Shortly after posting the story to Slog, I was approached by Jennifer D. Munro, a local self-published author whose recent collection of stories, The Strangler Fig, was removed from Amazon search, supposedly for objectionable content. Munro kindly agreed to an e-mail interview about the experience.
Briefly tell us about your book, please.
My book, The Strangler Fig, is a collection of six short stories that were formerly published in a couple of literary journals, a fantasy anthology, a horror anthology, and two erotica anthologies. The collection is a mix of what tends to be dark paranormal tales, though a couple of them have an erotic element (a general vanilla gamut of lust, love, obsession). I went indie with the collection rather than trying to find a traditional publisher, because it’s very difficult to find a major publisher interested in a short story collection, especially one as difficult to categorize as this one, and I like the new frontier of indie publishing.
Tell me a little about your relationship with Amazon. When did you start selling books? Were you happy with them?
I started selling ebooks with Amazon two years ago and have been happy with them. Their customer service has been responsive and they continue to offer innovative marketing programs for indie authors, improve their payment systems to indie authors, and improve ereader technology. I have three short story ebook collections up with Amazon and had planned on more. I publish my print books through Lulu, because I felt it unwise to have all of my eggs in Amazon’s basket. As an avid reader, I’m a hybrid: I’m loyal to my local bookstores and my rockin’ library for print books, but I was also loyal to Amazon for my ebooks.
When did you notice that things started going wrong? Did Amazon tell you about this change?
No, Amazon did not inform me about any changes, either about a direct change to my book description listings or a change in their general policies.
In mid-December, I was working on updating information in my ebook file, in preparation for the print version that I’m releasing, and I noticed that my two categories for The Strangler Fig had disappeared, and that it was now categorized as Erotica. (Each ebook is allowed two Kindle categories, so that your book comes up when a customer searches for books in that category, or “genre.”) Amazon had never changed my categories before; it’s up to the indie author to choose the categories. The Strangler Fig collection is not erotica; it’s highly doubtful it would make anybody stick their hands down their pants. That’s a fine intent, but it wasn’t mine for this book.
I went into my book setup page to re-assign the book back to the more appropriate categories, but they wouldn’t appear on the book page that customers see. I then contacted Customer Service that the categories I had entered (Dark Fantasy and Gothic) were not showing up, and their first response was: “The categories paths you requested aren't currently available in the Kindle Store.” I knew this response was not correct (liar, liar, pants on fire!). So I wrote back to politely request the change again. Their second response was: “I've investigated this matter further, and found that our Content Review team has deemed your title to be suitable for Mature readers only; your title has been categorized as such. As we have found your Kindle book contains mature content, it will not surface in our general product search results.” I was floored, so I emailed back to ask how an author could appeal this decision if it’s incorrect. Their response was, “During our review, we found that your book description contains mature content and therefore the title won’t surface in our general product search.” Basically, their decision was final.
No warning or notification that they had made the change. No reason or specifics given. No recourse for authors.
So…I had to guess at what the problem was and take a shot in the dark at fixing it? It wasn’t until I posted my frustration about all of this to Facebook, and friends pointed me to the two Stranger articles and the Business Insider article, that I had any idea that this was part of a widespread problem affecting numerous authors, and that (in my opinion) it’s figurative book burning on a huge scale. If the question is, “Where are they going to draw the line?” beyond Bigfoot rape scenarios, it became apparent to me that the line is murky, and it’s moving, and nobody is allowed to see where or what it is.
I understand that Amazon has the right to sell whatever they want and can enforce their own policies. But they have no clear policy, they gave no notice to authors, we have no recourse if their decision doesn’t seem appropriate, and whatever vague, murky, behind-the-scenes policy (or “naughty words” list) they might have is not being applied to all books and all authors (it seems that it’s only being applied to self-published authors). Much more explicit books than mine are available through general search categories. Are indie authors not allowed to write about sex?
In the e-mail exchange you forwarded to me, Amazon said they reviewed your book and found it to contain "mature content." What's the most mature content in your book?
Any sex in two of the stories tends to be more implied, sensual, and euphemistic rather than anything graphic. No cocks, no cum, no nonconsensual anything, especially with creatures that don’t bathe. There’s an enchanted tree that needs to be, er, rubbed for its sap, but the tree is really into it (trees were definitely harmed in the writing of the book, however, because I used paper). There are fleeting or vague references to sexual acts, but it’s all literary and pretty darn tame.
Technically, Amazon still carries your book, but users can't search for it without knowing the exact name of the book or your name. Does this affect the way you're going to sell your book in the future?
Yes. I’ve always given Amazon the exclusive to my ebooks through their KDP Select program, which gives Amazon exclusive sales in exchange for their marketing promotion programs. But I’ve now pulled all three of my books from KDP Select and will be listing them with Smashwords, because I’m behind the decision the Smashwords CEO made to not cave to puritanical pressure (as quoted in the Business Insider article). The sales numbers aren’t there for Smashwords like they are for Amazon, but, for me, it’s the principle. I hope bigger authors than I am step up and help Amazon to realize that they’ve shot themselves in the (big)foot with this one.
Do you feel, now that you've talked with Amazon, that you understand what their policies are with the books that they do and do not choose to publicize?
No, I have absolutely no idea what their policy is. I have no idea what words or images triggered their removing my book from general search categories. If they would have a clear policy, applied fairly across the board to all authors and books, I (like I’m sure most indie authors) would be more than happy to follow it.
Have you spoken with any other authors about these changes? What do they have to say?
Most of my Facebook friends are authors and readers, and they expressed indignation and outrage when I posted my dilemma, and of course there was the expected, “I told you Amazon was evil.”