"Most of the stuff on Smashwords is porn," Jonathan Bloom, whose ebook Hell Is Above Us is available on Smashwords, tweeted recently. "I feel like someone trying to sell a homemade quilt on the street next to a line of high-end hookers."
On Saturday, February 18, PayPal contacted Smashwords with an ultimatum: Remove the "edgy" erotica, or face deactivation of their PayPal account. Since PayPal is integrated into the Smashwords website, Smashwords had no choice but to comply. "I've had multiple conversations with PayPal over the last several days to better understand their requirements," founder Mark Coker wrote in an e-mail to authors whose works were categorized as "erotica" on the site. "Their team has been helpful, forthcoming and supportive of the Smashwords mission. I appreciate their willingness to engage in dialogue. Although they have tried their best to delineate their policies, gray areas remain. Their hot buttons are bestiality, rape-for-titillation, incest and underage erotica."
While Smashwords already prohibited self-published authors from submitting stories featuring underage characters in works of erotica, they had to implement new guidelines for bestiality, rape, and incest in order to comply with PayPal's ultimatum. Smashwords will no longer allow authors to sell erotica featuring "pseudo-incest" (between stepchildren and step-parents, for instance) or "shape-shifters in paranormal romance" engaging in sex while in "were-creature" form. Smashwords' new guidelines apply only to works labelled as "erotica," so other genres (including your Woody Allen biography) are okay. For now.
Smashwords is the latest target of the California-based e-commerce company, who recently sent threatening letters to other bookstores including All Romance Ebooks and Bookstrand. "We were informed by PayPal, without notice, and by our credit card processing company, that we are required to remove all titles at BookStrand.com with content containing incest, pseudo incest, rape, and bestiality, effective immediately," Bookstrand wrote in an e-mail to publishers.
"We do not want to see PayPal clamp down further against erotica," Coker wrote. "We think our authors should be allowed to publish erotica. Erotica, despite the attacks it faces from moralists, is a category worthy of protection. Erotica allows readers to safely explore aspects of sexuality that they might never want to explore in the real world... Erotica authors are facing discrimination, plain and simple. Topics that are perfectly acceptable in mainstream fiction are verboten in erotica. That's not fair. If you're going to push the limits, push the limits of great writing, not the limits of legality."
Even with Smashwords' modified guidelines, though, there's no guarantee that PayPal won't push for further restrictions on either erotica or other genres at Smashwords or other online bookstores. One bookstore that specialized in erotic fiction, CleanSheets.com, wrote in 2004, "We no longer use Paypal, specifically because Paypal decided that we sell 'obscene' items (erotic books!), and it is against their corporate policy to support sites that do so." It is unclear whether the erotic fiction that PayPal targeted in 2004 featured any of the "edgier" situations like bestiality, rape, incest, or underage characters. More recently, PayPal told author Selena Kitt that BDSM ebooks "would have to be removed as well" from her online bookstore, eXcessica. Additionally, PayPal terminated the account of Vicky Gallas, a former escort services owner (or "madam") who sold non-explicit books about her experiences via her own website. Bestiality, rape, incest, and underage sex are one thing. But sex between consenting adults?
"What I find chilling is that the money exchanger, not the merchant, can make such a decision," commenter L.K. Rigel wrote on a Dear Author blog post, where news of PayPal's actions were reported on Friday. "PayPal is, after all, basically a bank. So now a bank gets to decide what customers can buy or merchants can sell? The decision is only palatable because they're cutting off stuff people mostly find abhorrent." Moriah Jovan wrote, "Paypal is NOT a bank and they spend a lot of time in Washington lobbying to keep from being defined and thus regulated like a bank. They have far more latitude than banks do."
An online petition cropped up in response to PayPal's recent actions against online bookstores. It reads, in part:
PayPal has a long track record of suspending, freezing, and terminating customer accounts on the thinnest of justifications, but this is going too far. By telling Bookstrand what books they can and cannot sell using PayPal services, they are also telling readers they don't have the right to read what they wish and telling authors that PayPal has the right to take away their freedom of speech and the press. If you use the Internet to find new reading material, if you use PayPal, and/or if you support the rights of authors and readers to have the widest possible selection of topics to read and write about, please sign this petition and let PayPal know that censorship, no matter what form it takes or how it is implemented, is not acceptable. Readers, publishers, storefronts and authors have the right to choose what books are sold and bought. Don't leave it up to PayPal to choose how you spend your money or where.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more