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The Wild West

Kobo controversyYesterday was Thanksgiving here in Canada, so when I checked my email after dinner, I was surprised to see a message from the team at Kobo. This note alerted me to some unpleasant news: British bookseller WH Smith had pulled down its web store, because the Kobo ebook listings on that site were turning up material of a controversial nature. Kobo was working on the problem, and would be implementing new processes that would not lead to censorship, but which would make certain publishers and authors were abiding by the terms of their agreements.

That sounded ominous, and a few minutes on Google pretty much explained why. Turns out a London tech magazine, The Kernel, had followed a tip and discovered a lot of very controversial content for sale on Amazon’s Kindle store –– extreme pornography which was reportedly ‘barely legal’. Subsequent investigations found that Amazon was not alone in this, and the British press soon discovered that WH Smith not only sold the same sorts of titles online (in partnership with Kobo), but that their search algorithms didn’t filter those ebooks out when people searched for benign terms like ‘Bedtime Stories for Grandchildren’.

Yikes.

But I can see how it happened.

I’ve often referred to the new world of ebooks the same way one of the original Kernel stories does: as the wild west. There is boundless opportunity for publishers and authors in the ebook realm, but that opportunity is not restricted only to stuffy conservative types like me, whose preference when writing about young women is to have them fighting bad guys in boringly wholesome ways.

And let me put this very carefully: that’s fine. As long as no laws are being broken by the content of an ebook, a person has the right to write it, do what he or she will with it, and accept any consequences. Offending someone, on its own, is not illegal. However, by the same token, ebook retailers have the right (and some are saying, the responsibility) to be selective about what they do and don’t sell, without automatically being accused of vile censorship.

Not having researched any of the specific titles picked up in this sweep, I can’t comment as to whether they break any laws, or violate any rights… and I’m not planning to set aside the time to find out. What is indisputable is that pornographic content is not allowed by the agreement a publisher signs with Kobo; any content which violates the terms of that agreement should be removed (no Fifty Shades tangents, please). The titles identified by the Kernel appear to violate the terms, but were still present in the store. Hence the controversy.

The question is, why were they there? Is it because the ebook companies are money-grubbing monsters who will sell anything to make a buck? You might think that… I suspect I lot of people think that… but I wouldn’t agree. As with most things, my perspective on this matter is influenced by the people I know –– specifically, the folks over at Kobo.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Kobo’s Toronto headquarters a number of times, and if anyone is under the impression that people there have been sitting in wingback chairs, twirling their mustaches, chomping cigars, and unleashing evil laughs as they watch the porn-fueled dollars roll in, I’d have to beg to differ. Of course, I haven’t met every single person in the company, but their office is set up like a newsroom’s bullpen –– not many walls –– so I’m pretty sure I would have noticed the cigar smoke on one visit or another.

No, the folks I know at Kobo are among the least cynical I’ve ever met in the book world, and every one of them seems possessed by a determination to modernize this industry –– make it better and more accessible for writers and publishers. They’ll convert manuscripts into ebook files for free, then let authors list the resulting ePubs on other stores. They’ll offer advice, support, and tools to help writers do business… even let a hack like me stop by and waste their time with long chats on some ridiculously comfortable couches in the middle of their bullpen.

On the whole, Kobo has done more to encourage new authors than any other ebook retailer I’ve encountered… which helps explain this situation. Of course Kobo has been a useful platform for the creators of controversial content; it’s been a useful platform for everyone. Thing is, the people writing in less controversial genres aren’t grabbing these sorts of headlines.

I come back to the analogy of the wild west. A town might gain a reputation for welcoming all travelers, no matter their race or creed. That town might also hang up a sign at the outskirts: No guns [or violent pornographic ebooks] allowed. However, to avoid seeming unfriendly, they might not put armed guards on every street corner to enforce that regulation –– they’d do random checks, but mostly rely on the integrity of the visitors. Most of the time, this system would work… but eventually, some bandits would ignore the rules, and once enough of those sorts of people arrived, real trouble might start. So here we are.

One can’t minimize the importance of adequate enforcement of contracts. If users are violating their agreements, it’s right for a business to get rid of them. That’s a principle I will stand by even if Kobo’s terms of service grows to exclude gunslingers who wear green nail polish, forcing a series like Champions out of the store. If I don’t like it, I can move on and do business with retailers that reflect my personal values. I’d invite any authors currently facing eviction for contract-violating works to do precisely that; the internet is big, and there are always more places to set up shop.

At Kobo, I suspect regulation will probably get tighter, and there may be consequences for publishers. Ebook production timelines might get a bit longer, as room is made for additional content sweeps. Perhaps new agreements will need to be signed. Whatever; that’s as it should be.

One thing the frontier towns of the old west learned was how to be welcoming, while still having a strong and fair rule of law. On occasions they even made common-sense exceptions to the stated policies, so ordinary people wouldn’t be unintentionally penalized. In the ebook context, I’m not sure how one could accidentally be caught by a sweep targeting extreme porn… but if it happens, expect the problem to be solved reasonably.

The bottom line is that there’ll likely be a new sheriff in town when next I visit Kobo –– one who’s fair about letting writers express themselves, while seeing off bandits before trouble begins. It might look something like this clip from Rio Bravo… except with fewer horses:

Wait, did I just take a metaphor too literally? Wouldn’t be the first time…