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Paypal vs. Smashwords

I just finished reading this article re: Paypal demanding the removal of ebooks from certain websites.

Let me tell you why this frightens me, both as an author and as an avid reader.  No, I haven’t written erotica, but I don’t believe that Paypal should try to dictate to authors or other companies what they can offer on their website.   I especially don’t think they should use their dominant position in the market to bully the sites into compliance with those demands.  At its core, Paypal is a way to transfer money electronically and nothing more.  Imagine if Western Union refused to give someone a money order or send a payment because they considered the purchase “morally objectionable.”

There is an added level of ridiculousness, since anyone over 18 can walk into a porn store in any city and- using that same credit card- buy something a lot more explicit featuring real people.  Not to mention taking the same credit card and purchasing BDSM toys to their heart’s desire.

But that is the argument that Paypal is trying to make.   The e-mail they sent to Smashwords boils down to, ‘Our banks and financial partners won’t support the purchase of objectionable erotica from your site.’  Really guys?  The credit card companies won’t let you?

Paypal has demanded that Smashwords, Bookstrand and other similar distributions sites take down or censor all stories on their e-publication sites which may contain incest or “pseudo-incest” (i.e. step-sibling relations), bestiality or paranormal romance involving one or more participants who currently are not in human form (Aren’t we getting a bit specific here?  I can think of big name authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton and Christine Feehan who violate that taboo at least once. Also, do adult versions of Beauty and the Beast count?  Cause arguments have been made that the prince was uglier as a human.)  Paypal also demanded any stories containing rape, BDSM or “morally objectionable content” be removed.   There are tons of books out there published by big houses which contain these themes in graphic detail and are quite acclaimed.   The international Best Seller Girl with a Dragon Tattoo would utterly fail Paypal’s “objectionable content” test.   Jacquelyn Carey’s bestselling Kushiel’s novels would be right out as well, given the main character’s tendency to revel in bondage, pain, and torture during sex.   But Paypal doesn’t want to remove those titles—apparently they’re literature.  What is so awful about erotica that makes it more objectionable than when it appears in literature titles? Where exactly is the line?  And by that argument, couldn’t all of these authors just change their listed genre and be good to go?

But it’s not really the bias against erotica that offends me.  It’s Paypal’s assumption that authors and readers need someone to step in and tell them what is morally OK to read.  The underlying assertion is if no one stops grown adults from reading “objectionable erotica” (whatever that means), people might stop knowing what is right and wrong.

Let me remind everyone, the United States is a country based on free speech.  You can say whatever you want, and espouse whatever views you want, and that is an inherent right of being American.   No one has stopped knowing what the moral norms are because everyone can say what they think.

Or write down what they believe.

Or even write down what they know to be absolutely horribly, awful.

If I am reading a book, and a protagonist or antagonist rapes another character, I do not need someone externally telling me that was a horrifically objectionable and wrong act.  I possess the internal reasoning processes to make that determination myself.   I can then decide what I think of that character, including their motivations as given in that story, and continue reading or not– as I choose.  Paypal wants to make those decisions for you on these sites, and keep you from ever seeing the content in the first place.

My contention is that any reasonable adult can make those decisions for themselves.   I can hear the age old argument, ”But what if my kids see that!” already.  My answer is simply: be a better parent.   Censorship is not the answer, supervising your children is.  If a parent feels their kids’ reading needs to be censored, they should do it themselves.   I guarantee you that no teenager wants to read anything remotely sexy with Mom or Dad looking over their shoulder.

Let me let you in on another secret about books: stories about moral absolutes are boring!  Everyone knows what their society’s morals are.   You don’t even have to open the first page to know everything the author is going to say.  Moral ambiguity helps create conflict.   Good stories revolve around conflict.  Because it makes you think.  Do you really want to read stories that don’t make you think?

Here’s another secret:  Great change is never brought about by perfectly happy, morally content people.  Why?  Because they like things the way they are.  The shapers of the future are the people who see the flaws and talk or write about them.  Even when what they write is completely, ugly, objectionable or lewd.

All of that said, Paypal is a private company, and as a private company it can refuse to do business with distributors it considers objectionable. I hate it; it’s stupid and biased, but our country is set up to let people (and companies) express that bias.  However, if Paypal continues to push small distributors and refuse them service based on book content, it may be time to take a look into Paypal’s smaller competitors which offer similar services.  Smaller payment gateways such as Western Union online, or Dixipay might work just as well.  Paypal is not the only option available in the big writing sea.  The biggest, yes.  The most convenient? Possibly. But there are other options.