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Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller

Last week The Bookseller reported on a furore in the world of e-Book publishing. Erotic self-published novels appeared next to children’s literature in the WH Smith online store, which is powered by Kobo.

This looks to me like a technical mistake, but the occurence provoked outrage. The store was taken offline for a while and many books were removed from sale. I spoke to The Bookseller about the controversy:

Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications at English Pen, told The Bookseller: “We need to remember that great literature is very often ‘offensive’, and that alone should never be the trigger for suppressing books. If the Kobo/W H Smith collaboration had existed in the mid-20th century, then Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Lolita would have caused similar presentational offence. Fifty Shades of Grey was originally a self-published novel, so its only by luck of recent history that E L James’ books were not removed from sale in a similar manner.”

Obviously booksellers such as WH Smith have the right to sell only the books they want. There’s no law that says they absolutely must publish erotic fiction! But this principle has prfound implications when just a few big players dominate the e-book market. Failure to get an e-book listed on platforms like Kobo and Amazon is a huge impediment to author’s ability to disseminate their work, especially when the retailers also control the devices that readers use to access the text. Are the content policies of the big retailers inadvertently impeding free expression?

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