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    Online Booksellers Are Increasingly Afraid of Selling Smut

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    Screenshot via Amazon

    The ongoing controversy over smutty sex e-books has given rise to an interesting debate: How can online booksellers avoid harboring a hotbed of hardcore porn without resorting to overly sweeping censorship?

    To quickly recap: The internet recently discovered that there are a lot of awful, horribly offensive e-books being sold by major online retailers. Specifically, Kernel magazine published an exposé last week detailing the dark corner of Amazon's Kindle store that features adult novels about truly repulsive topics like incest rape, pedophilia, and sexual abuse.

    Understandably, an uproar ensued, and retailers scrambled to take down the offending titles. But some people are worried that retails are overreacting, or that the take-downs will set a dangerous precedent for squashing free speech. Yesterday, the British bookseller WH Smith went so far as to shut down its entire website in response to the article. The site is still down as of this writing—with a landing page and apology up in its place. E-book blog the Digital Reader compiled a list of first-person accounts from authors who claim their non-offensive books getting swept up in the take-downs:

    One self-published title that was swept up in the crowd was Babysitting the Baumgartners. This ebook was unquestionably erotica, but based on the listing on Goodreads it is not in the least bit questionable (other than the word babysitter in the title). This title is not listed in either the Kindle Store or Nook Store any more.

    And then there is Riding the Big One, a gay novel which was originally published years ago and subsequently re-released by the author in 2010. And suddenly Amazon decided they won’t sell it anymore as an ebook, possibly because the description mentions the word teenager.

    There is also The Nun’s Lover, which appears to have been removed simply because the description mentions the word sister.

    It begs a timeworn question: Where does well-intentioned regulation end and censorship begin? While companies have every reason to remove books that clearly violate their content policies, digital book-banning is a classic slippery slope.

    Meanwhile, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are taking a beating for profiting from and even, some say, glorifying obscenity, and exposing young readers to potentially damaging content. But the whole subject is pretty unchartered territory.

    An editorial on On The Media last week pointed out that we haven't yet studied if the hardcore porn you read is as psychologically harmful as the hardcore porn you watch: "We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production," argues PJ Vogt. "Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don't exist in real life.”

    Not to mention online erotica as a business—wherever it may fall on the spectrum of appropriateness—is itself a relatively new phenomenon, since e-books make it possible for people to self-publish content that would never in a million years have made it onto a printing press with the circulation potential of a platform like Amazon.

    WH Smith, based across the pond—where the British government is already controversially cracking down on online smut by censoring the internet—made it clear in the apology statement that the firm was disgusted by the illicit books. It will nix the whole self-publishing section of the website until WH Smith can be confident no inappropriate books are for sale. As for how exactly, the firm said it is "evaluating new procedures."

    Amazon, for its part, has stayed mum on the subject. It confirmed the books mentioned by Kernel were taken down, but has not released a statement on what the next step will be, or how it plans to stop similar titles from popping up again.

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