PayPal Strong-Arms Indie Ebook Publishers Over Erotic Content

PayPal Strong-Arms Indie Ebook Publishers Over Erotic Content

Summary: PayPal has forced its merchants that publish and distribute e-books to censor erotic literature.

TOPICS: Hardware, Mobility

PayPal's new aggressive campaign wants to stop independent e-book publishers that use its service from including certain kinds of erotic content in their catalogs.

On Saturday February 18, PayPal began threatening indie book publishers and distributors with immediate deactivation of the businesses' accounts if they did not remove books containing certain sexual themes - namely, specific sexual fantasies that PayPal does not approve of.

PayPal told indie e-book publishers and retailers - such as AllRomance, Smashwords, Excessica and Bookstrand - that if they didn't remove the offending literature from their catalogs within a few days of notification, PayPal would close their accounts.

Of course, the immediate termination of payment processing would devastate these businesses and all of their authors (not just the erotic writers) overnight.

In case you haven't noticed, PayPal has a monopoly on the market of online payment processing. There are few alternatives, though none that are widely used by online shoppers.

One corporation begins to shape an entire market

Smashwords had little choice. On February 24, Smashwords sent a letter to all of their authors saying that it was being forced to make PayPal's guidelines about erotic literature the new rules for content Smashwords would publish and distribute from now on.

All of the Smashwords authors were told in an email that if they want to see their work published and distributed through the popular alternative e-book e-tailer, they will need to make sure their works of fiction conform to PayPal's acceptable use definitions of sexual fantasies.

Bookstrand went nuclear, and completely eliminated most of the indie titles from their catalog.

AllRomance has decided to stop publishing books that focus more on sex than romance - they are effectively purging all titles that are primarily sexually explicit storytelling "where sex [not romance] drives the story" from their catalog.

It's a curious thing for PayPal to begin policing content in erotic books. Though they have a mighty hammer with which to enforce their morality.

PayPal would ban works by Anaïs Nin, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade and books like Caligula, The Sookie Stackhouse Novels (True Blood), The Story of O, Venus in Furs, Lolita...

So, what kind of fantasy sex in books is PayPal telling indie publishers is not okay?

They include a number of subjects that many would consider offensive or disturbing in real life - but they included one area of sexual fantasy that is fairly popular in real life between consenting adults.

PayPal told the booksellers they may not sell works of fiction that include sexual fantasies containing themes and implied scenarios of: pseudo-incest (including "daddy" fantasies, step-family), incest, fantasies about non-consensual sex or rape, bestiality (widened to include non-human fantasy creatures), and BDSM.

Under the new PayPal policy, Mark Corker of Smashwords told all the Smashwords authors they would also have to remove paranormal romance that included shape-shifters - if the shape-shifters were to have sex in their non-human forms.

When PayPal told Excessica's Selena Kitt that BDSM fiction was not allowed in her catalog she wrote on her blog ( NSFW),

That’s right - they weren’t just targeting illegal acts between non-consenting adults. Now they were targeting legal sex between consenting adults.

For what it's worth, BDSM includes a very wide category of sexual practices that are legal in the United States, and its activities and fantasies are not regarded by psychiatrists as an illness or disorder.

Determining what is acceptable to publish

One argument put forth as to why PayPal would not want to be the middleman for porn or "edgy" sexual content is that sexual content carries the constant risk of buyer's remorse: people buy it, are ashamed or regretful or whatever, and want their money back.

So the thinking is that Paypal doesn't want to have to be charged by credit card companies for chargebacks on "high risk" accounts that carry adult content.

But PayPal merchants control returns and refunds on each and every sale: when a customer submits a refund request, the merchant is the one that issues the refund - and it's the merchant that has to PayPal return fees for the refund.

In addition to the fact that mitigating the cost of chargebacks and refund costs are an easily solvable problem: PayPal could easily bleed "high risk" merchants with higher fees.

Anyone that has done any kind of business online related to erotic content knows that PayPal will not do business with porn websites (or merchants that run websites that PayPal deems to be pornographic).

Many early sex bloggers who did not consider their blogs to be porn - merely artistic erotic imagery - found this out that hard way when PayPal changed its policies to exclude doing business with porn sites back in 2003 (when it was bought by eBay).

But the new development in PayPal's moral standards bears serious examination.

Erotic writing has always been at the forefront of internet reading, and erotica - dark edges and all - was at the forefront of e-book adoption due to the privacy the form factor affords consumers.

And despite how you feel about the topics of sexual fantasies PayPal won't tolerate, you must admit that the fringes of literature are important.

As Chris Meadows wrote,

Some people will find [the banned sexual themes] icky, but others enjoy them - and who the hell is PayPal to appoint itself the arbiter over what is and is not acceptable to publish?

I think it's a dark day for independent book publishers, book distributors and authors when a company that has no vested interest in literature determines the content of the books that these small businesses can carry.

Image of Justine by Marquis de Sade from Wikimedia Commons.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

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  • Test Reply

    I posted a long reply earlier and it seems the forum ate it. Is ebay censoring zdnet too?
    • No, their software is just really buggy.

      Sometimes I remember to copy the text I put into a reply before hitting the submit button, because it only works about 1 out of every 4-5 tries.
      terry flores
      • A sucky system then

        The form showed the post after I clicked submit. I even edited for a typo and it showed me that it accepted the changes.

        I returned to the page ten minutes later and it was gone.

        Well, too bad. I don't feel like rewriting a long detailed reply.
  • Why?

    an online payment processing system would engage in content censoring?

    Totally beyond me.
    • Because

      in the United States, sexual repression is a powerful force. Just look at our politics.
      • Ahh, I don't believe mean what you are saying...

        Because this article CLEARLY lists rape and incest as a topic Paypal has disallowed by dealers it does business with. So, you are saying you APPROVE of rape, incest, which often involves child molesting, and that none of that should not be "repressed". Your comment only makes you look sick.
  • Finally, the children will be protected

    Guys, let's be serious. We don't WANT books with adultery, incest, rape, sex, bestiality, whores and sex with ghosts to be read by our children.

    I for one am PROUD of Paypal for taking a strong stance against the Bible, and am happy no one will be allowed to sell it anymore.

    • If you don't like it...

      Then DON'T READ IT. And only YOU should protect your children. It's not up to anyone else to censor something and make something completely unavailable because you don't feel comfortable with the topic. Especially not a corporation. Do you honestly not see the dangers in that?
      • Think you missed the joke

        The guy said proud Paypal is going to ban the Bible - as it inovlves Mary having sex with the Holy Ghost.
      • Your point is flawed...

        "make something completely unavailable"

        They aren't making it completely unavailable, just unavailable through Paypal. People who write this stuff can still write it and they can still sell it. People bought and sold stuff LONG before Paypal ever existed.
    • Sorry

      I have but one plus one to give to counter the people that didn't read that fact that you made the best post on this thread.
      As you correctly point out, the Bible is a book that violates several of Paypal's stated objectionable material standards (the bible also features tons of incest).
    • You are right

      in that I do not my child reading such books. However it is MY job as a parent to censor what my child reads - it is NOT Paypal's job to censor content... maybe, just maybe [i]I[/i] want to read a story about a ghost having sex - heck if Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore can pull it off in a movie why can't an indie author sell a book with that sort of content.

      My long winded point is that Paypal is a (very sucky) middle man between a merchant and a customer. Paypal is not an editor, a censor, or any sort of organization that should dictate what people can and cannot read.

      Oh yes I got that your post was sarcasm - some people didn't and I'm also hoping that ZDNet does not eat [i]this[/i] post...
  • What we don't want...

    Is a culture in which grown adults are not allowed to determine what they are exposed to in terms of fiction for themselves. I can name the sorts of regimes that implemented these sorts of restrictions in the past, and some that still do now. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China (and China now, in fact)...

    Fiction is fiction. None of the 'taboo' subjects rejected by the microtransaction companies are in any way illegal. The fictional representation of a crime is not a crime. The laws in both the US and Britain that have tested the boundaries of censorship in this regard have stood the test of over 40 years of appeals on the part of people who wished to limit what people could and should read.

    So there is no possibility for using the argument of participating in an illegal transaction.

    As to the charge-back excuse, I'd like to see numbers on charge-backs of erotic ebooks. I will not accept someone's word for it. One of the reasons why I, as a writer, have listed my novel Gaijin under the erotica genre is specifically because literary fiction tends not to 'tag' books, and I felt it was responsible to alert women who might find the content disturbing to avoid it. Michel Houllebecq, who writes scene after scene of explicit, dystopic, alienated, dehumanizing sex is filed under Literary Fiction. You get no warning from him.

    So this red herring about people stumbling across offensive ebooks by mistake is something I find very hard to swallow. It is seldom that a book which contains 'taboo' content is left untagged by its publisher or its writer. Our very efforts to help readers choose what they read in an informed manner have resulted in making it easy to ghettoize and expunge us.

    How ironic. I wonder if anyone will start trolling through 20 years of Booker nominees for the 'bad' stuff? Er, probably not.
    • Another false claim...

      "Is a culture in which grown adults are not allowed to determine what they are exposed to"

      No where does Paypal say they can't read that "material", NO WHERE! They are only saying that you can't SELL it through Paypal. Again, you would think that you think that NOTHING can be bought or sold UNLESS Paypal processes the payment!! Which is just ridiculous.
  • All I can say is...

    Good for Paypal...
    • All I can say is

      that you must be a fan of big government or having someone regulate your life. I'm not. I prefer to make my own decisions as to what I can or cannot buy. To paraphrase my response above:

      [i]It is MY job as a parent to censor what my child reads - it is NOT Paypal's job to censor content... maybe, just maybe [i]I[/i] want to read a story about a ghost having sex - heck if Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore can pull it off in a movie why can't an indie author sell a book with that sort of content.

      My long winded point is that Paypal is a (very sucky) middle man between a merchant and a customer. Paypal is not an editor, a censor, or any sort of organization that should dictate what people can and cannot read.[/i]
  • A Factual Error

    Dear Violet,

    I wished to address one factual error in your blog post. You stated PayPal began this action on February 18th. In point of fact, the first rumblings about it began two days earlier, on February 16th, when I was informed by an author friend that PayPal had apparently written a threatening letter to Bookstrand. This was the first I'd heard of it, but Bookstrand quickly confirmed the rumor. I posted a blog late on the 16th concerning the issue after I'd performed deeper research to determine this was not a false alarm and to confirm just how high the stakes really were. Aside from this one oversight, your timeline accords with what's been occurring, and I wanted to compliment you on the excellent post concerning this situation.
    In case you're interested, there is a petition speaking out against this activity at .


    J.S. Wayne
    J.S. Wayne
    • Please learn what words mean

      While I agree with your stance and would like to take action to encourage Paypal to reconsider, I'm not signing that petition. This isn't censorship, nor is Paypal infringing on freedom of speech. Freedom of speech and censorship have to do with GOVERNMENT entities preventing free expression. Paypal is a private business, not a government entity, so free speech is entirely irrelevant. What IS relevant is letting Paypal know that if they continue to refuse to sell things because of misguided moral principles, then they aren't going to get any more of my money.
  • PayPal and Sex Should be Mutually Exclusive

    PayPal should do what it does best and stay out of the lives of readers. By what right do they think they can become the moral arbiters of what I can and cannot read. This is absurd. This is freedom of speech, pure and simple. I am 100% against censorship. If you don't like the subject matter, don't buy it. If you don't like the subject matter, don't read it. But, don't tell me I can't buy it and don't tell I can't read it. This cannot be allowed to stand. Publishers and individuals should stop caving in! Rise up, American readers, Rise up!!!!
    • best at

      the thing that PayPal is best at is screwing over their customers. And seeing how they've managed to drive out their competition (especially if you're selling on feeBay) you pretty much have no alternative. Soon all these companies (paypal, ebay, the major media companies, etc) will make the internet completely unusable, and we'll all have to go back to talking to each other face to face. With the ridiculous increases in fuel prices, we won't be driving to the next county to buy anything either.