Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Amazon at it Again - Blocking Pseudoincest and Monster Sex!

Amazon is at it again. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when Amazon decides to change the rules of publishing erotica on their site, but there are days when I feel like my career in this genre is a little bit like playing Calvinball. (Anyone else remember Calvin and Hobbes?) The only rules are the ones Amazon makes up – and they constantly change. And to make it even more “fun,” they don’t tell you what that rules are, or when or how they are going to change.

Can you tell transparency isn’t exactly this company’s strong suit?

So what’s new? Amazon is cleaning house. The message I got (and I actually talked to an Amazon customer service representative, in fits and starts, a bit like trying to crack a code or talk to someone speaking backwards Pig Latin) is that Amazon doesn’t mind selling or profiting from erotica, and it isn’t going to ban it or stop selling it—they just don’t want it to actually look like erotica is about… you know… (sex!)

They are specifically targeting pseudoincest (i.e. those stories where sexual relations take place between perfectly legal of-age step-siblings, or between 18+ stepdaughter and stepfather, stepmother and 18+ stepson, etc.) and monster sex (tentacles, bigfoot, etc). As far as I can tell, right now they are reviewing any new work or anything that shows up as new (i.e. if you tweak your title, change the price, upload a new cover, and republish). If they find a title too risqué, they are blocking it (not just slapping the ADULT filter on it or kicking it back into draft, mind you, but actually blocking/suppressing it) and sending an email out to the author letting them know where the problem lies (title, cover or blurb) if not exactly what the problem is.

They are currently only looking at NEW or REPUBLISHED titles, but be forewarned—you are going to want to clean up your catalog, because down the line, I got the feeling they intend to start going through already-published titles. So what, exactly, is the new policy? What’s ok, what isn’t?
Welcome to Calvinball Amazonball, where the rules constantly change and your opinion doesn’t matter!

It’s all hit and miss with Amazon, as usual, and there’s no telling what will or won’t be approved, to tell you the honest truth. I’m so tired of playing this game, I’m about ready to quit. Just when you think you know the rules, they change. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, Amazon throws another ball at your head. And of course, there’s no transparency.

The ADULT filter is still being used—completely arbitrarily and without warning to authors or publishers. I recently had a freebie of mine, Connections, ADULT filtered. But back in May, I put ujnderwear on the girl and they unfiltered it, no problem. Some time between May and a few days ago, when I noticed it was filtered, Amazon changed their mind. Of course, they didn’t tell ME about it. No notice. Months of lost downloads and exposure. Thanks, Amazon!

Why am I doing business with this capricious, duplicitous, unreliable company again? Oh yeah, because they’re the biggest distributor in town and provide me with the most exposure for my work. That’s really unfortunate, because I feel quite stuck between a rock and a hard place. If I want to sell (and this is my business, my livelihood, of course I do—there’s a real person here, raising a family, and I have braces and wrestling shoes and a mortgage to pay!) I have to deal with Amazon.

But they sure don’t make it easy.

Amazon’s so vague-as-to-be-useless “guidelines” they point erotica writers to when they reject a title don’t give me any idea what the rules actually are. When I talk to Amazon customer service, they speak in code. Their lack of transparency is truly appalling. They don’t tell authors or publishers when they ADULT filter a title. And until recently, when an author noticed and appealed, they simply pointed them to their vague (useless) guidelines. Thanks to a conversation I had with Amazon a few months ago, at least now they are giving us some direction (title, cover, description or content) even if they still won’t tell us specifically what the issue/problem is.
So in trying to interpret the new rules of Calvinball Amazonball, I’ve come to the following conclusions. Of course, your mileage may vary, and the rules may change tomorrow.

Anything containing nudity is now completely out (unless you want to be ADULT filtered). No breasts, no hand-bras, no bare bottoms. Thongs aren’t okay anymore. Even some lingerie is being rejected. You can have the hottest, smuttiest prose you want on the pages of your book, as long as the cover doesn’t reflect your content.

Also, couples are okay on covers, however, if they are touching each other in any way, and they look like they are actually enjoying it, it may be rejected. If the models are passive, you may get it through. However, if they have that “oh yes!” look, or happen to be groping each other? Nope. That’s right, Amazon has now pushed our sexuality back to the Puritan age. We can embrace, but we can’t look like we’re actually enjoying the sex! Anyone have a sheet with a hole cut into it we can put between our characters? *sigh*

Most of the same rules I gave you before still apply here. Keep the “bad” words out of your titles and descriptions. You’re a writer—you’re going to do some creative writing here. Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother, Siblings, etc, may get you  blocked (not just filtered—blocked) if it’s in the title. The same goes for monster sex—tentacles, bigfoot, centaur, etc. in the title may now get your book blocked. Again, it seems arbitrary right now—some titles are getting through—but it’s better safe than sorry. I know, it’s frustrating. How is anyone going to find your story without a keyword in the title? But if you put it in the title, no one is going to see it, because Amazon is going to block it. How’s that for a nice Catch-22? Thanks, Amazon!

Again, you’re going to have to get creative. References to relations (i.e. Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother, etc) won’t necessarily get you blocked here (although they might get you filtered) but it depends on how explicit you are. The more tame you are in your description, the better. Amazon doesn’t want someone who accidentally stumbles onto your title to be “shocked” by what they find.

And that’s really what it comes down to. A year ago, Amazon’s erotica bestseller list was full of shock-and-awe titles. It was like erotica authors thought they had to outdo each other in order to gain any visibility on the charts. Well, that’s changed. Go look at the erotica titles on top now—they have titles, covers and descriptions more in line with Fifty Shades of Grey. They’re tame, soft, romantic. This is clearly the erotica image Amazon wants to present, and that’s what these “policy changes” seem to indicate.

I predict that a year from now, erotica on Amazon is going to look very different—even the hardcore stuff. Amazon isn’t just hiding it behind the ADULT filter anymore, they’re outright blocking and suppressing titles they don’t want their customers to see. Is it corporate censorship? Yep. Is it unfair? Yep. But Amazon can do what they like and life is unfair.

In this business you either change and adapt, or you… well, you don’t die. You just lose visibility and fall into obscurity. Which, for an author, is pretty much the same thing.
So erotica writers, now you have the new “rules,” such as they are. You need to decide for yourself what you’re going to do.
I do have some predictions. I imagine a lot of authors who jumped on the gravy train a year or two ago (writers who had scoffed at erotica with disdain who suddenly started writing in the genre looking for a big payout) will fall off. It won’t be worth it anymore, because it won’t be so easy for readers to find them and the money will dry up.

Some will switch genres and find success there. Some will go back to their day jobs. But the pool of authors writing erotica is inevitably going to shrink because of this change. I don’t like the corporate censorship and self-censoring that’s happening because of Amazon’s policy changes and I don’t like any company big enough to force such a change on the face of literature. But the bright side, if you want to find one, is that the authors who remain will be the ones who truly love writing it, who care about their craft and their readers.

Those authors, I believe, will adapt—their covers and blurbs and descriptions will become less shocking and titillating, but I think the quality of the work will rise. I think erotica itself as a genre will become better. The writers who love it will stay, and the readers who love it will find those authors and stick with them.

At least, that’s what I hope.

For those authors who aren’t willing to give up—this is a time when building a name for yourself in the genre, creating a brand, cultivating a relationship with fans and building a mailing list is going to be crucial. It’s once again going to get harder to find what you want in the erotica category on Amazon, so you as an author need to find a way to directly connect with your readers.

I truly wish you the best of luck in your game of Calvinball Amazonball!

Selena Kitt
Erotic Fiction You Won't Forget


  1. For crying out loud, how will they further suppress free speech and decide the morals of their customers for them?

    I have a title listed on amazon call "Lovestruck Succubus." Does this mean that I should change it somehow to meet their sensitive requirements? Should I be concerned that one day my title will disappear? I mean, after all, a succubus is a demon. Is a demon considered a monster? What about werewolves and shape shifters? I write about them too.

    Love this post. You are so right. We as writers, especially writers of erotica, must remain flexible so as not to inflame or damage the sensibilities of amazon. Next thing you know, they'll be removing titles about sparkly vampires and abusive misogynistic billionaires involved in overbearing, one-sided relationships with virginal college students.

  2. Sounds like playing soccer against the King's team on the island of Naboombu.