One of the things that those of us who self-publish erotica on Amazon have to contend with it is the capriciousness of Amazon’s censors. When you publish something on Amazon, you have to upload your novel (or story or whatever) and then you have to wait a few days while Amazon approves it for sale. Amazon has some rather vague rules about what you can and can’t publish. The most relevant here is that you can’t publish things that are “pornographic”.
The problem with that, of course, is that Amazon publishes a shit-ton of written pornography, so much of it that there’s a whole subcategory of romance that is ‘chaste’, targeted at the subset of romance and erotica audience that doesn’t want sex in the story. In other words, descriptions of sex are so common in these genres that there’s a special category for the non-explicit stuff. And any graphic description of sex is pornographic.
Amazon wants to eat its cake and have it too. (BTW, having your cake and then eating it is the normal way people do it. Eating your cake and still having it is the unreasonable option.) They want to publish romance and erotica because they make a lot of money of it, but they also want to claim that they don’t publish pornography because that would be bad. So instead, they publish pornography but occasionally reject specific types of sex acts as unacceptable. In part, I’m sure this is because they want to make sure they’re not publishing child pornography and other highly problematic material that some people would be inclined to publish if Amazon would let them.
But the way Amazon goes about it is mercurial. They refuse to identify what specific things will get a novel rejected. Maybe they are trying to avoid giving the bad actors (like child pornographers) a guide to how to evade the rules. But the result is a black box in which a well-intentioned author submits something, hopes it doesn’t get rejected, and if it does get blocked, has to guess what’s wrong in order to change it.
Erotica and romance authors have lots of guesses about what will get a novel bounced, but there’s so much grey area that no one’s really certain. They won’t accept rape scenes, but they will accept “dubious consent” scenes, where the sub/bottom isn’t totally willing but not totally unwilling either. What is the line between rape and dubcon? Only Amazon knows for sure. They won’t publish underage sex but your character can get laid on his 18th birthday. They won’t publish incest, but your character can have sex with the guy who’s been his stepdad since he was 1 and that’s ok; Stepdads and step-brothers get a LOT of action on Amazon. It’s generally thought that some specific types of play, such as piss play, aren’t acceptable, but there are definitely novels with piss play in them for sale on Amazon. A lot seems to depend on the particular worker who reviews your novel. One worker can find it acceptable (or miss a problematic scene because they weren’t looking close enough) and the one sitting next to them would bounce that same book. It’s generally thought that you shouldn’t submit novels over the weekend or the holidays, because the lower-level employees who work on those days seem to read more closely than the more jaded regular workers.
You can probably guess by now why I’m writing this. Amazon just rejected my gay superhero novel Silhouette: Captured and Conquered. Earlier this week, they blocked it without any explanation. So I emailed them and asked why it was blocked. They responded with a form letter identifying the four major reasons things get blocked–1) content that is illegal, such as rape, or infringes on someone else’s copywriter; 2) Some items that are already in the public domain; 3) Poor customer experience, which probably means that your book got a lot of complaints, and 4) “Other prohibited content”, which includes pornography”.
I responded by asking which of the four categories was relevant here. They responded by saying they were going to review it. Then they blocked the first half of the novel, which was for sale on Amazon as Silhouette: The Hero Captured, but not the sequel, Silhouette: The Hero Conquered. So someone initially approved both halves, and then when someone else looked over the combined novel, that second reader rejected it. Then when I inquired, someone else noticed that they’d already published something that they felt should have been blocked, so they blocked that too.
Then they responded by saying the novel was blocked but that I could resubmit it with changes. When I asked what the specific problematic content was, they responded with an email that said they couldn’t offer any more details. In other words, I can randomly guess what they found problematic, change it, and then submit it and see if it gets past the censors. Did they dislike the gang-bang? Probably not, because that appears in other novels that have been published on Amazon. Did they dislike the bondage and torture sequence? Probably not because ditto. Was my dubcon scenario too dub and not enough con? Seems unlikely because ditto. For all I know, they disliked one of the character’s names or hate the word ‘jizz’.
What I find particularly frustrating is that my novel’s afterword specifically discusses the ethical problems with the main character’s actions. I clearly distinguish between the fantasy of being captured and turned into a willing sex slave and the reality of that being a sociopathic thing to do to someone. So I give the reader a clear sense of what healthy bdsm should look like and the ways in which the relationship in the novel is unhealthy and not to be emulated. In other words, I deconstruct the novel a little bit to help educate the reader about real bdsm. That novel got banned when novels featuring incredibly unhealthy abuse (cough 50 Shades cough) masquerading as bdsm are allowed to sell and mis-educate people about kink.
So the novel got blocked and practically speaking, there’s nothing to be done about it. I cannot appeal or even speak to anyone directly because Amazon chooses not to do that. I’m not willing to randomly guess about what they dislike and compromise my free speech to meet their capricious standards. What I can do is publish the novel elsewhere. It will be going up on Barnes & Noble after I get a weird formatting problem fixed with the manuscript. This is also pushing me to do something I was already planning on doing–get my work up on Smashwords, which has somewhat looser rules about content (but much stricter rules about formatting, which is why I’ve been putting off tackling that).
And it’s given me a marketing campaign for this book. Because now I can legitimately say that my novel is “Too Hot for Amazon”! Until I get it up on B&N and Smashwords, if you want to read the novel, you can purchase it through this website. Donate $4.99 through the Donate button and then email me at hadriantemple1 at gmail dot com and I’ll send it to you. Or you can buy either half from me for $2.99. Let me know if you want it in .mobi (Kindle format) or PDF. (And honestly, if you want to stick it to Amazon a little bit, you can buy any of my novels this way.)