently reading these books under the guise of “finding filth that is destroying the fabric of our society” etc.

    Unlike them I just don’t read the stuff. They are obviously scouring the internet in the hopes of finding something reprehensible to read.

    So who are truly the sick puppies?

    • Judgments aside, who has the *time* to go trolling for that stuff?
      It’s not as if its being promoted anywhere as actively as Viagra or yeast-infection meds which can be pretty explicit themselves. There’s plenty of more visible stuff out there for the Puritans to exercise their outrage over.

  3. American Taliban

  4. “or any other form of non-consensual violence against another person – is prohibited.”

    Umm… that seems a little excessive. Given the context, I suspect he means sexual violence. But that’s not what he’s written.

  5. PayPal and any private company has the same 1st Amendment rights as the rest of us, and freedom of expression means the right to both say what one wants and NOT say what one doesn’t want. So, if PayPal decides not to engage in transactions around content that they find objectionable, it’s very much within their rights.

    Only government can censor, because only government can use force. Government can create laws making it a crime to express certain ideas, and of course censorship is one of the classic signs of a dictatorship. And so it’s important not to confuse the actions of private citizens (as individuals or as owners of companies) with those of government–and, if government were to come in an force PayPal to fund these transactions, then it would be infringing on PayPal’s 1st Amendment rights just as surely as it would if it prohibited a certain kind of speech.

    It’s an important question as to whether or not some politician or government agency put pressure on PayPal, and if that’s the case then I can understand the outrage. Otherwise, I think it’s simply part of living in a free society, which doesn’t guarantee that everyone will agree with you and make your expression possible.

    • Which is why I was asking.
      Do remember that Paypal is not doing the selling themselves; they’re just moving money from one account to another without regard for what is moving beyond.
      It is one thing for Walmart to say we won’t stock CDs with explicit lyrics or X-rated DVDs and another for them to say another business that buys stuff from them can’t.
      There is a degree of separation already in place between Smashwords and PayPal and eBay (the owner of PayPal) is crossing that line to tell Smashwords how to run their business.
      That is… troubling.

      • Isn’t Paypal’s stance financial only, in that the recharges or problems involved in people getting angry about unexpected violent erotica causes too many added transactions (refunds, etc) is not wanted by them?

        Sticky but some would rightly say slippery-slope area…

    • I suppose in a free market this is nothing but opportunity. I’m sure this news is a brick n’ mortar adult bookstores’ wet dream.

    • Mark, I’m going to crossover from some tweets you sent.

      This isn’t private choice. If Smashwords decided (on their own) to not carry the content because they found it icky, that would be one thing. But what we have here is one company pressuring another, and that is an entirely separate matter. Paypal is controlling Smashwords second hand, and that arguably crosses the line into censorship.

      • As I responded in Twitter: PayPal can’t stop Smashwords from publishing the works. They can only stop Smashwords from using PayPal. All Smashwords has to do, if they want to continue publishing the works, is to choose a different way of accepting payment. And if the authors want to continue writing these works for sale, then they have to find someone else willing to publish them. That’s not censorship any more than me choosing not to BUY these works is censorship.

        • Paypal has quite practically a monopoly. With such comes a certain responsibility on par with other bodies of like might, governments for instance.

          Smashwords’ whole payment system is based on Paypal (stupid move, but it is), Paypal did not simply state “either stop using us or take off certain content”, they said “we will freeze your funds already on our accounts if you do not comply”. It’s easy to tell the difference here. By the way, it appears Bookstrand’s funds WERE frozen and held hostage by Paypal.

          So kindly cease your rose-coloured dreams of a free market which solves its own problems in an ethical manner and Paypal has its rights. They held a double-barrelled, loaded gun at ARe ad Smashword’s head and in Bookstrand’s case the barrels were smoking, the shot fired already. That is blackmail, plain and simple and by these means it OF COURSE is censorship!

      • Consider what you’re saying: that PayPal should continue to engage in transactions that they find objectionable. Why, exactly?

        • I answered that in the post. Go read the Voltaire quote again.

          • You’re misunderstanding Voltaire here. I, too, would fight for anyone’s right to free speech–but I would fight for everyone’s rights, authors, publishers, _and_ PayPal. It’s only government that can infringe on free speech, because only it can use force. And that’s what I’m trying to prevent, because if we blur the line between government censorship and private actions, then that sure won’t result in less government censorship.

            PayPal can’t censor–they can’t stop someone from writing something, or from publishing it. All PayPal can do is stop someone from using their system to pay for it. That is simply NOT censorship. That’s discretion. Nobody has a right to use PayPal, any more than PayPal has a right to people using their service. PayPal can’t stop Smashwords or anyone else from using a different payment method and publishing whatever they want. PayPal’s influence only extends to their own property, and no further.

            Consider when MTV refused to play that Madonna video back in the day for being too racy. They didn’t “censor” Madonna. She was free to make the video, and to get it played by anyone who wanted to play it (I think maybe VH1 ended up broadcasting it). She could have put it on VHS and sold it via direct mail. Whatever. And if nobody wanted to broadcast or purchase her video, then her rights wouldn’t have been infringed any more than anyone else’s who makes a video and can’t get anyone to buy it.

            But government could have passed a law prohibiting the very production of the video, or of the recording of the song it was based on, or the playing of the video on “public” airwaves, or whatever. Hell, government could have made it illegal to _watch_ the video. We need to distinguish between people controlling their own property according to their own consciences, and government using force to control what people say. If not, then nobody will bat an eye when government comes along and forces MTV to play the video–thus destroying their right to free speech.

            These authors are NOT having their rights infringed here, neither legally nor morally. If Smashwords doesn’t want to publish their stuff, then they’re free to get it published elsewhere. If nobody else wants to publish it, then they’re free to make their own Web sites and offer their books for sale there. If nobody buys it–well, that’s the nature of the beast. But they remain free to write what they want, Smashwords is free to publish what they want, and PayPal is free to finance it or not. Only government can change that equation.

          • Mark, I’m with you on this issue, completely.

            Let’s try a thought experiment that will separate the sheep from the goats in this thread.

            PayPal chooses not to fund transactions involving the sale of firearms over the Internet, thus inhibiting the free exercise of the Second Amendment, held by the Supreme Court to apply to individuals and, as one of the Bill of Rights, no less important than freedom of speech.

            Which of the censorship-screamers would leap into that breach, do you think?

          • @Mark: Yes, in an ideal (i.e., imaginary) world, Smashwords could easily find a payment system other than PayPal, and self-publishing authors could easily find a distributor other than Smashwords.

            Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where these companies have near-monopoly status. Perhaps as a result of this kerfuffle, alternative options for self-published erotica authors will arise. Perhaps not.

            When companies have monopoly or near-monopoly status, they ought to be held to stricter standards than “hey, it’s a free country; they can do whatever they want.” Imagine if, in the days of the Bell Telephone monopoly, the CEO of Bell had gotten out of bed one morning and said, “You know, I think only white people should have telephones from now on.”

        • Because paypal is NOT SELLING BOOKS. It’s effecting a digital transaction of monies between the buyer and the seller of absolutely legal product.

          That it has inserted itself into the process in this way should scare you. Don’t let the ‘smut’ aspect of it distract you from the fact that they could easily decide not to process sales on political material they disagreed with or only transact sales on certain brands they had financial interests in. They could literally manipulate markets to their hearts content, by picking and chosing which payments they process.

          You are missing the point of a fundamental flaw in the way we have allowed monetary flow on the internet to evolve.

          This is like walking up to a bank telling, asking to withdraw some money from your account, and being asked what you plan on spending it on and having your withdrawal slip refused because the bank doesn’t like your taste in clothing.

      • The fundamental question remains: why does Paypal care?
        Never mind the censorship issue, this is a service provider trying to dictate a customer’s business model.
        It’s like a cash register company telling a retailer they need to stop selling booze or they will pull the cash registers.
        Or a tire company telling a car maker they can’t sell two-seaters.
        Everybody doing business with PayPal should be evaluating their relationship and looking for alternatives.
        Google (payments) is probably licking their chops.

    • Companies have policies, Mark, not opinions. People have opinions, and while I understand that the question has been distorted in the US, companies are not people.

  6. Phenomenally irksome. But who the hell does one complain to? Start a petition against censorship?

    • I think it’s important to maintain the distinction between true censorship, i.e., government using force to prohibit contrary or unpopular opinions (e.g., sending people to the gulag, or worse, for publicly opposing a government policy), and the actions of private citizens in controlling their own property.

      If the owners of PayPal don’t want to be involved with transactions involving content that they personally find objectionable, then they _should_ exercise their free speech rights and withdraw from them. And Smashwords is making the economic decision to continue to do business with PayPal under these new terms–which is Smashwords’ own exercise of their rights. Authors aren’t prohibited from writing what they want and selling it. They’re just no longer able to do so using Smashwords. And, importantly, nobody has a right to a venue for expressing their opinion–nobody else should be forced to publish works they disagree with, and I’m happy for that. For example, if some neo-Nazi writes a book calling for the extermination of Jews, and nobody wants to publish it, then that’s just fine with me. That’s not censorship, but rather people making their own choices in a free society.

      So I think it’s a good idea to reserve the word “censorship” for when it really matters. As long as we’re free to speak, then we have a chance to influence things politically. Once government engages in censorship, which is the complete prohibition of speech across ANY venue, with imprisonment or death as the consequence, then that’s when we’re really in trouble. If you want to express your disagreement with PayPal, then by all means, do so. But just use the right terms, otherwise we’ll have government stepping in and really infringing on peoples’ rights.

      • Yes, fine; maintain a distinction from true censorship. But don’t put up a smoke screen either.

        Look at what’s happening. Paypal is just processing payments, kind of like a phone company carries phone calls. And Paypal is applying bullying and intimidation tactics dictating to a publisher of BOOKS what content those books can have. Not even photographs or some “illegal” content — just WORD! And not just once, but at least twice with Smashwords and Bookstrand. It may not be classic censorship if you insist, but the effect is pretty much the same. They’re effectively forcing these publishers to submit to their policing of literary content, or risk revocation of payment services. To an online publisher, payment services are obviously life-blood, so obviously they’re going to bend over and take it from the bully. It’s sad to see these spineless publishers cave in without at least a big display of indignation. Today maybe it’s books mentioning incest or whatever. And tomorrow what? Gayness? Depictions of abortion? Non-christian literature?

        • Sadly, Smashwords was founded when Mark Coker could not get his book published the “traditional” way. He wasn’t the first epublisher, but he gave freedom to the people his company allowed them to publish and also gave them some of the highest returns, which may still be the case.

          Are we back to square one when a faceless corporation, with no real connection or interest in writing or the arts can block writers and visual artists and their customers? (Many artists trying to earn a living as freelancers have had their accounts confiscated by PayPal who is happy to take their funds owed to them when they shut down an account). This is a thought I think all the creative types should be considering. Did indie ebooks as a medium for expression just get set back by 5-10 years?

      • cen·sor·ship/?sens?r?SHip/
        The practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.

        THIS IS CENSORSHIP. At it’s most basic, THIS is censorship. No where in that definition was there a requirement for it to be by the government. Paypal is officially making it illegal to publish these kinds of books on online publishers that use them. And that is censorship.
        And while we’re on this, do YOU know any other widely known and trusted online payment processors? No? Didn’t think so. Paypal has been around for a damn decade (at least), and it’s well dug into the market. It’s difficult for new businesses like that to get a foot in the door because almost EVERYONE uses paypal. Facebook? Paypal. Smashwords? Paypal. Varied online bill paying organizations even offer a paypal feature.
        And freezing their accounts? These people would not only be unable to pull money that came from sales to pay the writers, they’d also be unable to maintain their website. So no matter how you slice this with paypal’s apparent freedom to bully people with it’s own ideals, that’s what it is. They’re bullying, and they’re censoring.

  7. I believe PayPal’s objection is they’re afraid some loud-mouthed group is going to start a big campaign accusing them of “enabling/supporting” this kind of literature which face it, even when you feel obligated to defend it on free speech grounds, strikes the “queasies” nerve in most people.

    They’re envisioning one of those nasty Fox News-ish lead ins like “PayPal, a subsidiary of Ebay, was accused today of encouraging incest and beastiality…”, you know right after the story on how Obama signed a pact with Satan.

    PayPal has always had numerous terms of use in its user agreement prohibiting many kinds of transactions for just such a reason.

    I suspect one or two people of a censorial nature stumbled across this work, saw PayPal was the payment system and decided to stir up some trouble.

    Short of adbandonning the most commonly used e-payment system in the world, I don’t think Smashwords has any choice in the matter.

    • And, the very fact that PayPal managed to create the most commonly used e-payment system in the world shouldn’t mean that they should now be forced to support speech that they find objectionable. Being successful doesn’t mean giving up one’s rights.

      • Actually, yes it does. It means EXACTLY that. See my post above.

      • Who is this magic ‘they’?

        Do ‘they’ encompass everyone who makes up the company? Or just a few in the board of directors? Why should ‘they’ have an opinion about what other people do, which has no bearing on ‘they’ and ‘their’ lives.

        What connection do ‘they’ have to a book that ‘they’ neither wrote, will read, or will deliver, when ‘they’ are only the bag men for a transaction that does not involve them in any direct way whatsoever.

        Yes, this is about censorship, which doesn’t require guns or government power anymore. All you need is the ability to cut someone out of the chain, and there you are. Can’t buy, can’t sell, and PayPal in their infinite wisdom is apparently able to decide who can go suck it and who can play.

        I can see why they get away with it, too. In America, he with the gold makes the rules.

  8. Wimpy PayPal: authors withdraw from Smashwords and go to Amazon. I know I won’t buy any more from Smashwords for being even more wimpy than PayPal.

    My free choice.

    • Good luck with that. Amazon is an even bigger censor.

      • Nate,
        Where did you get that. Even bigger? The only thing I’ve seen that they censored, after a HUGE unanimous outcry in their forums is not to sell a book by a guy who spoke of the love of sex with the very underaged and was under indictment from what I remember. Smashwords has that as a No-No, themselves.

        Books with father-daughter sex and on violent sex are released often on Amazon and released along w/ the others, and now book-listers on blogs and forums merely put asterisks in the title to keep peace but the books are linked and people can buy them and no one’s censoring those books.

    • *THAT* is shooting yourself in the foot.

      Amazon has shown a willingness to censor and buckle at the slightest pressure and to take down material they arbitrarily deem “objectionable” without notice. Amazon is known to squeeze distributors and ignore its own contracts when they think they can get away with it. And anyone who thinks that authors aren’t going to get squeezed on royalty rates once Amazon clearly dominates ebooks is not looking to the future (and is ignoring Amazon’s past behavior). Nor will Amazon tell you which books have DRM and which do not.

      Amazon has a great ebook system at this point…but they are not the savior of authors who write controversial material.

      I think Mark and Smashwords are in a very difficult decision and they made the right choice under the circumstances.

      I think these authors would be better served to work together to establish their own erotica-specific storefront and find a payment system that will handle their payments.

  9. I don’t see this as censorship: for years, in Britain, W. H. Smith (biggest newsagents in the country) refused to stock pornographic magazines. That was their right — the punters just went elsewhere.

    Smashwords’s close integration with PayPal is now looking like a mistake, and it is that which lies at the heart of this. Never a good idea to make your business dependent on the whims of some third party: what would happen if PayPal itself suddenly collapsed?

    • Or suppose Paypal decided that anything GLBT related was offensive?

      Or wait – what if Paypal decided that anything that promoted non-Christian religions was offensive? Or maybe anything that promoted a particular political party? Or touched on a hot button issue like abortion?

      When you hand any one company the ability to control YOUR company, you hand them the keys to your business. If I was Mark Coker, I’d be out looking for a new payment provider right now.

      It’s not about erotica. It’s not even about censorship. It’s about an outside corporation stepping in to push their own views on his company. Not a good thing.

  10. I saw an article which suggested this had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with money. Something about the credit card companies charging PayPal if people chose to return books of “questionable” content, so PayPal prefers not to take this risk by preventing Smashwords from selling them.

    Here’s the link to that article:

  11. If the people at PayPal feel that pornography at Smashwords is wrong, they are entitled not to propagate it further. Smashwords probably took a look at how much revenue that their pornography takes in compared to the amount of money that having PayPal generates. If their is a true market for the types of pornography that is now being omitted from Smashwords, then it is an opportunity for someone else to step up the plate and take over.

    • One, it’s not pornography. And two, this is like the power company cutting off an adult bookstore because they disapprove of the content sold.

      • Actually it is.

        World English Dictionary
        pornography (p???n??r?f?) — n
        1. writings, pictures, films, etc, designed to stimulate sexual excitement
        2. the production of such material

        Using the term erotica, is just one of the ways to deem it less than what it is. Also the areas that they are talking about are the areas that the average person on the street would probably find objectionable.

        My point isn’t that I am morally against any of it. I really could care less. It is that if there is such a market for this, there is someone that can and probably will fill the plate.

      • Erotica is just a polite term for pornography. There is no difference.

        It’s just that the term “erotica” is polite enough to enable the product to be marketed to people who publicly disparage “porn” as disgusting.

        • @Bill Smith

          there are distinct definitions of both erotica and pornography. You might also note that the larger audience of readers is female as are the writers and that this action by PayPal can be seen as an afront on women’s rights and fantasies. Romance as a genre blends into erotica, but where, what do the Men and Women on the PayPal and Ebay board of directors draw the line on the page as to what’s acceptable to them?

          You all can come up with your own list of books and creative works that PayPal can theoretically ban from their payment networks. They WILL shut down a outlet’s account if only a small percentage of what they sell does not meet their policies.

          In theory, PayPal could shut down the Metropolitan Opera because it is promoting incest in the form of Wagner’s Ring cycle which has sibling procreation in it. People pay and see those operas for pleasure, which is a no-no.

          Don’t forget that Ebay gave us Meg Whitman who also spent money fighting for Proposition 8 in California which sought to deny marriage status to same sex couples. So you know what might be banned next.

          To those quibling over terminology, this is far more important than that, you shouldn’t be wasting time over definitions. We have built our dystopian society, it would appear, where a few mostly white and wealthy corporate elite can control what we read and write by effectively controlling distribution. What will they ban next?


      • No, because in most places there is only one power company, so cutting off the adult bookstore leaves them no options. There are other payment companies that Smashwords can use. Difficult though it might be to transition, alternatives exist.

        • If smashwords and/or erotic novelists have alternatives to paypal what are those alternatives? Do let us in on the secret. Others say paypal is a virtual monopoly. What is the reason you don’t think that is so?

  12. Everyone needs to read the entire letter. They do not object to general erotica, only those areas that represent illegal behaviors in most places which could be construed as being party to a crime.

    “Their hot buttons are bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica.”

    From Mark Coker’s statements, it looks like their terms of service already banned most of these things, they just needed to clarify their position.

    “I don’t want to be a party to anyone enjoying animals for sexual gratification, for the same reason we’ve never allowed pedophilia books. I don’t want to publish it, sell it, or distribute it.”

    “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.”

    Incest seems to be the only area where Smashwords disagrees with Paypal, as long as it’s incest between adults.

    There are other processors out there, but it would take a lot of time and money to replace Paypal and there’s no guarantee that the other processors have a more open policy.

  13. I have to agree with Mark on this one: PayPal is simply exercising its option not to be associated with this type of material. They’re not dictating how Smashwords run its business. It’s simply laying out the terms by which Smashwords must abide if they want to use PayPal. If Smashwords don’t want to abide, they can keep selling the material in question; they just need to use a different payment system. Smashwords have decided to remove the material in question. They weren’t forced to. To call it “censorship” is inaccurate and a gross overreaction.

  14. PayPal’s argument seems to run that rape, incest, and bestiality are illegal and therefore they won’t tolerate working with a site that houses them.

    The fact that fiction, by literal definition IS NOT REAL aside, what happens when they next declare that because homosexuality, or anal sex, or BDSM are illegal (which they are, in some countries) then they aren’t going to tolerate transactions that include them, either.

    What about stories with women who vote and drive and use birth control, or stories that feature animal cruelty? Those things are illegal too, in some places. What about stories with murder? Stories with serial killers? What about things that are technically legal in some areas but shouldn’t be, like whale hunting? What about things that are legal but controversial, like abortion? What about things that are legal but PayPal just doesn’t like (a title called “Censorship by PayPal: Why PayPal Sucks”, for example), does it get to refuse to allow Smashwords to publish those books too?

    This is where the slippery slope leads. Because yes, rape sucks. Incest sucks. Bestiality sucks. No one will argue with that, and no one (or almost no one) wants or expects to experience them in real life. But this is FICTION, people, not the real thing. Deciding that you’re going to get these stories banned from a site is moralistic censorship, pure and simple, and because it’s gross and icky and people aren’t going to argue because they’re embarrassed to say stop. Giving into a threat like this–which is essentially blackmail–does nothing to protect your writers and does everything to empower their attackers.

    And by the way, who the hell thinks it makes sense that essentially an entity functioning as a bank has the right to decide what they will and won’t tolerate me purchasing? My Mastercard doesn’t care if I’m buying lunch or buying condoms or buying a cock and ball cage with spikes and electrodes from my local pornshop, I just run the card through and it transfers over the money.

    Every writer on Smashwords, whether they write incest/rape/bestiality fic or not, needs to think very carefully about what is happening here, and decide what it means to them that Smashwords has shown themselves willing to pander to a third party company and reject and remove content based on external pressure.

  15. Reminds me of the controversy in the late 1950s and early 1960s especially involving D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” In the early 1950’s Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” was banned in numerous locales, as was Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and let us not forget the bannings of “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

    Perhaps the lesson to remember here is that taught by Pastor Martin Niemoller, who is said to have said:

    “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    Authors and readers should protest by simply refusing to make PayPal transactions and if they have PayPal accounts, by closing them noting the reason why.

    • It is a good thing that people are talking about it then.

      I won’t protest against PayPal because of this though since I see PayPal’s point and apparently other people do too. But, being aware of what has happened, keeps us vigilant about what PayPal does in the future.

    • @ Richard Adin: I have long loved that quote!

      I dumped Paypal years ago when they agreed to process (by doing so) a payment I did not give my consent to. Perhaps the merchant only processed through Paypal, but their site gave the option of selecting a credit card directly, which I did. As a result, the money was taken directly out of my checking account – which I did not want. I will not deal with Paypal.

      I’ve never been to this site before – I guess Paypal is the only method of payment here?

      Sounds like Paypal has Mark by the shorthairs.

  16. It’s not only erotica. In Germany PayPal tried the same with companies selling goods from Cuba:

  17. You might argue that Paypal has the *right* to censor, as it isn’t a govt entity. Yet, booksellers, especially ones Paypal initially signed up, and then gave them a moment’s notice to censor their libraries, or risk financial ruin – might have other claims against Paypal, such as unfair business practices.

    Ebay and Paypal are owned by the same entity, and if you look on Ebay, there are books for sale that fall into the banned category. A good attorney might show Paypal is crossing a legal line by their actions.

    • I agree with you, when is EBay going to inform and enforce upon their customers that they cannot sell books with content that EBay prohibits? Or sex toys that may be used for incestuous or bestiality purposes?
      Does Paypal monitor ALL transactions to make SURE that they are not being used to pay for illicit items which contravene their terms and conditions? I doubt it.
      These big businesses are hypocrites of the most enormous size.
      They have chosen some easy targets with no doubt a lot of cash in their paypal accounts.
      In MY opinion the habit Paypal have of keeping the money in the accounts of businesses and persons banned by them amounts to grand THEFT. They are unapologetic thieves who steal from customers in the most blatant fashion imaginable and no one appears to have been able to stop their theft of innocent people’s money.
      I wanted Amazon to pay me via Paypal… now I don’t want anything to do with Pay pal. I’m glad I don’t have a lot of money in my paypal account.

  18. First of all, Mark Coker did NOT send the memo out to all all authors, publishers and agents using Smashwords as your post states. I am a “smashwords” author and I didn’t get the memo. Per the actual wording of the email, it was sent to writers and publishers whose work is listed as “erotica.” The prohibitions seem to be aimed at work containing bestiality, incest, underage sex, etc. etc that is meant to arouse readers. But what about all the books that contain this and more that are not considered erotica. Let’s look for a moment at a book like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which contains child rape and murder? Or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in which a child is raped? Many crime thrillers contain grisly scenes of sadistic murder. I suppose Thomas Harris’ works would be prohibited from Smashwords if he chose to self-publish. Is the key here the subject matter or the author’s intent? As for Last Exit to Brooklyn, I’m sure that would be banned by Paypal.

    Full disclosure, I have a novel on Smashwords that is not listed as erotica. Reviewers have no problem placing it in “literary fiction.” No one has suggested it’s pornographic. However, the content explicitly or implicitly violates many of the new guidelines. I have not been asked to remove the content. Should it be removed, it wouldn’t cost me much in sales as I make very little from Smashwords or its affiliates. Almost all my e-book sales come through the Kindle Store. Amazon, thankfully, is not taking on these same draconian policies. Coker can make his own business decisions, but I can’t imagine that giving Paypal this kind of control is a good one. He needs to be able to make and receive payment another way.

    • Actually, Marion you may not have had personal negative experience with Amazon, yet, but Selena Kitt and many others have. Here’s Part 2 of her post of the situation, scroll down the page for Part one to find out what Amazon did when she tried to set up an Amazon Payments Business Account, thinking it would be a non-Paypal alternative, only to have it dropped a day later because:

      “As stated in our Acceptable Use Policy the following product or services are prohibited from using Amazon Payments:

      Adult Oriented Products and Services – includes pornography (including child pornography), sexually explicit materials (in all media types such as Internet, phone, and printed materials), dating services, escort services, or prostitution services.”

      Plenty more where that came from, look at the Kindle Boards posts as well. Good for you that your books are being sold and you are able to profit from your work.

  19. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This quote, widely attributed to Voltaire, is probably apocryphal.

    It was actually used to describe his position by a biographer, Beatrice Hall. She wrote that, after a (friend? acquaintance?) had been harmed, he now felt that way – using the quote as an illustration. So, he isn’t known to have said it, but there’s a reason it’s attributed to him.

  20. One solution is not to “sell” the questionable erotica ebooks but to offer it for free and then let the customer provide a voluntary payment or donation directly to the author. I don’t see how paypal could block that. Of course, that prevents the sales from being recorded over at the Amazon side…..

  21. Gosh, I just bought five books by Edward St. Aubyn when the fifth in the series was reviewed five days ago by the New York Times. They said this fifth book “is the final installment of a remarkable cycle of novels chronicling the life of Mr. St. Aubyn’s alter ego …”

    Remarkable? That was enough to send me to Amazon to buy them all. The first book describes the rape of a man’s 5-year-old son and refers to his rape of his wife. The reader then follows the 5-year-old boy and his mother through their lives. Smashwords couldn’t sell these (remarkable, I agree) books but Amazon can?

    I bought “The White Body of Evening” by Andrew McCann, an Australian, some time ago and read it on my Kindle. Excellent piece of writing. Still available on Amazon. Incest is very much part of the story, yet Amazon continues to sell the book. If I understand this thread correctly, Smashwords could not.

    Is that because Amazon’s the 800-pound gorilla?

    • Not classified as erotica, though really classification means nothing. The rape incest scenes in any number of books can serve as titllation in the right (wrong?) reader’s hands. But as always sex is bad, graphic murder is fine, fine, fine.

    • As I understand it Amazon have never made any use of Paypal who is, in this instance, the initiator of the demand made to and several other ebook retailers – remove these books as per this list of objections or I close your transaction account with Paypal in 4 days and confiscate all your cash as well. A gun to the head with the exciting addition of Russian roulette as if – no doubt they will – Paypal employees then go through the catalogues of these e-tailer’s stores and find something they still object to – they will then do just that anyhow.

  22. Drop Paypal and go with

  23. “Note this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form. Sorry I need to clarify it that way, but we don’t want to see bestiality erotica masquerading as paranormal romance.”

    What about all those vampire and werewolf novels? Do they have to shift back to their human forms before “getting it on?”


  24. And why doesn’t Smashwords simply change service providers to one that won’t censor their content??

  25. I respect Mark Coker, really, I do. And I think Paypal made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, but when I read a sentence like this: “Note this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form. Sorry I need to clarify it that way, but we don’t want to see bestiality erotica masquerading as paranormal romance.” … I have to giggle.

    This is just ridiculous on soooo many levels, or would be if it didn’t all hinge right now on the word “erotica.” Once Paypal starts going after content regardless of category, we are all up a creek.

  26. Oh, by the way, in case anyone is looking for Paypal alternatives, Google Checkout isn’t what you want. See their policies: You can’t use them to buy “adult” goods or services either, including “literature”.

  27. I say boycott Paypal – they’re horrible to deal with as a businessperson and apparently they think they can dictate what people can read. I don’t care for companies trying to tell me what I can and cannot do – don’t like government doing that either.

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3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Let’s talk censorship « Eve's Blog
  2. Erotica Book Banning Roundup – Part 2, and Smashwords Bows Under Pressure | S. V. Rowle
  3. » PayPal sorgt für E-Book-Zensur: SmashWords muss Katalog säubern

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