Warning — the inevitable mix of politics into this discussion will occur.
For two weeks or so, writers, many of them not even involved in erotic writing, have spoken out against the decision by PayPal to enforce, supposedly at the behest of Visa and Master Card (Discovery, too? Who knows?), a ban on all credit transactions for the purchase of erotica. Not just any erotica, though — vanilla, missionary position sex is okay. It’s just the ince$t*, pseudo-ince$t, besti@lity, rape for titillation and underage / b@rely legal sex. The consequences of this, while immediate for erotica writers, will have long-term, more insidious effects on indie writers of all genres.
About a week after the outcry started to reach critical mass, a few of the more (or less) influential blogger/writers started weighing in. Surprise, surprise! They all pulled the Sit Down and Shut Up Card, or as Selena Kitt has appropriately renamed it, the Sit Up and Shut Down Card.
Now, if I were being cynical, I would say that it looks pretty damn bad when some of your friends are rightly concerned about the future of online reading and say so and you’re sitting there, silent, not doing anything. I would posit that being contrarian and disagreeing with an opinion with which most others agree DRIVES TRAFFIC, and along the lines of “All Publicity Is Good Publicity,” more traffic drives more sales. Or PayPal donations, which is how Rusch asks her readers to pay for her blog posts each week. AWKWARD!
Also, who wants to be late to the party? After observing years of social justice and fandom interactions online, I am convinced that the longer you stay out of the loop on a big controversy, the more you will try to convince yourself that said controversy is stupid or flawed or not worth your energy, because it’s a massive ego blow to be out of touch, or to find yourself on the opposite side of your friends, or to discover personal flaws you never knew you had. John Scalzi has demonstrated this phenomenon repeatedly.
I really should name this concept Rowle’s Law of Contrarianism or something cool like that. Free advertising forEVAH!
Now, all of these people usually give invaluable business advice on how writers can stand up for themselves, and I’m not going to diss them as people or stop following their blogs or recommending their articles simply because we obviously have big philosophical differences. I like challenging my own beliefs; what are they worth if they can’t stand up to criticism?
Go back through my blog posts; you’ll find a number of times I’ve linked to Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blogs. They’ve said a lot of valuable things about the industry, and they will long after this issue fades from memory.
But no one is right all of the time. In this case, they’re all wrong to varying degrees.
I also think it’s because independent writers and publishers have to function as small business owners to survive in this new digital era, and as a result, there is a constant undercurrent of libertarianism that runs throughout the self-publishing area of the blogosphere.
That’s fine when it comes to privacy issues. I think most people need to wake up and pay more attention to the slow and constant erosion of privacy, both online and off. (Voter ID just passed in Pennsylvania. I’m moving as soon as possible anyway.) When Jeff Jarvis says people have always whined about the death of privacy and we’re all here and nothing happened, he forgets that people in the 1950s didn’t store people’s social security numbers and shopping habits and addresses in giant databases and sell them to everyone except the people who should own the control of that information, because they didn’t have the Internet in the fifties. NOTHING RELEASED ON THE INTERNET EVER REALLY DISAPPEARS. NOTHING. Jeff Jarvis is willfully obtuse, and that’s why Google and Facebook pay him to promote his “openness for everyone” meme all over Teh Intarwebz.
When it comes to the “free market RULES!” theories and “regulations are bad” and “the government is evil” and “corporations are people, too” ideas, however, I have to stop and call bullshit.
Libertarian economics had its time. Clinton de-regulated a huge chunk of the financial markets and expected everyone to play nicely, so then came the advent of or increase in derivatives, credit default swaps and high-frequency trading. Ten years of unfettered stock exploitation, coupled with predatory lending by large banks and mortgage brokers, almost brought down the entire worldwide financial system.
We tried a laissez-faire approach in affiliate marketing. I say this as a former affiliate marketer. Ninety percent of the people I worked around were R** P*** supporters, raging misogynists, and not-so-closeted racist douchebags. Doing white hat SEO didn’t make enough people enough money at a fast enough speed, and the environment morphed into a constant game of one-upmanship between marketers and Google. So many people gamed AdSense and AdWords that Google clamped down. Marketers then ruined selling digital goods for everyone on eBay with Public Label Rights crap, and now I can’t sell ebooks there unless they’re on CD-ROM. Yeay, because everyone wants to party like it’s 1995!
Then scrapers pulled content from websites and created garbled text to fool Google and game its system with spammy sites and reposted blog excerpts to such an extent that Google had to drastically change its algorithms. The result? Devastation in the freelance content business. Good job, a$$holes!
People and corporations — especially corporations — DO NOT AND WILL NOT SELF-REGULATE. The fox cannot guard the henhouse. It just doesn’t work. People are greedy and will exploit loopholes and cut corners and hire cheap unsafe labor and lie and defraud, and the only way that’s going to be kept in check is if a third party monitors commerce and imposes consequences for breaking the rules.
[If you want to argue about the merits of libertarianism, please stick to how they relate to publishing. I realize this post will probably piss off people. I don't care. If you try to troll on here, I will not approve your comment, and you will be banned. You can whine about how evil regulation is on someone else's blog. It's a free internet, right? Get it?
I'm welcome to accepting reading recommendations from libertarians via email. For every book I agree to read and review, you have to read one of mine, starting with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. That introduction about the Amerindians at the beginning relates to my people. Yes, Columbus was a mass murderer. Deal.]
How does this relate back to writing and censorship, you say? I’m glad you asked.
The “Corporations Are People, Too!” Argument
Joe Konrath’ said (bolding mine):
‘The Founding Fathers would be appalled at the size and power of these institutions.‘ (Robert Szeles)
So, go forth and prosper, but don’t prosper too much?
That seems silly. We need organizations to limit the growth and subsequent power of organizations?
PayPal isn’t a Ma Bell monopoly. It simply isn’t. It doesn’t control an industry, and the Internet abounds with choice.
It does happen to be an increasingly popular way to pay for things. It worked hard to become that. And it is allowed to decide which goods and services it wants to align itself with.
The whole point of freedom is to protect those with unpopular opinions, and allow all of us to do as we please. So we have certain inalienable rights, but corporate entities don’t? Just by complaining about some perceived injustice we can force retailers to sell things they don’t want to sell? How is that fair?
So, go forth and prosper, but don’t prosper too much?
So, as long as a company operates as a corporation and buys whatever legislation it needs through lobbying, it should be able to create a monopoly?
We need organizations to limit the growth and subsequent power of organizations?
Eventually, yes. See above, with the foxes and henhouses. I happen to like my apple juice arsenic-free, my child’s toys devoid of lead, my beef inspected, and the airplane I trust with my life to have to undergo government inspections. Why does PayPal get a free pass, especially if it’s acting like a bank?
PayPal isn’t a Ma Bell monopoly. It simply isn’t. It doesn’t control an industry, and the Internet abounds with choice.
It IS a monopoly. Ask the average consumer what the best alternative company to PayPal is. Go on, I’ll wait.
It does happen to be an increasingly popular way to pay for things. It worked hard to become that.
You make it sound like PayPal is a scrappy factory worker who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps (don’t get me started on bootstraps), rose through the ranks, and ended up running the company.
In reality, it spawned out of investment from its founders, among them Peter Thiel, who was already successful by that point in time. Thiel sold PayPal to eBay who made it unprofitable to use any service other than PayPal on eBay after eBay had acquired nearly full control of the online auctions market. PayPal has always had lousy customer service and has used shady tactics since its inception, like seizing twice the funds it needed to complete a transaction. (I was once part of a class action lawsuit from 2001, but I never saw any money from a settlement. Since then I’ve been notified of at least two more.) I want to know why it “deserves” more rights to decide what people buy when what people buy is legal.
The whole point of freedom is to protect those with unpopular opinions, and allow all of us to do as we please. So we have certain inalienable rights, but corporate entities don’t?
Herein lies the problem. Most people don’t know that the Supreme Court gave corporations the designation of “entity,” and I imagine if we put it to a popular vote, giving civil rights to faceless corporate entities would be voted out of existence.
Yet here we are, in a day and age where a corporation (or LLC) is, for most intents and purposes, a person. So how come they can’t vote? Answer: they don’t need to; they can just donate money to SuperPACs and pick the nominees for us with millions of negative, lying ads! Thanks, Citizens United! I wonder if the Supreme Court does takebacks?
Seriously, there’s a reason why entities have EINs and people have SSNs. We don’t think companies should be the exact equivalent of people or be able to vote directly, which is in itself an admission that the whole concept of “corporations are people” is crap.
A corporation does not have a conscience. It does not aspire to a system of morality except for the ethics suggested by its employees or owners, and even then, the underlying motivation trumps that: PROFIT.
By definition, incorporated businesses (not necessarily LLCs) are required to issue stock, public or private, and to pursue profit above all else. That’s what the articles of incorporation say in one way or another.
So U.S. law has given incorporated companies, basically pieces of paper, many of the rights and privileges enjoyed by living, breathing human beings (and sometimes more rights and privileges than human beings). I’m not going to act like that hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
There’s a big difference between understanding how business works and approving of how parts of the economy work. I think LLCs are valuable privacy tools. I still hope that someday they are stripped of their legal mantle of personhood and the “free market” invents new ways of protecting privacy.
Corporations are not people. They do not hate, love, fear, or suffer the way we do. They are amoral by design and answer to no master. When you imply that corporations like PayPal and Visa and Master Card are the victims here for wanting to prevent people from purchasing content that they aren’t even themselves selling through what will become the predominant method of global commerce, the Internet, and blame the people actually harmed, the writers and consumers, for infringing on the rights of corporations? I LAUGH. I laugh at you.
PayPal is not the retailer. If it were just a matter of starting up another ebookstore, it would be a pain in the butt, but it would be doable. PayPal is a payment processor, and there are no affordable alternatives.
I’ll Start My Own Payment Processor If You Give Me 10 Million Dollars and Buy Off Some Congresspeople and Judges
The condescension really rolls off these posts in waves, doesn’t it? Check out this comment from Kris Rusch:
I am not saying take credit cards over the internet. Nor am I telling you to violate the law. Make a catalog that people can access on the internet. Have them fill out a form, print it out, –and (gasp!) mail it to you. With a check. Or a credit card number if you have a credit card reader for your business. After they pay, send them a private link to a website where they can download your story. It’s cumbersome, but it’ll work.
There are ways around things, folks. If it’s important to you, find the way. Sometimes that way is going back to the pre-web way of doing things. So do that until someone invents something better.
Somewhat derisive tone aside, there is a logic flaw here. If the credit card companies are disallowing you from using their cards in connection with fringe erotica online, why would they not audit and ban you offline? You would have to lie or obfuscate what you were selling, and that sounds sketchy if not fraudulent to me.
I suppose you could sell “clean” short stories and offer a paired fringe erotica story for free with each purchase, but automated delivery workarounds aside, I suspect payment processors would catch on and not care what was actually being sold so long as the payment button was on a website advertising fringe products in any way.
For someone on the cutting edge of digital publishing, Rusch’s suggestion of reverting to print strikes me as patently absurd. We’re trying to advance into the future, not fall back into the past. Erotica is often an impulse purchase. Waiting days for a money order to clear and a book or disc to be mailed is not a viable business solution. Before someone makes the snarky comment that no writer has the right to make a living at this, you’re right. Except writers do have the right, so long as it is legal to read, sell and distribute fringe erotica, to make an attempt to make a living.
If competition on equal terms means competition through equal opportunity, then by restricting only small businesses and independent writers in what kinds of entertainment and speech they can sell electronically while allowing film companies to market similar kinds of pornography (you can buy Baisez-Moi, a rape to revenge erotic film, on eBay) and Amazon to decide it will sell BDSM toys and all kinds of fiction depicting rape, murder, bestiality, incest, and underage sex but not erotica specifically, the payment processors and the credit card companies are, in my view, exerting unfair trade practices on those businesses and writers.
These kinds of cases have gone to court in the film industry. The problem is that those companies had significant money and backing from several influential sources. Independent authors don’t have that much clout or cash.
People keep bringing up the same ideas as “solutions.” When someone says to me, “Don’t like it? Find another payment processor!” or “Create your own online store!” or “Start your own payment processor” or “Wait until the free market creates a solution,” I have to restrain myself from digitally punching them in the face.
This “free market” is an illusion. The market isn’t free in the ways that it should be free, primarily because those companies who didn’t have enough regulation to keep them from creating monopolies have poured money into politics and sent people from their industries into the regulatory agencies, to such an extent that what little regulation is left has no teeth. It took Amazon a decade to grow into the powerhouse it is today. If there was going to be a viable alternative to PayPal and Visa and Master Card that vendors would accept as payment, don’t you think it would have come along by now? There is a reason why there are, for all intents and purposes, only four major credit card companies.
It calls to mind someone telling a kid of color in 1985, “If you don’t like the fact that all of the stars of children’s TV shows are white, make your own TV show.” Yeah. Because THAT’S going to happen.
[I'm having flashbacks to Mysterious Cities of Gold. Why Nickelodeon put that show on at 6 a.m. before I was ever awake, we'll never know. *sings the theme song* "Children of the sun, see your your time has just begun..."]
Censorship Isn’t Just a Legal Concept
Some people erroneously believe that if something occurs that falls outside of their pre-conceived, textbook, high school history class definition, it doesn’t merit that definition. Real life is more complicated than that.
What we are discussing when arguing about PayPal, Visa, Master Card, the banks, etc. and their undue influence by threat of monetary loss if companies are not compliant is called corporate censorship.
The end result to the writer and the consumer is the same: no access.
I’m going to repost Selina Kitt’s comment on Joe Konrath’s blog, because it bears repeating:
I’m tired of hearing the “sit up and shut down” comments or the “put up or shut up” ones.
But I do want to make this clear, as I’ve made clear elsewhere – the brilliant “solutions” that people have come up with in light of this turn of events aren’t real solutions at all.
Because while some of you have been spouting off about “solutions” that you haven’t researched yourself – some of us have actually been working on them.
So you can’t sell your stuff on these other sites? Big deal. Create your own store to sell your work…
Already did that back in 2008, thanks for the suggestion though.
Oh stop whining, just go find an alternate payment source!
If you’re honest with the processor about what you’re selling, THERE ISN’T ONE.
That’s right, there’s no viable alternative. And I’ve not been sitting on my ass doing nothing, trust me.
I have had, literally, dozens of conversations with CC processors in the past two weeks and I have a colleague who has talked to at least that many herself and we have both run into the same thing from every single one – NO CC processor will allow anything related to incest, pseudo incest, bestiality or rape for titillation. Period. Including all those processors that normally take extreme adult material like CCBill and Verotel. (Those places that normally process “porn” payments…)
My recent foray into high risk and adult merchant processors (including those offshore – the ones that process the really, really, REALLY hardcore porn stuff) has proven even further that this is the CC processors and not just PP who is behind this, that this is a new mandate, and it’s being enforced and will continue to be enforced across the board.
I was referred, through several channels, to a guy who could get an account for *anyone.* He told me personally that his company dealt with some of the most “fringe” and risky Internet businesses out there.
He turned my application in to his underwriter who came back with an immediate NO due to “illegal activity.”.
That’s right, apparently writing FICTION about sex between two consenting adults is “illegal” now? It’s okay for Woody Allen to DO it… but it’s not okay for an author to write FICTION about it?
As a matter of fact, between you and me – he said that he hadn’t seen a crackdown like this since the one against online gaming (i.e. gambling) and that came, ultimately, from the senate. He told me that, in that case, the CC processors were getting their ducks in a row prior to legislation they knew would be passed. Perhaps they are doing so again?
Fine, then just capitalize on this, see it as an opportunity and create your own payment processor!
Create my own bank. Right. Should I create my own religion too? Maybe I should invent teleportation while I’m at it…
As to the censorship thing – calling it or not calling it “censorship.” Yes, this is a first world problem. No one is shooting us down in the streets for speaking our thoughts or writing manifestos.
So no, it isn’t government censorship (and I’ve acknowledged this elsewhere as well) – but as Robert so brilliantly pointed out, it IS a form of economic censorship, and it’s just as important to stand up against it. Not just important. Imperative.
I would go to the wall for an author’s right to write and sell torture-porn (ala Hostel, Saw etc etc) but when it comes to sex and the edgy subject of incest or pseudoincest, no one wants to stand up for it?
Even Neil Gaiman said we have to defend those things we find reprehensible if we want to protect our rights.
We have to protect icky speech too.
Michele McCleod and Mz. Kitt have made these points repeatedly, and no one has adequately addressed them, because some would prefer to just respond with snippy one-liners that aren’t answers.
Really, if you know someone who will go on the record as taking payments for fringe erotica, why not just SAY SO and prove them wrong? Don’t you think that the people whose livelihoods depend on this are already taking it seriously and have already done their research, and that maybe they have good reason to be concerned about there being NO reasonable, legal alternatives?
Don’t You Have Less Important Issues To Think About?
Why are you spending so much time promoting an agenda that you don’t even understand? Shouldn’t you be working on your own business? Shouldn’t you be writing a novel or a nonfiction book or a short story? Shouldn’t you be promoting yourself and your work instead of screaming about how someone else manages their work?
Is any of this really your business? Will your little blog post or comment on some big corporate website make a difference? Will your Tweet save the world?
This is a rather clever strawman and an inverse of the more social-justice oriented derailing tactic called Don’t You Have More Important Issues To Think About? (Note: I am NOT calling this a social justice issue, merely illustrating a similar, albeit poor, derailing tactic.) Rather than arguing that there are much more important Big Issues in the World than [insert social justice controversy], Rusch’s argument is that if it doesn’t affect you, you shouldn’t care and should just mind your own damn business. Literally.
It’s a great way to go through life, not caring about anything until it actually affects you. Because I’m sure people throughout history have been able to win battles with an army of one!
It sounded like a such a ridiculously self-centered argument that I had to go back and re-read the post. Yes, that is actually what Rusch said. She actually went further than that earlier in the post:
Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me if you hate Amazon or love it; if you think PayPal is screwing you or you think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. I really, sincerely, don’t care.
Because your opinion has no impact on my business.
It has an impact if someone decides not to donate to you through your PayPal button.
And Finally, the Biggest Lie of All
The dumbest argument I’ve seen for not protesting PayPal’s censorship had to the comment from Woelf on Konrath’s post:
“The last time I checked murder, mutilation and sadistic violence were also illegal acts, yet there’s plenty of fiction depicting those. Joe’s books included.”
Sure, but I did not include those categories as they are part of the plot and not the main focus.
Are so many people THAT NAIVE as to think that people are titillated by the violence and sex in non-erotica books?
CLUEFLASH FOR THE CLUELESS AUTHORS: We readers often buy your books specifically for the subplots. Lots of times, we only buy your books because we know there are parts that we get off on.
I’m going to repeat that for emphasis, because I’m not sure it has sunken in yet:
Lots of times, we only buy your books because we know there are parts that we get off on.
Most women, for example will have at least one rape fantasy in their lifetime. Statistics vary, but the latest one I saw said that 40 percent of women regularly have rape fantasies.
They’re called fantasies for a reason, people. They’re NOT REAL, and they provide sexual release. Stop being so squeamish. These are your wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends. They don’t tell you this because society has taught them to fear and suppress their sexual desires. But those fantasies are there.
I like stories with rape in them. I’ve bought tons of books and movies with rape in them solely because they had sexual violence in parts of them. It has absolutely nothing to do with being an assault survivor. I just enjoy them, full stop. I like them even better if the rapist dies a gruesome death.
Shocking, right? That I would buy your story not for the wonderful characterization and plotting or the meaning of life quandary you set up in chapter seven but because I might dream about the rape scene in chapter nine. OH NOES! WTFBBQ!!!!11!!111
Well, I’ve given you your money, right? Aren’t you just a dispassionate business person? Why should you care? *wankity wankity wank*
HINT: It’s none of anyone’s freaking business what I read or watch or listen to or what I do with my body in the privacy of my own home.
Look. You can take this seriously, or you can sit back and be silent. It’s your choice. But remember that we’re always one midterm election away from conservative religious hypocrites who will introduce forced vaginal probing, 430 anti-choice bills a year in state legislatures, and who will prosecute you for writing fiction they deem obscene if you happen to live in the wrong state.
The more well-known you are, the easier it is for people to remember where you stood on important issues. When your time comes, who will stand up for you?