The recent revelations that major retailers have been stocking ‘fantasy’ e-books depicting rape and incest is a major blow for user generated content and could be a significant turning point for the industry, according to experts.
Following an investigation from online magazine The Kernel, it emerged that the books were being stocked online by major retailers and were even appearing as suggested titles after keywords were entered on search bars, meaning children were potentially being exposed to pornographic material about rape and incest.
Titles like ‘Taking my Drunken Daughter’ were available for purchase and one front cover image depicted a young girl with a bruised face who appeared to be crying.
Amazon responded with the announcement that it would remove the offending titles but other companies took much more drastic steps.
The shut-down of the WHSmith website now entering its fourth day is an indication of how seriously the industry is taking the news. The retailer has already announced it will no longer stock self-published e-books at all and publishing platform Kobo has suspended its UK website.
According to founder of self-publishing company Yudu, Richard Stephenson, the situation is serious.
“The big problem for a lot of these sites now is how to purge the content without having to read the thousands of books to work out what is good content and what is bad,” he explains.
“So consequently, WHSmith has taken the draconian step of shutting the whole website down because they cannot be guaranteed that there isn’t poisonous material on there.
“What we’ve now got is lawyers involved because large companies like WHSmith are potentially exposing their balance sheets to lawsuits and it isn’t worth taking the risk.”
Stephenson, who got into the self-publishing business in 2008, says the problem was one he foresaw and his company took the step of introducing a ‘report abuse’ button for every publication, which results in an immediate quarantine for any books flagged up by the public. But he admits that the problem is one the industry is struggling to really get to grips with.
“With sites that are clearly identified as pornographic, internet filtering techniques can be used effectively,” he says.
“But if extreme pornographic material is sitting within a well-known site like Kobo, Amazon or Barnes and Noble then those techniques, those filters that the government is talking about, never work. You have to have filters inside these sites and they don’t really have that.”
As well as presenting a PR nightmare for retailers who must reassure a concerned public, there could be serious legal implications. According to media lawyer, Steve Kuncewicz, the measures taken particularly by WHSmith indicate that lawyers have something to worry about.
“If the e-books in question were in breach of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and major retailers are among those making this material available then that, I would imagine, is the big concern and they probably could have a case to answer.”
The Obscene Publications Act makes it an offence to publish material that can “deprave and corrupt” those who read, see or hear it. Under Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act, any person who, whether for gain or not, publishes an obscene article could be liable for prosecution. According to Kuncewicz, that means that hosting platforms as well as authors could be breaking the law.
“It’s quite rare to see something that falls on the wrong side of the Obscenity Act but if and when that happens the chances are you need to take it down very quickly. There’s a good chance that some of this material is going to fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act.”
And retailers do make a substantial profit from e-books. Streams from sites such as Kobo and Lulu feed into major retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and WHSmith and they, like the self-publishing services, take a cut of sales.
Self-published author Paul Larkin, a football writer, is about to release his eighth title using Lulu and he says that while self-publishing offers an undeniably valuable opportunity for aspiring authors, websites like Amazon and Lulu make the process easy and, for very little work, stand to make great gains.
“The Lulu submission process can literally take an hour from when you submit your book. It can take up to a day and Kindle can take up to 48 hours at most, and I’ve never got the impression that anybody was checking to see what the content of the books is actually like,” he says.
“At the end of the day I think the self-publishing industry works brilliantly for the companies because they’re not doing any work other than selling it. Probably 60 per cent of every book I sell goes to Lulu and Amazon are making about 80 per cent, so they’re making a lot of money for very little cost on their side.”
For Amazon’s Kindle platform, the speed at which they can guarantee publishing is listed as one of the benefits of using the service on its website. “Get to market fast,” the website says, “Publishing takes less than five minutes. Your book appears on Amazon within 24 hours.”
Last year, self-published books accounted for more than 20 per cent of crime, science fiction, romance and humour e-books sold in the UK. The industry has enjoyed a boom, but similarly to the rapid rise of user-generated content on social media, problems with unregulated content were inevitable and the question of regulation – and cost – could seriously impact the industry’s financial value and sustainability.
“Everybody’s got to now look in the mirror and say how do we sort this out. It’s a serious sea change in my opinion,” Stephenson adds. “There is the freedom of speech issue, which is that we must be able to publish, we’re overreacting, we must cherish these sites where people can express themselves.
“But the issue is that they don’t have any way of stopping minors and children getting access to these books and therefore that argument doesn’t really hold water. We have to protect the vulnerable from totally poisonous content.”
The development is particularly topical in light of Prime Minister David Cameron’s crackdown on extreme pornographic material online. Regulation in the traditional publishing industry was an inherently in-house and common sense process. The self-publishing industry has enjoyed a period of growth without a substantial medium between writer and publication and if the significant reaction from WHSmith is anything to go by, that will have to change.