Smashwords is one of the biggest indie publishers in electronic literature, with over 100,000 books in its catalogue. On 24 Feburary, the Smashwords blog was updated by founder Mark Coker to say:
"We modified our Terms of Service tonight to clarify our policies related to bestiality, rape and incest in erotica. This move was forced by PayPal, the payment processor that drives transactions at Smashwords.com, and that we use to pay our authors/publishers."
The fallout of this is still being negotiated by the two companies, but it's clear that Paypal are threatening to cut off Smashwords' cash flow unless certain titles are removed from sale.
A quick search of the Smashwords catalogue shows about 1,000 titles tagged with the offending terms, but how bad are the actual books? Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to try reading some of them.
Birthday by Allison Heather ($3.60) was first on our list, with glorious tags such as erotica anal sex, watersports and motherdog love. It starts off nicely enough with a pregnant woman at home, relaxing by the TV with her St Bernard. Everything's fine until the dog follows her to the bathroom and then... no. Bad dog.
Next was the By The Pack series. These tales - with charming titles such as Hunted By The Pack, Fucked By The Pack and Forced By The Pack - seem to be the set up for some very bizarre lupine bestiality, but at the very last moment the wolves turn out to be werewolves. Phew. Despite the very graphic sex, it's essentially Twilight.
The next few books are where things start to get really grim. Daddy Collection by Sara Sweet ($2.99) promises hardcore erotic short stories based around incest. On closer inspection, this belongs to the genre known as "Pseudo-incest", where the relations are between stepparents and stepchildren.
The same things occurs In Between My Daughter's Legs (Winning My Daughter's Virginity part 2) by Delilah Diamond ($2.99), which again is about a girl and her stepfather. Thoroughly nasty and pretty much unreadable, the book isn't quite as repulsive as its name, which itself is the least objectionable title credited to Delilah Diamond.
The one book that inspired rage all the way from the title to the final sentence was Humiliated Hotel Maid by Isis Cole. Claiming to be fictional, it's a novella about the French president of an international financial body who rapes his hotel maid. In this retelling of the classic story, not only does the maid really enjoy it but it turns out (after he has thoroughly abused and humiliated her) that she's been planning to blackmail him all along.
This is a small selection of the type of book under threat, with Birthday looking like it has already been withdrawn. The most recent update on the Smashwords blog indicates that they are currently negotiating with Paypal over exactly how much rape, incest and bestiality is permissible in their titles.
These individual books will only be missed by the creepiest of people. But the precedent is concerning. While Paypal have every right to choose how to do business, they are effectively putting themselves in the position of censor. A censor with global reach, an opaque decision-making process and no right of appeal for affected authors. Is this the first real test of the e-publishing revolution?
A longer version of this post originally appeared on http://eldink.co.uk