Posted on October 23, 2013 in Archive

Won’t someone please think of the children? Kobo isn’t


In an interesting (ahem, I mean, immoral and disgusting) turn of events, WHSmith and Kobo have attracted a lot of negative attention in the last week after it was discovered that several erotic self-published titles appeared alongside children’s ebook titles in WHSmith search results for usually innocent words like ‘daddy’. The backlash from this has been incredible, and once again calls into question the need for a gatekeeper for self-publishers.

Both companies pulled down their websites immediately after this discovery. Kobo provides WHSmith with an automated feed that appears on their website, so any and every search on the WHSmith page provides similar results. The facts are though, Kobo allowed (note the previous tense) self-publishers to advertise their ebooks on their system – so if these titles are so graphic and awful, why wasn’t there a screening process in place to make sure that the titles didn’t reach the public? Or why weren’t bedtime stories listed in a different category?

Major book retailers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble (who have also been caught selling similar titles) and WHSmith are even possibly facing criminal prosecution for allowing such ebooks to be sold through their website. The booksellers are thought to receive a 30% cut of all ebooks sold for under £6.60 and 35% for titles sold over that amount.

Executives at WHSmith have responded saying that the self-published titles got “under the radar”, and therefore escaped scrutiny. These websites don’t have age restrictions for search options – so anyone at any age could search for inappropriate titles. Parents are, as I type, clutching their small children to their chests and wailing about the responsibilities that retailers have towards their young family.

Liquid State - kobo - "Won't somebody please think of the children?"

Memes are always good for responding to irrational points of view.

Anyway, I’m not here to rehash the entire affair as it unfolds. In my opinion, this whole situation has been blown wildly out of proportion. The crazies are as follows:

– Parents: “Horrified parents” are going crazy, claiming that their children are being exposed to pornographic material. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many children who actually bother to search for new bedtime story titles on ebook websites. If they are young enough to require bedtime stories, they probably aren’t that tech-literate. Or literate, full stop. It’s like complaining about selling a black lace negligee next to a pair of long sleeve flannel pyjamas. Two sides of the same coin, you just have a problem with your kid looking at it.

– The people thinking about prosecuting the etailers: Seriously? They made a mistake. The titles were not placed up there intentionally by the company, they’ve since been removed, and I think they’ve apologised about 100 times now. Let it go. I’ve said this in previous blogs, and I’ll say this again. Regrettably, series like 50 Shades of Grey are popular. Really, really popular. The author originally self-published the series episodically on her personal website before it got picked up by a publisher. They are profitable, too (adaptations, anyone?). Of course people out there are going to attempt the same thing. People like making money.

– The naughty etailers getting the blame: Okay, this is sort of their bad. Someone let the ball down by not having more stringent methods of keeping this kind of thing away from the kiddies. Hopefully this situation teaches them that they need to have someone on staff who is checking the content of self-publishers to make sure that they are acceptable for public sale.

– The people who published the material in question: It’s nice to get public exposure for your book, but this is something else. Maybe try advertising your material in a more focussed environment, where people are specifically looking for this kind of literature. Even though some of the mothers complaining may have read a similar book in the past, that doesn’t mean they are interested in it now.

Rather than everyone complaining or repeatedly apologising, how about some action? These etailers can claim ignorance for as long as they stay in business, but it’s pretty obvious that this is a problem of their own making. They need to have more than a ‘click this button if this material is only suitable for adults’ button to weed out offensive material. Self-publishers, too, will have to be more careful from now on if they want the continued freedom of writing and publishing whatever they like.

P.S. I have said in this article that it is mainly Kobo’s fault, rather than the authors, for allowing pornographic material to surface in major ebook websites. This isn’t to say that I enjoy hearing about, or reading, these kinds of titles. Kobo and their pals in a similar boat just need to get their act together and put together a screening process for this sort of thing.