Kobo & WH Smith – Insanity or Incompetance?

October 14, 2013 Uncategorized

It has been very hard to miss the  complaints about “adult material” making it into the WH Smith online ebook store recently, or the fact they have taken their site down.  The basic issue – adult books showing on a general search for innocuous – is correct and as reported. The causes of this, however, are a little more complicated than the standard press story covers.

First, it is necessary to note WH Smith gets its ebook feed from Kobo, which allows a much broader range of such explicit content than many suppliers.  Second, WH Smith have removed their entire site, instead of just the ebook store, inconveniencing a lot of customers for little reason. And third? Well, read their statement:

To quote from the WH Smith site:
“Our website will become live again once all self published eBooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available. When our website goes back online it will not display any self published material until we are completely confident that inappropriate books can never be shown again.” WH Smith

There are several problems with the statement’s claims – and approach to solving the problem.  The problems with the definition are that:
  • Not all self-published books are adult material. Many are memoirs, poetry, and niche non-fiction areas which the main publishers don’t cover e.g. Linux. In Fiction, it is serials, westerns and other genres claimed to be dead.
  • Not all books not published by a major publisher are self-published or vanity press. There are a rage of small presses working again in niche markets e.g. Welsh language  fiction. Here’s a list: http://llpp.ms11.net/.
Smith’s approach is to call all the above “self-published”, define all “self-published” as adult, and ban them. Worse, they are apparently demanding their supplier remove them…

The problem is that adult material is not a new issue in publishing or bookstores. Whether you believe these books should be published or not, whether they should exist or not, they should not be showing up on a standard search on a site that sells stationary. There’s a pretty industry-wide solution that already exists called an “adult filter”.

Smashwords, a distribution house, has such a filter present and on by default since 2010. Stephen Croome points out Borders did this by default. I have worked with several book review and book store sites, and the first thing they all do is put a filter on such feeds to prevent this type of content appearing.

It appears W.H. Smith did not have such a filter in place to exclude these titles or, in their agreement with Kobo, a requirement to block them at source. (After twenty years in IT, I would define filtering an input feed as such a basic requirement that not doing it is borderline competent at best.)  Instead of creating such a filter, WH Smith are removing all ebooks not by the big five publishers and trying to claim these are all “adult”. 

That’s right. As far as WH Smith’s is concerned, any book not published by the big five is “adult material” and is being blocked. It sounds unlikely, until you start checking which books are being removed. The reaction of the parties involved has unfortunately been akin to one teenager stealing a car so the courts jail everyone under thirty. Christian fiction, crime, and more have been affected.

The real problem for authors comes because the retailer are also apparently putting pressure on Kobo to pull all small-press and self-published books.

Kobo are now delisting all self-published authors, small presses and entire distributors, regardless of their content and genre. No notice is being given, nor email warnings. , but it is not adult material being banned: authors of Christian fiction and cozy mystery have lost books, and I can only imagine they are as angry as I am over this.

Fire Season, and The Docks, have been removed. Neither contain adult content – notably, Fire Season was considered suitable for  one reviewer’s eight-year-old daughter and given 4 stars (Thanks!).  While Kobo are trying to claim they are only removing self-published books this is provably untrue: Fire Season is from a small press, not self-published, and has been removed.

Other authors have been caught because Draft2Digital, a distributor, has been block-banned without notice. Adult material is a small proportion of its range.  Draft2Digital notified all their authors by email (available here). Kobo, meanwhile, have said absolutely nothing to their authors at all.  I would not have known about Fire Season if I had not checked manually after I heard about the bannings.

My opinion? Well, my opinion of Kobo and WH Smith just plummeted. I suspect the backlash will leave Amazon in a much stronger, possibly even monopoly position, since the authors I know are extremely angry at being lumped in with adult works: fluffy mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and crime books have all been hit. These are works by authors who do not write adult material, are not published by presses that publish explicit material, and in many cases are published on Kobo through Writing Life Kobo’s own platform:

A few examples:
Cecelia Peartree – cosy mystery writer: 1 book left
Mark Cooper – Science fiction writer: books distributed by Draft2Digital – all removed
David Gaughran – adventure, historical and science fiction: All books pulled
Ryan Casey – Mystery and Thrillers: All books pulled.

The actual “adult” authors aren’t happy either: there’s a letter here  from one expressing their views, and threatening DMCA. There are a lot of authors across all genres talking about leaving Kobo because the treatment of the authors.

To summarise:
  • WH Smith failed to filter or arrange the filtering of, incoming data to exclude poor content.
  • WH Smith failed to filter search results to exclude such content and showed unfamily-friendly content to children.
  • WH Smith pulls its entire site instead of just ebooks, in what looks like a panic response
  • Kobo delisted authors across all genres in the UK – despite the fact their Writing Life platform pre-vets books before release.
Effectively, the retailer’s statement brands many mainstream authors pornographers and is now costing them their livelihoods because the same retailer did not set up its website to what many IT consultants would consider a basic standard. (Econsultancy goes further – click here to read article)

On the bright side however, I’ve just finished converting my Kobo reader to a Linux tablet and installing the Kindle app on it. Anyone else want instructions?

If you’re a non-adult content author affected by this blanket ban, please let me know in the comments.