It all began with a search for children’s books. I can picture it. A young mum wants her daughter to appreciate her father. What better way than a book! She types in to her search engine: Daddy Goes to the Zoo. And gets a self-published book about incest and bestiality. Sounds unlikely – but that apparently is exactly what happened.
Outrage ensued. Complaints were made. And the largest book store chain in England pulled e-books from their on-line stores. All e-books. By comparison, Kobo’s reaction seems modest: they sequestered all self-published books until they could verify that they didn’t have offending content. Writers – self-published ones at least – were outraged (there’s a lot of that going around). Censorship!, they said. My Rights!, they bellowed. While I feel sorry for those unfairly caught up in the sweep, I have to say: Pish posh.
In the United States, you can pretty much write anything you want and publish it, too. If someone objects, you can argue your First Amendment rights. There are few things, other than falsely yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre, that aren’t protected. This is not the case in most other democracies. For example, some things Americans say about race could get them prosecuted for ‘hate crimes’ in Canada. Things they say about their President could, if they said it about the Queen in England, get them charged with ‘sedition.’
So how could Kobo take such draconian actions? Because nothing about the First Amendment allows you to force other people to sell your writing in their store. People think that because Kobo is an on-line platform, it is something other than a store. It is instead a virtual square where enterprising writers go to hawk their wares, using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., as their megaphones. Sorry, no, it is a store. They are no more required by the First Amendment to carry your books than the local hardware store is force to carry assault rifles by the Second Amendment.
This has all come as a big shock to writers. Many of them believed – they had been told, even promised – that selling books was as easy as one, two, three. Upload, describe, publish! Then wait for the bucks to flow in. Well, mostly the bucks don’t flow in, but with a little effort you can soon be number one in your category of Young Adult Urban Dragon Fantasy Mysteries. If you give a bunch of books away.
Welcome to the vagaries of the marketplace. I may sound a little glib, even dismissive, but actually, I know how hard many self-published writers work at getting their books into the hands of readers. Whether they have boxes of books or a few produced by POD technologies or only e-books, I see them in dealers’ rooms in SF Cons or hear from them on Twitter or on Facebook or LinkedIn. Many are my colleagues; some are my friends. They decided to go a route I, obviously, don’t strongly support but they all had good reasons and I respect them for it. And wish them well.
You might think I view them as competitors – the way convenience stores compete to sell cans of Coke – and I would if we sold the same books. We don’t. The books I sell are a particular style and by particular writers. Each one has its own audience. Someone who buys Paula Johanson’s Tower in a Crooked Wood is unlikely to pick up Edward Willett’s Right to Know. So, if I saw self-publishers as competitors, I’d have to see myself as one.
(As an aside, that is the one thing I wish self-published writers would grasp: your book is not for everyone. If I don’t like vampire books, I am very unlikely to like your vampire book. And if you do harangue me into buying it and I don’t like it (fairly predictable), I may stop liking you too. And since word-of-mouth is the most important factor in selling books, you don’t want to piss off a talkative guy like me.)
So what is the solution? Presumably Kobo is going to want to ensure that they get books back on the shelf as soon as possible. They make no money if they don’t sell books. They’ve already given a pass to virtually any traditional publisher. All of Bundoran Press’ e-books are available, for example. I expect most self-published writers will be back on-line in a few weeks. It’s not as if they have to read every book; they’ll search metadata (those key words people put into their book descriptions which lead to this problem in the first place: ‘daddy,’ ‘zoo’) for troublesome clues and then do a quick scan of texts for offending words or phrases (the advantage of digital publishing). If someone has a lot of books, they may get a random sample examined.
Alternatively, self-published writers could set up their own selling platforms and use all their efforts to drive traffic there. Good luck with that.
Will Kobo and others’ efforts get rid of all pornography? (And, yes, it is not erotica – lame-ass sex between consenting putative adults – but pornography involving children and innocent animals.) Probably not, but it will push it back into the shadows. But if porno-lit keeps turning up, more drastic action may be taken. Like eliminating meta-data from book descriptions. And that will really make selling your books hard.
Welcome to my world.
I was surprised this weekend to see a quarter page advertisement in the Globe and Mail for a book published by a micro-press. I have no idea what that costs (I find rate sheets somewhat incomprehensible) but I know it isn’t cheap. A small press that, according to their web-site, doesn’t pay advances or even, in some cases, royalties, and negotiates directly with stores for non-returnable book sales can’t have a large advertising budget. Did the publisher pay or did the writer? And why?
It may well be that big advertising campaigns do work – though I note that most other ads were for very big-name authors or for multiple titles and were less about books than about events: Alice Munro’s Nobel win, Bill Bryson’s fall tour, or Read For the Cure. I’d love to know the results of this effort.
In the meantime, I’m always trying new ways to market my books – book reviews, blog tours, marketing budgets, in-store events. Some work, some don’t but the more I do, the better sense I get of where to put my time and money.
Any and all suggestions are welcome.