By Mark Coker, Smashwords
Smashwords has introduced new classification requirements for erotic fiction.
Starting today, when a new erotic fiction book is uploaded to Smashwords, or when updates are made to an existing erotic fiction book, a short supplemental check box questionnaire will appear. The questionnaire asks the author or publisher to confirm the absence or presence of certain taboo themes.
Smashwords will use this information to honor the distribution preferences of our retailers and library partners.
iBooks, Kobo and Barnes & Noble want to carry most mainstream erotic fiction, yet all disallow erotic fiction containing themes of incest, pseudo-incest, bestiality, rape-for-titillation and sexual slavery. iBooks and Kobo have prohibited these topics for several years. Last month, Barnes & Noble, once the most permissive of the major retailers, brought their policies into similar alignment.
The Erotica Classification Challenge
Retailers and libraries face special challenges with erotic fiction. To a certain extent, these challenges have cast a cloud over all self-published ebooks, including those that aren’t even erotic.
By way of example, witness the WHSmith Kobocalypse that occurred back in October 2013 when the Daily Mail wrote a salacious story about how a search for “daddy” pulled up taboo erotica alongside children’s books at UK retailer WHSmith, powered by Kobo. The next day, WHSmith removed all ebooks from self-published authors, including all non-erotica books. To this day, the size of WHSmith’s self-published catalogue is a small fraction of all the other major retailers.
Incidents like this jeopardize trust and confidence between retailers and the indie community. Although some might cast blame upon erotic writers who explore taboo themes, the true culprit in this challenge is a technology one, and it’s the challenge we’re tackling with today’s announcement.
Most retailers utilize standardized classification systems such as BISAC to determine the appropriate virtual shelf for your ebook. This enables customers who want to read books in any subject to find your book. For example, a fan of paranormal romance will look on the fiction: romance: paranormal shelf, and a fan of political thrillers might look under fiction: thriller: political.
Whereas a typical physical bookstore might only offer a couple dozen book sections under high level categories, the BISAC classification system defines over 4,400 unique categories. BISAC is what makes it possible for ebook retailers to create thousands of specialized, micro-targeted virtual ebook shelves, if they choose. BISAC (or its international equivalent, Thema) makes it easy for customers to find books on their favorite specialized subjects.
These classification systems also enable retailers to set rules within their store that can keep certain books away from readers who should not see them or who don’t want to see them. For example, retailers don’t want a violent adult horror novel appearing alongside books for children.
But with erotic fiction, the BISAC classification system falls short. BISAC provides only a few categorization options for erotic literature. All of the options describe mainstream commercial erotica categories such as General Erotic Fiction, BDSM, Erotica Collections & Anthologies, Gay, Lesbian, Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror, and Traditional Victorian.
Our largest retailers want to carry the mainstream erotica.
However, there are no BISAC categories for the more taboo themes mentioned above. This means that heretofore, authors of these taboo subjects were forced to classify their books in a BISAC category that was inaccurate or inadequate.
Restoring Confidence and Trust
The lack of support for taboo subjects in BISAC has negative implications for retailers, libraries, authors, publishers and readers alike.
It makes it difficult for retailers to select which erotic titles they want to carry. It diminishes the trust retailers and libraries have in self-published erotic content since the books they want are mixed with the books they don’t want.
When a retailer (or distributor such as Smashwords, for that matter) must guess about the presence of certain taboo themes based on indirect inputs such as book title, book descriptions, book content and keywords, it creates an untenable, error-prone situation where disallowed books are distributed to retailers that don’t want them, and where acceptable books are accidentally removed by retailers.
Our new approach empowers those who know their content best – the author or publisher – to directly categorize and certify the erotic themes of their books. This will give our sales channels greater confidence to receive the erotica they want while avoiding the titles they don’t want.
The new Smashwords classification system is built on trust. We trust our authors and publishers to accurately categorize their books, and we trust they recognize it’s in their best interest to do so. As is our practice, we will continue to monitor all Smashwords titles for compliance with the Smashwords Terms of Service. Those who jeopardize this trust through deliberate misclassification will face account closure.
Already, Gardners, a Smashwords distribution partner that previously did not accept any erotica, will begin taking erotica certified as mainstream following the launch this erotica classification initiative. Other Smashwords retailers and library platforms are also taking advantage of our new approach to allow the taboo themes they want while blocking those they don’t want. Most retailers, for example, want to continue receiving dubcon erotica since dubcon is a common theme is mainstream fiction.
Start Certifying Today
The new classification system is in place today, and visible from the Smashwords publish page for all new uploads.
When an author selects any erotic classification (including erotic romance) as a primary or secondary category for their book, we will display a questionnaire to collect supplemental information. The author or publisher will certify which themes are absent or present. Authors and publishers with previously uploaded erotic works will also be asked to certify those those works.
If you publish erotic fiction at Smashwords, please click to your Smashwords Dashboard now to certify either the absence or presence of these themes in your work.
For erotica authors and publishers with large backlists, we’ve created a bulk certification tool to expedite the certification process. The tool lists the questionnaires for up to 50 titles on the page at once. The tool is linked at the top of the Smashwords Dashboard and visible to all authors and publishers with uncertified erotic content.
Going forward, certification of erotic content is required for all new and existing erotic fiction titles at Smashwords. We’ll be in regular contact with our erotic authors and publishers over the next few months to help them complete the certification for all appropriate titles.
For erotica authors and publishers who neglect to certify their backlist titles, they risk the removal of those titles at the option of the retailer or library partner, even if the works don’t contain taboo themes. Certification = trust, so please certify your titles today.
Taboo Themes Defined
If you’re unsure how Smashwords and its partners define these themes, I’ve summarized the definitions below. We developed these definitions in close consultation with our largest retailers to ensure uniform policy enforcement.
Age play – One or more consenting adult characters role playing, pretending to be babies or children. Most retailers will take this, but iBooks will not.
Bestiality – Sexual relations between humans and real-world animals (sex with Big Foot, dinosaurs, shape shifters and other imaginary creatures is not bestiality). Few retailers will take this.
Dubious Consent (dubcon) – A common and popular theme in mainstream fiction. Dubcon explores the gray area between consent and non-consent. Not clear if the receiver of the sexual act was fully on board or not at the time of the act. Most retailers will take this.
Incest or pseudo-incest – Sexual relations between family members, whether biologically or non-biologically related. Includes stepbrother, stepsister and step-anyone. Few retailers will take this.
Nonconsensual sexual slavery – Erotic depiction of a person captured or held against their will, such as kidnapping, imprisonment or human trafficking. Not to be confused with BDSM, which is predicated upon informed consent and negotiation between both parties before the act, and which provides safe words so either partner can end the act if it goes too far. If the book adheres to BDSM best practices, do not classify it as Nonconsensual sexual slavery. Few retailers will take nonconsensual sexual slavery.
Rape for titillation – The dominant theme of this book is rape — whether the rape is by one person or a character is raped by a group of people, i.e. a gang rape or nonconsensual “gang bang” — and it targets readers who are titillated by the fantasy of nonconsensual sexual relations. Few retailers will take this.
Others not mentioned – The above list is not all inclusive. There are many other taboo themes that have never been allowed at Smashwords or our retailers (underage erotica, snuff, scat and necrophilia, for example). For a full summary of Smashwords erotica policies, please review Section 9f of the Smashwords Terms of Service.
Who Takes What?
Below is a chart showing delivery preferences for Smashwords retailers and library partners as of September 14, 2017. Please note Smashwords and all sales outlets always retain the right to refuse any title in any category for any reason. Current policies at each are subject to modification at any time.
Smashwords Erotica Delivery Policies
My thanks to Smashwords retailers and library partners for their advice, counsel and encouragement as we developed this new classification approach. Thank you to my friend Cecilia Tan for her wise input regarding definitions.
And thanks in advance to Smashwords erotica authors and publishers for their professionalism, cooperation and patience as we work to implement this new system. I realize this will create extra work for you. In the long run, however, our work here will help preserve maximum distribution opportunities for all indies.