Censoring Indie Erotica

Sorry I’ve been absent from the blogosphere this past week or so. I blame being busy, which is about as good an excuse as it is for not having time to write or read (which is to say, it’s bullshit), but as these things go.

A post to follow in the next week or so with MASSIVEFANTASTIC news. But today;

I got an email from the founder of the website Smashwords.com, which is the website I use to publish a few of my short stories digitally for you guys, my lovely readers. I picked smashwords because I like how it publishes smoothly to all digital file formats, so that no matter what reading device you have, you can get what you need. Shameless self plug, if you haven’t read any of my three stories, they’re at the site, dirt cheap here.

But I got this email and it bothered me deeply. Mark does a far more elegant job than I and I’ll paste a long bit of it for anyone who might be interested to meditate on;

In case you haven’t heard, about two weeks ago, PayPal contacted Smashwords and gave us a surprise ultimatum:  Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account.  We engaged them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.

PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations (likely Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, though they didn’t mention them by name).

Last Friday, I sent the following email to our erotica authors and publishers: https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/27   Then on Monday, I issued an update, and announced we would delay enforcement of PayPal’s guidelines so we and PayPal could continue our discussions:  https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/28


PayPal is asking us to censor legal fiction.  Regardless of how one views topics of rape, bestiality and incest, these topics are pervasive in mainstream fiction. We believe this crackdown is really targeting erotica writers.  This is unfair, and it marks a slippery slope.  We don’t want credit card companies or financial institutions telling our authors what they can write and what readers can read. Fiction is fantasy.  It’s not real.  It’s legal.


There’s no easy solution.  Legally, PayPal and the credit card companies probably have the right to decide how their services are used. Unfortunately, since they’re the moneyrunners, they control the oxygen that feeds digital commerce.

Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor. That’s not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind this, they’ll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere.  PayPal works well for us. In addition to running all credit card processing at the Smashwords.com store, PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S.  My conversations with PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.


Independent advocacy groups are considering taking on the PayPal censorship case.  I’m supporting the development of this loose-knit coalition of like-minded groups who believe that censorship of legal fiction should not be allowed. We will grow the coalition. Each group will have its own voice and tactics  I’m working with them because we share a common cause to protect books from censorship.  Earlier today I had conversations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC).  I briefed them on the Smashwords/PayPal situation, explained the adverse affect this crackdown will have on some of our authors and customers, and shared my intention to continue working with PayPal in a positive manner to move the discussion forward.

The EFF blogged about the issue a few days ago:  https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/02/legal-censorship-paypal-makes-habit-deciding-what-users-can-read  Today, ABFFE and NCAC issued a press release:  http://www.scribd.com/doc/83549049/NCAC-ABFFE-Letter-To-PayPal-eBay-re-Ebook-Refusal-2012

I will not be on the streets with torch in hand calling for PayPal’s head, but I will encourage interested parties to get involved and speak their piece.  This is where you come in…


Although erotica authors are being targeted, this is an issue that should concern all indie authors. It affects indies disproportionately because indies are the ones pushing the boundaries of fiction. Indies are the ones out there publishing without the (fading) protective patina of a “traditional publisher” to lend them legitimacy. We indies only have each other.

Several Smashwords authors have contacted me to stress that this censorship affects women disproportionately.  Women write a lot of the erotica, and they’re also the primary consumers of erotica.  They’re also the primary consumers of mainstream romance, which could also come under threat if PayPal and the credit card companies were to overly enforce their too-broad and too-nebulous obsenity clauses (I think this is unlikely, but at the same time, why would dubious consent be okay in mainstream romance but not okay in erotica? If your write paranormal, can your were-creatures not get it on with one another, or is that bestiality?  The insanity needs to stop here. These are not questions an author, publisher or distributor of legal fiction should have to answer.).

All writers and their readers should stand up and voice their opposition to financial services companies censoring books.  Authors should have the freedom to publish legal fiction, and readers should have the freedom to read what they want.

These corporations need to hear from you.  Pick up the phone and call them. Email them.  Start petitions.  Sign petitions.  Blog your opposition to censorship.  Encourage your readers to do the same.  Pass the word among your social networks.  Contact your favorite bloggers and encourage them to follow this story.  Contact your local newspaper and offer to let them interview you so they can hear a local author’s perspective on this story of international significance. If you have connections to mainstream media, encourage them to pick up on the story.  Encourage them to call the credit card companies and pose this simple question, “PayPal says they’re trying to enforce the policies of credit card companies.  Why are you censoring legal fiction?”

Below are links to the companies waiting to hear from you. Click the link and you’ll find their phone numbers, executive names and postal mailing addresses.  Be polite, respectful and professional, and encourage your friends and followers to do the same.  Let them know you want them out of the business of censoring legal fiction.

Tell the credit card companies you want them to give PayPal permission to sell your ebooks without censorship or discrimination.  Let them know that PayPal’s policies are out of step with the major online ebook retailers who already accept your books as they are.  Address your calls, emails (if you can find the email) and paper letters (yes paper!) to the executives.  Post open letters to them on your blog, then tweet and Facebook hyperlinks to your letters.  Force the credit card companies to join the discussion about censorship.  And yes, express your feelings and opinions to PayPal as well.  Don’t scream at them.  Ask them to work on your behalf to protect you and your readers from censorship.  Tell them how their proposed censorship will harm you and your fellow writers.


American Express:



Ebay (owns PayPal):

TL;DR – Credit card companies are threatening to stop working with a large indie digital publishing website because they don’t want any connection with titles that reflect rape, incest, beastiality, or various other labeled “perverse” sexual acts. This is essentially censorship, alienates an entire market of work that has no boundaries (is it so wrong then now if a woman has sex with a werewolf, as is frequent in much paranormal romance of the day?), and puts a website in a position to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable. It’s forced censorship only not with government regulation, but with popular one. Without the backing of credit card companies, the indie digital publishing industry can take a big hit. Where this goes, how it works out, what it means for the future of independent digital publishing is yet undecided. If you want to help, references are above. 


5 thoughts on “Censoring Indie Erotica

  1. Kaitlin says:

    Holy wow that’s terrible. And kind of terrifying. Technically I’m not an erotica writer, but there’s lots of implications in my work. What if they started censoring that? O.o

    • karlpfeiffer says:

      Pretty standard fare for the censorship discussion; where does it end? How do you define pornography versus dramatic critique of those issues? Would these companies have it that we don’t talk about rape at all anymore? Or any other painful issue?

      They’re stepping in messy stuff..

  2. We should be concerned about censorship even beyond erotica. What if they decide certain words are offensive and should be censored, or particular themes they find do not service their image. It is a slippery slope. I just canceled my Paypal account.

    • karlpfeiffer says:

      Haha, my soap box against censorship isn’t limited to erotica! Absolutely that’s what this is about is the implications of such censorship in general. Very slippery slope indeed.

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