Infinite Shades of Grey: The Promise and Peril of Self-Publishing in the UK

The following is a visual and audio presentation (with full text included) of a talk that Michael Tamblyn, Chief Content Officer at Kobo gave at FutureBook Conference.

Michael Tamblyn, Chief Content Officer, Kobo

November 21, 2013

FutureBook Conference, London, UK

“You learn what kind of bookseller you are when confronted with a book that is both well-written and deeply obscene. Sadly, that almost never happens.” – October 14, 2013

“Is it bestiality if he turns from a dolphin into a human while they’re having sex?” – October 14, 2013

I’m Michael Tamblyn, Chief Content Officer of Kobo. This is a long story and I have a short time to tell it all, so think of this as a haiku about self-publishing, its risks and rewards.

In some ways, the idea of self-publishing is like a dream. The ability to write your book, easily distribute it through retailers who are willing to make enormous investments in search and recommendations to help people find it, and reach an audience of millions of people who not only love to read but have declared that they are willing to pay to do so. It’s magic, really. It’s like some alternate reality version of the internet where writers actually get paid for writing. But it’s real. With real authors selling hundreds of thousands of copies. it is a major business for Kobo, with Kobo Writing Life authors representing 10-11% of unit sales globally and all self-published titles, including various aggregators representing 15% or more.

On October 12th, Kobo had a significant catalogue of self-published titles in the UK. Tens of thousands of authors and hundreds of thousands of titles, a thriving part of our UK business. Living the dream, as they say.

On October 14th, we had zero self-published titles available in the UK from zero authors and our 300-year-old retail partner had suspended their web presence.

Nine days later, it was back again. Almost all of it. What happened in between is part business case, part computer-science problem, an exploration of the challenges of gate-keeping vs. technological empowerment, curation vs. censorship. But really it’s about what it means to be a retailer, when a retailer is also a publisher, also a distributor, and all books are digital.

Our self-publishing catalog is made up of hundreds of thousands of titles.

It’s mostly fiction.

Of that fiction, much is romance.

Of that romance, some we have come to call “active romance”.

Kobo, like all retailers with a self-publishing arm, has a Terms of Use agreement for content that restricts the illegal and some topics that if not illegal, we don’t especially want in the store. Some authors, and some publishers using the self-publishing service, decided to ignore them.

When they do that, this is what happens.

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The result was, starting sometime on October we started to play something that seemed at times like the world’s least pleasant literary video game. It’s called “Eroticagate” and it starts like this.

  1. You have several million titles.
  2. An unknown number of them contain sexual content, suggestive words or adult themes.
  3. Of those, a much much smaller number have sexual content that is against your Terms of Use.
  4. For both 2 and 3, some are well-labeled and categorized. Some are not.

Some are covered with highly descriptive keywords. Some are not. Some are mistakenly put into categories they shouldn’t be by inexperienced authors not familiar with subject codes. Some are intentionally put there to boost search results and the possibility of discovery.

All of the books that breach your terms are self-published. But some are publishers who are using author tools. And if you dig further, who knows what else you’ll find from publishers large and small.

And this is how you play:

  • If you remove all titles, you don’t have a business.
  • If you remove any titles, some people will consider you a censor.
  • If you remove all titles with sexual content, you are a censor.
  • If you don’t remove the smaller number that contravene your Terms of Use, bad PR and damage to your brand continues.
  • Every book you remove creates an angry author.
  • Every author you remove has a Twitter account.
  • Every journalist wants to find the worst title possible.

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Authors of contravening content have every economic incentive to try and get their titles back up any way they can, resubmitting blocked books with new titles, submitting books with innocuous titles and then changing them afterwards.

And even so, fundamentally, you believe that erotica and sexual content should be available.

And there is a time limit. Until you have found everything that shouldn’t be there, your partner’s site stays down because they are a deeply beloved, respectable, publicly traded 300-year-old high street retailer.

You don’t really win, you only don’t lose. And only to the extent you learn from it.

Trying to answer all of those questions and deal with all of those constraints is how you end up with self-published titles removed from our catalogue for nine days.

Because you quickly realize that to change from allowing everything to allowing “anything other than everything” is a leap of both incredible difficulty and ethical hazard.

This is a digital business, right? It should be easier with computers. But trying to automate a search like this is very difficult. It casts a net too wide and screen out books that don’t have anything to do with erotica or adult books that we don’t have a problem with.

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Regardless of how it gets done, this becomes about making choices and enacting them. It has to be an act of curation. But can one ever curate a four million title database? Is it folly to think that you could? But at some point, if the answer is anything other than allowing everything , someone has to decide. The decision may be based on a book jacket or a title. It may be on the structure of an algorithm and what it catches. Or based on the content itself. Or all of the above. And it touches every single book.

You instantly find that you are working with nearly infinite shades of grey. A hundred thousand nuanced decisions. And it’s grey because some authors want to walk as close to the line as possible. They take pride or find commercial reward or see artistic merit in doing so.

And every decision has two kinds of risk. Let the wrong book pass and you have the risk of alienating customers or bad press or breaking the law… But also the other risk, the greater danger, the possibility, however vanishingly small, that the book you are filtering out is the next Tropic of Cancer or Justine or Lolita.

And over all of it, the fear that, using words like “brand risk” and “community standards”, you could take on the smooth and reasonable tone of the censor.

(Although, I think it’s fair to say that if Nabokov had decided to call it “Barely Legal Step-Daughter Fantasies, Vol 4″ instead of Lolita, he might have had a harder time of it.

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Publishers historically have no problem saying no to books. Bricks-and-mortar retailers too. It’s tradition. The time-honoured role of the gatekeeper. Never enough shelves. Only so many books that can be published. Lots of perfectly good reasons to say no.

But self-publishing is different. The natural promise of self-publishing is “yes, everything”. Whatever you can imagine. Whatever your story is. Whatever you think could be shared. However good or bad or tin-foil-hat-crazy or non-traditional or deviant or artistically groundbreaking. That’s part of the dream. And every book removed feels like a small step away from that, even if for the best of reasons. Even to the title that makes you lose your faith in humanity or throw up in your mouth.

At one point, we had people in half a dozen countries working around the clock trying to get books back in as fast as possible. A hundred bizarre conversations. Is it bestiality if it’s sex with a shape shifter? What if both participants are supernatural? What is the age of consent in each territory we sell in? Does it matter if the character is in a coma and everything that takes place is happening in a dream? Is this book in or out?

Over and over.

And so over the course of a few days, most books were restored to the catalog. Almost everything. But not absolutely everything. Some were clearly against our guidelines. Worse, some were perfectly fine, but tangled up in collections of other books requiring one-at-a-time manual review. No books were ever removed from user’s libraries, but a relatively small number of titles were removed from sale.

Most authors were understanding. Some were angry. Some were loud. And they should be. In the physical world, to make a book go away is a big deal — you have to burn it or seize it at the border or confiscate if from a shop in a public, visual, galvanizing spectacle. But to de-list, to deactivate, to change a one to a zero, is silent and banal. We should be loud and we should ask why. Authors should give us and every other ebook retailer a hard time when it happens. Because it is so so so much easier now to make something disappear.

We are immensely relieved that self-published books are back in our UK catalog. There is still lots of work going on, lots of work still to be done — safe searching, inbound filtering, review, conversations with vendors, outreach to authors.

And we have grown up a bit. When the answer is anything other than “we carry everything”, you have to take a hard look at the kind of bookseller you want to be. What it means to have that role. And we have decided that the right place for us is probably right at the point where it no longer feels comfortable. With a clear view to the edge of the line. And we will shift that line and evolve it.

Authors will push us, will challenge boundaries, will go as far as they can go. And they should. And we will continue to grow into our role of curator. Every ebook retailer now has to wrestle with this. I’m here because we are willing to do some of it out loud, to acknowledge that choices are always being made, and be thoughtful about what they mean. And we will wrestle with the danger and significance of saying “No.” And push always for, and appreciate the power and promise of saying “Yes”

Comments

  1. It’s really hard on the publishers part because they’re into business, involves money and reputation. This article sheds light on the Pros and cons on Kobos side. It’s like there’s no way out. I’ve learned so much from this, you just need to make a decision and stand by it.

  2. At last a reasonable and well thought out disscussion of a difficult subject.
    David Rory O’Neill.

  3. As an author and a publisher, we learned a valuable lesson from the WH Smith fiasco as well: Trust no distributor.

    A simple gatekeeper check, requiring a user to login and be age verified, in order to execute a search that would return or filter content marked as adult material was all that WH Smith needed to implement to be on the right side of UK law and have a defensible position in the press.

    And a simple script that identified miscategorized content along with a simple button for customers to flag adult content that was not appropriately marked as adult content would have put WH Smith in a position to provide feedback to its suppliers and correct their catalog with the help of their customers.

    Instead, WH Smith blamed independent authors.

    Keep in mind, this WH Smith in England – where there are sixty foot by thirty foot billboards selling “50 Shades of Grey” in the middle of train stations. This is WH Smith in England – where you can go in and buy the latest copies of whatever rubber fetish magazine you crave right next to the photography and art periodicals on the magazine rack. This is not some upstart book store. This is a retailer with supposedly hundreds of years of experience in uniting readers with the written word.

    Things just got worse when Kobo repeated the same nonsense. We have over 100 ebook titles available on Amazon. We have twice started down the extraordinarily painful process of publishing through Kobo. We had 19 of the first 50 uploaded and were testing promotion materials when suddenly they were gone.

    No warning. No notice. Kobo just vanished our content away. While we were running a fairly expensive – for us – marketing campaign. There were no explanations or apologies offered. Lies and deception were the primary defense against authors and publishers like ourselves demanding timeframes and information. Mark came out and made a speech about “barely legal” erotica without even searching Kobo to discover during the midst of a insane purge he was selling dozens of titles with those words in the name.

    Trust no distributor. Period.

    We did a review of our markets. Our free Smashwords title was distributed to Kobo and was never removed during the censorship binge. Ironic since it is not only part of the anthology series, it has the anthology series name in the title. The challenge with Smashwords is pricing control and distribution reporting.

    Our titles on Amazon do well, but we need to diversify because being a small fish in a very large ocean isn’t always the best strategy. At least Amazon hasn’t gone on a purge lately, but they have had their own issues with content in the past.

    And then we came back to Kobo Writing Life. No author page. No good way to link titles from promotional material. No consistent reporting (the Dashboard regularly shows numbers that don’t add up on the Dashboard itself). Bad communication. Failure to update the publishing documentation to accurately reflect changes in how ePUBs are generated from various formats. The list of technical problems is long enough before you even factor in Kobo’s hatred for their own writing community.

    When our titles came back from censorship purgatory in early December, we pushed forward with the remainder of the initial 50 ebooks already prepared for publication on KWL. The investment in time had already been made after all.

    Of course, search based links no longer work. Open any browser, set it to private mode so it doesn’t have a cookie, and go to any http://store.kobobooks.com/Search/Query?query=%5Binsert string] formatted URL. You’ll get the error.aspx even though that format is the documented and publicly published approach to get to any title. If you have already opened Kobo in the web browser you get a search results page, but even if you restricted the search to a specific book identifier, it now shows results including you competitors’ books.

    So we don’t promote Kobo. Kobo clearly doesn’t want us to. We can’t market effectively. Kobo never invested in making that possible with something as simple as an author’s page. And we definitely don’t trust that what is here today won’t be gone tomorrow. Because Kobo has already shown that they will arbitrarily remove anything from sale at any time without any rational reason given.

    In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcom Gladwell talks about Joanne Jaffe’s J-RIP program and the British Army deployment in Northern Ireland. It’s a discussion about the legitimacy of authority, and Malcolm shapes it as he chooses. But there are some interesting parallels shared with writers, publishers, and distributors.

    If writers and publishers cannot trust the legitimacy of distributors then they begin to weigh what their alternatives are. This has already happened between writers and publishers, hence the explosion of writers becoming publishers themselves. But distributors have escaped the pointy end of the stick because it’s generally presumed that large marketplaces are valuable.

    But what if large marketplaces are just murky waters where even simple measurements like actual book sales and calculated royalties are hard to come by. Amazon, much to its chagrin, has entire forums dedicated to conspiracy theorists who are convinced that they are not being fully credited for sales.

    And what if large marketplaces, specifically because they are large, can unpublish tens of thousands of authors and publishers at whim with no notice and no consequences. Kobo has just done their first test run, and my guess is that no matter how furious authors and publishers were, they are still hanging on waiting for their book to go soaring off the runway any time now so Kobo is still in the marketing plans.

    Events like these will remove the legitimacy and begin erasing the common wisdom around distributors hold on the marketplace. The tipping point hasn’t come yet, but removing titles without so much as a simple mass email destroys the faith that people have placed in distributors like Kobo. Comments made by executives who clearly haven’t done their fact checking are just icing on the cake. And lengthy delays providing rudimentary capabilities for authors to promote themselves on top of that is a bloody mess.

    I wish Kobo all the luck in the world navigating the changes going on all around us. But hey, I’ve got a vested interest. If I hadn’t spent time and money at the urging of my Canadian friends then I wouldn’t even be here today.

Trackbacks

  1. […] talk on erotica, self-publishing, and Kobo Writing Life. The full text, audio, and slides are now online. Have a listen. You’ll be forced to think about business, censorship, public perception, and […]

  2. […] and—with The Bookseller’s collaboration—the 13-minute video of his presentation. You’ll find it all here, very appropriately on the Kobo Writing Life […]

  3. […] and—with The Bookseller’s collaboration—the 13-minute video of his presentation. You’ll find it all here, very appropriately on the Kobo Writing Life […]

  4. […] svar på skandalen med självutgiven erotik tidigare under hösten. Hela föredraget går att läsa här, och är väl värt det. ”Is it still beastiality if the dolphin turns into a man halfway […]

  5. […] Michael Tamblyn of Kobo’s transcript or watch the video, “Infinite Shades of Grey: The Promise and Peril of Self-Publishing in the UK”, to learn why they pulled their catalog of self-published […]

  6. […] So Kobo had a dilemma, as their Chief Content Officer Michael Tamblyn described in his talk at Futurebook. […]

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