Writing on the Ether: Kobo’s Feast of Burden

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Table of Contents

  1. The Spineless Butterball
  2. Man of the Hour
  3. When All the eBooks Vanished
  4. “Active Romance”
  5. “A One to a Zero”


The Spineless Butterball

My turkey, here on the United States’ Thanksgiving Day, is without backbone. 

This is a delightful disruption of tradition, particularly for moderns who enjoy cooking but only to a point, and for those of us who fancy carving the pertinent poultry even less.

I see the boneless turkey as the biggest advance at the American holiday table since we got those awful buckles off everybody’s shoes. I give thanks for this to Butterball. Cooper the Literary Beagle and I send our annual greetings to you as we honor the Principles o’ the Pilgrims with seasonal gluttony, unimpeded by the free-range femur.

On any typical Thanksgiving, of course, having no bone to pick with the centerpiece creature might recall certain spineless members of the industry! the industry!

Not this year.

This year, we tip our cockle hat, in fact, to Canada, which has its own Thanksgiving on the wrong date, of course—they’re Canadian, after all—but which has provided us with a remarkable moment of corporate generosity, well worth your attention.

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Man of the Hour

The "Big Ideas Session" at The Bookseller's FutureBook Conference 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson
The “Big Ideas Session” at The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson

A week ago today, on the 21st of November, more than 650 of us were gathered in The Bookseller’s magenta-toned FutureBook Conference in London. Nigel Roby, Philip Jones, their efficient staff and many game speakers led us through a good and very pink day of concept and comment. A standout, in fact, was the afternoon’s “Big Ideas Session.” I’ve written about it at Publishing Perspectives in Publish Faster, Publish Less: FutureBook’s “Big Ideas.”

And like a small warm-up to the Big Ideas, a 10-minute session had been inserted into the program for 4 p.m.

Michael Tamblyn
Michael Tamblyn

Michael Tamblyn, content chief at Kobo, was to speak.

I was glad of this. I’d been so glad to have Tamblyn in the implications-of-self-publishing town-hall session I moderated in the Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC Conference in October. He’d been terrific in that setting.

But this time, Tamblyn proceeded to outdo even his London talk’s title: “Infinite Shades of Grey: The Promise and Perils of Self-Publishing in the UK.”

I’ve held on to this until today because I’m thankful for what turned out to be a moment of real courage on Tamblyn’s part. It’s crucial that we recognize and commend him and Kobo on this because we need to encourage our other major corporate players to communicate this way.

I want to flag this for you clearly: Tamblyn broke through the usual code of corporate silence. When things go wrong in large business settings in our digital age, the common mode of response is dictated by Legal. And Legal loves to gag a workforce. No one from the company in question is to speak. No one is to talk. Not even to say things that could help the wider world understand the corporation’s difficult decisions.

What Tamblyn gave us was not only a glimpse of what his company was facing while many of us freely bad-mouthed it for the nine days of the October ordeal, but also a deeply disturbing, problematic issue we all must now take to heart very carefully.

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Opening image from Michael Tamblyn's presentation at London's The FutureBook 2013.
Opening image from Michael Tamblyn’s presentation at The FutureBook 2013.

When All the eBooks Vanished

Here in the States, some of our community were slow to pick up on what was going on for a very long week in the UK self-publishing community last month. (Imagine Americans not paying attention to other cultures’ affairs, I don’t know how this could have happened.)

Kobo Writing LifeTo refresh your memory quickly, shortly after the Frankfurt Book Fair, some tabloid reports in the UK indicated that self-published pornographic ebooks were somehow appearing alongside children’s literature on the Web site of the venerable retailer WHSmith. The (very few) authors behind these offending books apparently were gaming their metadata with titles and phrases that could cause these ebooks to be surfaced in searches using family-fare keywords. Such as “daddy.”

A major supplier of self-published ebooks to WHSmith and others, Kobo abruptly pulled all self-published titles right out of its UK store and without a word of warning.

WHSmithI remember frantic emails and DMs coming in from UK authors, asking me if I had any idea why their books were suddenly vanishing—not from their Kobo store dashboards but from the store itself. They were stunned, ticked off, mystified, and understandably so. Within hours, they had no product to sell. For its part, WHSmith had closed its own site entirely and apparently so hastily that, as The Bookseller’s Jones pointed out, their closed-until-further-notice page carried a typo for days.

Let me allow Tamblyn to put it in his superb way from his FutureBook talk so you can get a sense for what a precipitous moment this represented:

On October 12th, Kobo had a significant catalogue of self-published titles in the UK. Tens of thousands of authors and hundreds of thousands of titles, a thriving part of our UK business. Living the dream, as they say.

On October 14th, we had zero self-published titles available in the UK from zero authors and our 300-year-old retail partner had suspended their web presence.

Kobo got out a couple of statements, its Kobo Writing Life head Mark Lefebvre doing all he could to characterize what was happening. In part, he wrote in one letter to Kobo’s authors (shared with me by an English writer in London):

Our goal at Kobo is not to censor material; we support freedom of expression. Further, we want to protect the reputation of self-publishing as a whole. You have our promise that we will do all we can to ensure the exceptions that have caused this current situation will not have a lasting effect on what is an exciting new channel that connects Readers to a wealth of books.

But, as is usual in these cases, the attacks came pretty quickly, most of them flying the always-busy flag of The Way It Was Handled!

We heard this when Amazon began moving against sock puppetry, you’ll recall. We heard this later, when Goodreads took action against what its regulations classify as inappropriate material on its site. In almost every case, The Way It Was Handled! is what sends the disgruntled crowds into their garages to find the pitchforks.

Image: iStockphoto - spfoto
Image: iStockphoto – spfoto

For my part, I got into it in my Writer Unboxed piece on October 18, Said the Online Retailer to the Entrepreneurial Author, looking for whatever I could find on either side of the experience to get at how rough it was.

My lead sympathies were with the unsuspecting authors whose work was in no way in violation of standards that Kobo or WHSmith or the  most sensitive family in what Jones termed “Middle Britain” might require. My assessment was (and is) that we don’t realize until these crises hit that our new digital sales settings are nowhere near as stable as our physical marketplaces. I wrote that the industry “needs to rethink this pattern of hurting its indispensable authors every time its sales models go pear-shaped.”

As it turns out, this was (and is) very much where Tamblyn’s and Kobo’s collective concerns were focused, as well.

What none of us knew then was that Tamblyn would come to the industry a month later with the forceful candor of the talk he gave at FutureBook.

I dropped Tamblyn a note after last week’s conference to ask if he could share with me the text of his talk. He did far more than that and, admirably, has released the transcript, key graphics, and—with The Bookseller’s collaboration—the 13-minute video of his presentation. You’ll find it all here, very appropriately on the Kobo Writing Life site.

I want to highlight the most important points we get to examine thanks to Tamblyn, and I hope you’ll find time to watch this video of his presentation, too. The laugh track on that tape is authentic. Tamblyn’s colleagues at FutureBook would continue to comment into the evening about how much they appreciated both the laughs and the look inside that difficult nine-day stretch.

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Second image from Michael Tamblyn's
Second image from Michael Tamblyn’s presentation at The FutureBook 2013.

“Active Romance”

Our self-publishing catalog is made up of hundreds of thousands of titles.
It’s mostly fiction.
Of that fiction, much is romance.
Of that romance, some we have come to call “active romance.”

Because of its brevity, Tamblyn said, his presentation might be thought of as “a haiku about self-publishing, its risks and rewards.” The risks he refers to are not, as they appeared from the outside at the time, only on the side of the writer.

Significantly, Tamblyn acknowledges figures we’d touched on in Frankfurt: Kobo Writing life self-publishing authors contribute “10-11% of unit sales globally and all self-published titles, including various aggregators representing 15% or more” of Kobo’s total business.

Pay attention to the number of titles Tamblyn telegraphs in his preso’s graphics as being subject to review. His script calls this “several million titles.” That graphic shows 4 million. Is your head swimming yet?

  1. You have several million titles.
  2. An unknown number of them contain sexual content, suggestive words or adult themes.
  3. Of those, a much, much smaller number have sexual content that is against your Terms of Use.
  4. For both 2 and 3, some are well-labeled and categorized. Some are not.

The response dilemma:

  • If you remove all titles, you don’t have a business.
  • If you remove any titles, some people will consider you a censor.
  • If you remove all titles with sexual content, you are a censor.
  • If you don’t remove the smaller number that contravene your Terms of Use, bad PR and damage to your brand continues.
  • Every book you remove creates an angry author.
  • Every author you remove has a Twitter account.
  • Every journalist wants to find the worst title possible.And even so, fundamentally, you believe that erotica and sexual content should be available.

The complications, while delivered with Vaudeville panache by the engaging Tamblyn, are as compelling as they are funny.

He shows what happens when you try to use automated searches for key words such as “virgin” or “screw,” “breeding” or…”cougars.” (No one asked.)

And while he has everyone laughing, you hear him start tightening the squeeze, with glancing references to digital issues we rarely admit we have not solved, such as vast, unprecedented scale.

22 August 2013 iStock_000018287542XSmall photog StephenHenry4 texted story imageEarlier this year, when looking at Goodreads’ efforts to prevent hostile comment that transgressed its regulations, we considered here on the Ether what it must be to try to monitor a community nearing the size of the population of Australia.

And now, here is Tamblyn questioning a key element of his own company’s burgeoning size:

Can one ever curate a four-million-title database? Is it folly to think that you could?

And, even more important to those of us here about the art as much as about the commerce, Tamblyn masterfully slows the delivery:

Every decision has two kinds of risk. Let the wrong book pass and you have the risk of alienating customers or bad press or breaking the law… But also the other risk, the greater danger, the possibility, however vanishingly small, that the book you are filtering out is the next Tropic of Cancer or Justine or Lolita.

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“A One to a Zero”

Because automation wouldn’t do the job, Kobo drew together its own international flash mob of employees tasked with vetting the mountain of self-publishing called into question and yanked out of the UK store.

At one point, we had people in half a dozen countries working around the clock trying to get books back in as fast as possible. A hundred bizarre conversations. Is it bestiality if it’s sex with a shape shifter? What if both participants are supernatural? What is the age of consent in each territory we sell in? Does it matter if the character is in a coma and everything that takes place is happening in a dream? Is this book in or out?

The punitive action being taken—the part every department labelled Legal always wishes you’d just shut up about—was removal from the store of material that contravenes Kobo’s guidelines:

Some were clearly against our guidelines. Worse, some were perfectly fine, but tangled up in collections of other books requiring one-at-a-time manual review. No books were ever removed from user’s libraries, but a relatively small number of titles were removed from sale.

And in the most chilling moment we encountered in the warm pink of FutureBook, Tamblyn—still at near breakneck speed in his scant 10-minute slot—rolled out the most important thing for you to think about, for me to think about, for this industry to think about, and think again:

In the physical world, to make a book go away is a big deal — you have to burn it or seize it at the border or confiscate if from a shop in a public, visual, galvanizing spectacle. But to de-list, to deactivate, to change a one to a zero, is silent and banal. We should be loud and we should ask why. Authors should give us and every other ebook retailer a hard time when it happens. Because it is so so so much easier now to make something disappear.

Get what he’s saying? Our beloved, late Bradbury would not have had to turn on the flame-throwers in the reality of this future. The operatives of his societal horror could simply get it with a keystroke. Gone. As Tamblyn has it, “a one to a zero.” Your book? What book? There’s no book there anymore.

Do not fail to appreciate the corporate bravery we’re seeing here. Michael Tamblyn is the man who can stroke that key, who can turn your one into a zero, who can disappear your work in an instant—and, in fact, found himself forced to do just that, for a few days in October, with an entire national store of his company’s self-published inventory.

And he is the one who flew to London last week to tell us so.

He is the one so disturbed by this event that—for all his bravura on a conference platform (and those 200-slide presentations I made him leave behind for our panel in Frankfurt)—he really came not to make us laugh but to help us worry.

He is the one who probably mentioned the word “author” more times in that 12 minutes last week than any other speaker did all day at FutureBook. I get 16 references to the word “author” in his presentation transcript.

And when Tamblyn mentioned Kobo’s writers, he talked of them with the same respect, even awe, that you hear in Amazon’s most gifted spokespeople (I’m looking at you, Jon Fine, sorry you weren’t with us in London) and even in the sometimes huckster-ish commentary of Smashwords’ Mark Coker.

For another Ether some time: There is a distinction in how the people of our great digital self-publishing platforms speak of authors and how the people of our major houses of legacy publishing speak of them. We need to listen for this because it involves a fundamental shift in industry dynamics about who is the customer, and are you being served?

For today, a great friend in London just noted to me that she can’t find anything coming out of America today that isn’t about giving thanks. We are that way, aren’t we? And we do have a lot to feel grateful about.

I’m thankful, our word for the day, that Tamblyn said this to us in London:

Authors will push us, will challenge boundaries, will go as far as they can go. And they should. And we will continue to grow into our role of curator. Every ebook retailer now has to wrestle with this. I’m here because we are willing to do some of it out loud, to acknowledge that choices are always being made, and be thoughtful about what they mean. And we will wrestle with the danger and significance of saying “No.” And push always for, and appreciate the power and promise of saying “Yes.”

“Willing to do some of it out loud.” You don’t have to be American to be thankful for that.

Tamblyn wasn’t nominated this year for The FutureBook’s Most Inspiring Digital Publishing Person Award. It went, in fact, to Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks and you’ll find my Porter Anderson Meets interview with her in Friday’s edition of The Bookseller in London. Raccah, fully worthy of the honor, gave us a grand #PorterMeets interview on Monday.

And I’ll bet Tamblyn’s name is going onto a list for next year. I hope so.

Michael Tamblyn of Kobo delivered The FutureBook’s hardest-hitting and most inspiring session of the day. In a finely arranged conference full of important and edifying detail and personality, Tamblyn seized the room’s collective intelligence with gratifying honesty, pink lightning on a bare stage.

Yep, I’m thankful for it, as I will be every time one of our newsmakers comes to us with the spine it takes to talk turkey about the digital disturbances all around us.

Here’s Tamblyn’s video. And, remember, this and his transcript and some still shots are at the Kobo Writing Life site for you. Have a look, and then tell me:

What did we learn from the Kobo-WHSmith “eroticagate” takedown of books in the UK?

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Main image: At FutureBook 2013, the Fleming Room at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, set for the opening plenary / Porter Anderson

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