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Amazon, World Adult Content Police?

There’s a new sheriff in town, but I was quite happy with the land being lawless.  Because, you know, us settlers were pretty good at regulating ourselves.  From recent events, it’s clear to me, at least, that Amazon is trying to take control of the wilderness that is electronic publishing.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be that surprising.  They did make the Kindle, after all, and were pretty successful in making their name synonymous with ebooks for the general, mainstream public.  But at the time, it didn’t look like Amazon was taking anything away from the ebook-reading people, just making it more available.

Now, they’re starting to impose their order on the wider landscape of all e-publishers, both amateur and professional, and they are taking things away from us.

The Amazon Adult Dungeon

If you haven’t heard of this, the Adult Dungeon is what some erotica authors are calling it when Amazon internally labels a work as “adult.”  In itself, this is not problematic, as most erotica authors do a damn good job of laying out warnings and content labels in their descriptions.  But when a work gets put into the Adult Dungeon, it is no longer searchable.  If you search specifically for the title and author, you will not find it.

Nor will it get recommended in the “Customers who bought X also bought…”

They essentially blacklist any book thrown in their Adult Dungeon.  They don’t tell the authors they’re doing this, and they don’t tell the readers, either.  It’s done behind the backs of everyone involved.  Amazon is taking away your right, as a grownup reader, to make your own decisions about what to read.  Or, they think you can’t control your  (non-mainstream) sexual imagination, so they feel like it’s their place to do it for you.

(This is also what happened, apparently, a few years ago, when they “mistakenly” marked all LGBT related books as ADULT.  Of course, they claimed that it was a “glitch…”)

Author Selena Kitt points out — quite rightly — that erotica readers created the Kindle market.  Why does anyone want an e-reader?  For a private reading experience.

When I was describing this to a friend, she also works in PR, and she was quick to cotton on.  “Who pulls their strings?” she said.  Our best guess is that Amazon is randomly, haphazardly blacklisting “objectionable” books to please their (mainstream, hetero) shareholders.

Amazon is not the only game in town, say a lot of folks.  Just hop on over to another ebookstore and give them your money.

Well, not so fast.  Other ebookstores pull the same shenanigans — such as B&N kicking erotica off the best-selling lists because it was embarrassing.  Any while it’s easy for anyone to set up shop, they ultimately have to answer to PayPal’s obscenity clauses.

And PayPal has brought the hammer down (again, quite randomly.)  They, too, probably have to answer to the shadowy oligarchy of their shareholders.

Plus, Amazon has built up so much brand equity that their very name is now synonymous with e-publishing.  They have 80% of the ebook market.  I’m not saying that they don’t deserve it, since they worked damn hard for it.  But now, they look much less like they’re trying to bring ebooks to the masses, and more like Christian missionaries trying to convert the “heathens.”

The “Kindle Worlds” Fanfiction Deal

Their recent fanfiction deal is another attempt to bring their vanilla, PG-13 order to an unregulated wilderness.  Content holders can agree to let writers publish their own fanfiction for money, and Amazon will curate the stories.

Fanfiction seems to be dominated by:

1) Mature content

2) Non-hetero content (“slash”)

3) Both

And the mature stuff is some of the best written.  But will Amazon allow that under their guidelines?  Probably not, and the rights-holders can also set their own restrictions.

Fine and dandy, people say.  It won’t change what’s happening in the rest of the fanfiction world… except that it will.  Fanfiction’s entire purpose is for writers to express the full range of their imaginations, without the restrictions of the original works!

Perhaps this is paranoid, but Amazon seems to be trying to redefine fanfiction itself — ushering it away from this fan-ruled unregulated expression of creativity, and into the well-manicured lawns of PG-13 amateur media tie-ins.  In doing this, they take away from the very thing that interests me about fanfiction, the unbridled creativity.

“But what about the children?”

There is always that well-meaning American who approves of censorship out of desire to protect children.

First of all, only adults are allowed to shop on Amazon.  You need a credit card or PayPal account, and that means you have to be 18 (in theory.)

But even if my own offspring does get hold of my PayPal account and start buying all kinds of ebooks, I don’t fear this future.  My offspring will venture out into the wild, uncontrolled borderlands of porn — it’s why the internet was born.  But my young charges, by the time they’re interested in adult material, will know the difference between thought and deed and fantasy and reality because I taught it to them.

What do I really fear?

I fear that they will never venture out of their own safe backyards because of this nanny culture that hasn’t ever quite gone away.  It’s everywhere, from Bowdlerization of literature (de-sexing) to the USDA food pyramid, which is really not healthy but still taught in schools anyway. 

I fear that they will never even think to explore and make their own decisions in this age of blind brand trust, where there is a ready-bought solution for every woe.  (Except for awesome Japanese toilets, which Americans refuse to buy because of embarrassment about bathroom functions!)

Goodreads

Amazon also acquired Goodreads, another self-regulating community of settlers.  While GR was not perceived to have any central authority before, now Amazon’s army of data miners (and censors?) will be able to keep its ever-present eye on your book reviews.  I don’t think they’d go as low as to stop allowing reviews of “objectionable” books, but you never know.

Peer reviews still are a major force that drive sales, and Amazon clearly knows that since they bought GR.  But if their strings are being pulled by their PG-13 shareholders, they might be forced in a position of disallowing adult book reviews.

Authors also sell through GR.  Since GR is now under the Amazon umbrella, they can shut down any sales of “objectionable” books as well.  As for advertising?  Will advertising erotic romance even be allowed?  Especially if it’s not vanilla hetero?

They’re only in it for the money.

We can safely assume that these measures are all for the money.  It’s no secret that Amazon wants a bigger and bigger piece of the pie — but now, it looks like they also want to control the recipe and production of the pie itself.

Amazon is a company, and companies don’t act for the greater good.  They act for the money, which may coincide with the greater good, but it also might ride into town on a horse, make lots of fancy promises, and start stripping the land of its most valuable resources at the expense of the settlers.

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Stories as real-life fanfiction

I haven’t made many serious attempts, but I’ve never been able to write fanfiction successfully.  My good friend and I have talked about fanfiction many times, since she started in it, and she described it like this:

It’s like you’re righting wrongs in the original story.  Somehow, you wanted something out of the original that just wasn’t there, or the original somehow screwed up.  And you get the urge to write fanfiction.

I could understand that, of course, but it explained a lot about why I can’t write fanfiction!  Unless I’m reading professionally, I prefer to make no judgments about other people’s work, and enjoy them for what they are.  If something is really wrong, I just don’t finish it, since my faith in the storytelling is shot, and I can no longer suspend my disbelief.

But real life is another matter.

The other day, I saw my neighbor.  She is around 70, and her twenty-something year old son committed suicide, some time ago.  Apparently, he hung himself in a church yard.  My neighbor’s hair turned completely white, and she wasn’t able to even speak his name for many years.

My own child now has his Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar book, which was given to him on his “beautiful 3rd.”  Over the years, I’ve seen photos of him on her fridge, portraits drawn by her late husband, his baby photos.  “The guy who committed suicide” started becoming a real person to me.

While in my neighbors house the other day, I looked at a photo of his high school graduation and had the impulse to somehow bring him back in a story.  A hero, who somehow triumphs over his own mental illness.  Who eventually finds that life is worth living.

It led me to wonder if all stories are the fanfiction of real life.  Don’t we all have something to prove?  Don’t we all want to right the wrongs of life, to show ourselves and others that some things are at least possible, if only in a temporary, fictional world?

The existence of true love.  Good winning over evil.  The intense survival instinct of people prevailing.  The inherent worth of all living beings.  What wrongs do you want to right?

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Fanfiction & Idea Scarcity

This is going to be a quick and unedited post, but this topic has been on my mind.  Names omitted to protect the parties involved.

Here’s the situation, and I’m sure it has happened more than once.

Someone wrote a novel-length, pretty good fanfiction story in a well-established fandom.  When my friend went to look for it, years later, it was gone.  Not unusual, right?  Fanfiction archives come and go. But she rediscovered… it as original fiction!  The author had turned her fanfiction story into an original novel and is now selling it through one of the M/M niche presses.

Is this cool?

As I have discovered from my own efforts, some fanfiction is so far off from the original story that you can’t really say it’s fanfiction!  I couldn’t claim that my own story had any place whatsoever in the fandom (such as it is), but was only “inspired by” the original.  Many of the better AUs I’ve looked at fall into this category for sure.

I’ve always thought that fanfiction is 50% original, anyway.  FF writers bring their own ideas and life experience into the existing work, creating a synergy that is half theirs.  Is this part of why fanfiction is such a gray area?

Anyway, when I heard about this, my reaction wasn’t automatically, “OMG she’s trying to make money off fanfiction, that’s so wrong!” If the writer could sell the manuscript without her characters smelling like the originals, chances are, her story had very little in common with the parent work in the first place.

“I’m never going to have an idea as good as this one.”

I used to be a mass-market product marketer.  Now, I have become an art, entertainment, and info-tainment marketer.  I work with artists, and one of the biggest obstacles I run into is their belief in good idea scarcity.

They don’t want to give away anything for free because they’re afraid they will have nothing left.  Or that their next work may not be as good.  This is usually BS, of course, but that fear creates the reality.  One of the hardest parts of my job is convincing artists to offer free samples when possible… to give more of themselves and their work than they are comfortable with.

Writers are the worst offenders, but musicians are the coolest about this.  Some writers are totally cool, too, but they are usually the experienced ones used to deadlines.  The authors with the confidence and proof that their well will never run dry, even under adverse circumstances (like writing books “by committee” under a Big Name Publisher.)

My own reaction.

I don’t think it was morally wrong to turn what must have been a serious AU into original fiction.  And yanking what used to be a freely available story, making minor alterations, and putting it behind a pay wall… well, I would never do that, but I guess it was her right?  I’m not too sure about what I think about this — hopefully comments will help me clarify my own reaction.

What I felt the most was sorry. I don’t know the reality of the situation, but it smacks of “I will never write something as good as this again.”  If she were truly confident in her ability to write more good stories, would she have done that?

Dunno.  What do you think?