Note: since this post, Kobo have made some great moves and rebuilt the relationship with indie authors well. Cheers for listening, Kobo, and best wishes going forward. I’m certainly a big fan.
Yesterday started like any other day for those in the writing and publishing business. Probably with a yawn or two after being up all night, nagged by a spark of creative inspiration. Probably with a cup of tea or coffee in hand, stressing over minute intricacies like word choice. And, let’s be honest here — probably checking sales figures on the KDP, Draft2Digital or Kobo dashboards. All seemed well.
If only innocent little morning self had been aware of how the day was going to conclude.
Last night, a lot of self-publishers and writers went to bed wondering whether they were going to lose a revenue stream as Kobo appeared to yank all self-published books from its shelves. Some eye-witness reports claimed it was UK only, while others from around the world added that their books had also disappeared. At a glance, it appeared that Kobo had for some reason come down hard on self-published ebooks, but without any official word, nobody could really say why. Mass panic and hysteria ensued. Bomb shelters were occupied. Self-published authors braced for the apocalypse.
As the day progressed and more information became available, it appeared that Kobo’s pulling of self-published ebooks was a direct response to WH Smith’s website closure. For those overseas, WH Smith (or ‘Smiths’, as it is more commonly referred in ol’ Blighty) is probably one of the two remaining major high street book retailers. Nowadays, it’s more akin to its former self as a glorified newsagents, making more income from discount Mars bars than books.
The reason WH Smith are so crucial to the understanding of Kobo’s seeming act of insanity is that they are Kobo’s number one UK partner.
But why do WH Smith have anything to do with a seemingly global collapse of Kobo’s independent publishing services? Well, in a nutshell, they fucked up. Majorly.
WH Smith’s Major Cock-Up
On October 14th, WH Smith took its entire UK website offline due to a rising number of reports that abuse-themed and extreme porn books were being distributed to its eBook library via the Kobo stream. The company issued a statement claiming that ‘all self-published books would remain off the store until they were absolutely certain none of this content could appear again.’
This seems fair enough, at a glance. However, I still believe WH Smith should take some responsibility for their own inept privacy options. A simple tick box with, ‘do you want your search to feature explicit content?’ would’ve protected children from accidentally stumbling upon such literature. Smashwords have had such an option for years, and they’re doing just fine.
But anyway, I digress. As a result of WH Smith — Kobo’s major UK partner, remember — closing their website and demanding all self-published books be cleaned and properly moderated, Kobo were left with two options. The first, more reasonable option to all, would likely have been something along the lines of what Amazon are doing — policing the self-published environment and gradually removing the offending content. Option two was to immediately cave to WH Smith’s demands and put the interest of its business partnership before its authors and readers.
You can probably guess which of the two they opted for. Business is, as they say, business, after all. Just the way the world works, and I’m not too annoyed at Kobo for this. Anyway, Kobo removed all its self-published books from sale in the United Kingdom in order to save its relationship with WH Smith. A belated statement implied that the company are acting fast to remove the offending books. How they will achieve this when it is quite simply so easy to publish anything is intriguing, but more on that later. That’s why you can’t see your books available for Kobo in the UK, whether you uploaded directly via Writing Life, or a third-party distributor.
But what about the rest of the world? Sporadic reports have claimed that entire US series have vanished — and we’re not talking erotica here. Mysteries, thrillers, and historical fiction. Books without a fragment of sex in them. Why would they be removed?
Again, it all goes back to WH Smith and Kobo.
Draft2Digital — a third party distributor — sent out an email last night to customers informing them that all of their books had been removed from the Kobo store for the time being. Draft2Digital were not informed of the decision in advance — again, business is business — but this explains the ripple effects felt overseas. Simply put, if you publish via Draft2Digital, your Kobo book will not be available anywhere. If you publish direct, it will be available everywhere except the UK. All self-published operations have frozen at Kobo UK, and although your dashboard may tell you otherwise, a quick look through the store for your books will change your mind.
So, that’s it. Kobo are ‘working hard’ to sift out the offenders while returning to business as usual for the non-offending self-published authors, like myself. Yep — all of my mystery/thriller books have been removed from Kobo UK, but are still available for the rest of the world. I hope this clears things up a little for you. My advice if you’re a writer/publisher? Sit tight and see how this one unfolds. While Kobo’s reaction was the very definition of a poorly organised knee-jerk, I’m confident that they are passionate about the self-publishing market, and business will be restored to the innocents in a short while.
The reporting of events has been interesting. The Daily Mail have naturally taken this all as an opportunity to push for more draconian censorship measures, but being a sensationalist rag, that is hardly surprising. Gizmodo UK seems desperate to score some Google traffic with its keyword dropping of ‘Sick Self-Published Porn’ throughout its article. Because, y’know, all self-published books are pornographic/no traditional published books are. The 120 Days of Sodom, anyone? As for The Kernel — well, I do wonder about their institutional motives.
However, despite the bad media press, what has been encouraging is the number of ‘Save Indie’ campaigns I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter, not from writers, but from readers. It seems like readers respect the hard work that all authors put in, whether traditionally published or indie, and are willing to fight for the freedom of self-published authors. It’s a nice sign of the times, that’s for sure, and while the mainstream media continues to be influenced by major institutional relationships, the power of the people is clear to see.
Overall though, I think that Kobogate (can we refer to it as that from now on?) highlights two rather interesting but unrelated points. Firstly, as an author, it has shown me the importance of spreading my output rather than putting my eggs into one basket. Fortunately for me — and for many — I don’t have many books at Kobo just yet. However, just imagine if it had been Amazon that’d had the kneejerk reaction. All those people making money from their series, all those enrolled in Select… *shudders to think*. So, from the end of this week, I’ll be focusing on expanding my work’s reach. My second novel, Killing Freedom, will be available on all platforms this Friday. B&N, Apple, Kobo, everywhere.
Also, I have another thought, and it’s about the changing nature of what constitutes a book, and the problems of availability. But, at fear of waffling/approaching 1,300 words as it is, I’ll have to save that thought for another time.
Thoughts go out to all those affected by Kobogate. Stay strong!
Kobogate also paints a pretty solid picture about parental control in their own home. Not that kids aren’t crafty enough to get around their parents’ rules, but parents are not paying attention to the content that their kids are surfing for. So really, there are more players to blame in this scandal. But, as seems to be usual of late, the burden of rearing one’s child and taking responsibility for said child’s actions are resting on the shoulders of governments and corporations now. Tragic really.
Shelton — thanks for the insightful comment. You’re right about the whole parental control issue, and that’s actually something I wanted to talk about but didn’t have a lot of room for in this post. The way accessibility is changing in a digital age is a tough one for governments/parents/etc to handle, and it will be interesting to see how things continue to develop over time.
Glad you covered this, with your usual measured wisdom. I was shocked when i got that email–it does seem like an over-reaction. I’m a die hard Kobo fan, but this has given me some…misgivings.
I think it points to another interesting issue, too: people “writing” :romance” novels that amount to little more than exploitation porn, just because it sells. I read recently about a couple of women from the USA who write erotic dinosaur romance novels, and have been able to quite their jobs with the revenue they make. It’s discouraging (and troubling) that this kind of literature is being published with little to no moderation.
I’m all for free speech and creativity, but there’s a line. At the very least, retailers need to be taking more responsibility about how such books are marketed and presented to the public–a fact I think they’re waking up to.
Yeah, it’s a shocker, James. And yet, as I say, business is business. Different bosses make different decisions.
Erotic dinosaur romance sounds like a genre I’m going to have to tap into. 😉 But yeah — I know what you mean. However, I think it raises a whole new point — what is the eBook? Is it limited to conventional fiction and non-fiction? Or can ‘unconventional’ works co-exist alongside it in traditional store fronts? Amazon have been selling the likes of 120 Days of Sodom for years without issue. What makes independent writing so different?
Not saying I agree with the opinion I just stated. Just playing Devil’s advocate for debate’s sake. But yes — these stores need a simple content filter. Google does it, and they’re getting by just fine. Sure — porn slips through the filter. But that’s the internet. The stores need to either accept this fact, or employ a whole load of people to start filtering content, which will be difficult.
Staying strong! 😉 I didn’t receive an email informing me that my books were being made “unavailable”. Just found that out all by my little self. Like you, I am just waiting to see how this all plays out. Will check Kobo in a couple of weeks and see whether my work is back on there. And yes, was “culled” by virtue of being self-published only. I write supernatural thrillers.
Yeah, Kobo didn’t send emails out I don’t believe. Just a low profile statement a few days later. Some of my books are returning now.