[UPDATE: I’ve had to delete old, broken links in this post.]
Recent news about my publisher Ellora’s Cave is not good. Freelance editors and cover artists have been laid off – including both my editors. I’m worried about my cover artist since she is a freelancer, although she is still listed on the company website. [UPDATE: Alas, she is no longer.]
There was a lot of hullabaloo in the blogosphere and on Twitter about this news, which was originally a private communique to EC authors. Some people complained that Ellora’s Cave charges too much for ebooks especially since so much self-published material is so cheap, some people ruminated about financial concerns at EC, some people wondered about poor business practices at EC (this one about Farrah Abraham’s advance is interesting), and some people thought it was disingenuous of EC to blame Amazon although perhaps Amazon’s launch of Kindle Unlimited had something to do with it.
But what no one seems to be gossiping about is Amazon’s adult filter and how that is quite possibly the reason for EC experiencing a “sharp decline of ebook sales via Amazon.”
And as an indie erotica author, I have some personal experience with precisely that.
Many people might not know that Amazon has an adult filter in place when one searches the site. It’s not a secret and many, if not most, indie authors, cover designers, and publishers know about it. But Amazon is not forthcoming as to what it considers “adult”. It has rather vague parameters about visual and textual content including the astonishingly non-specific “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect” which, apparently, does not include Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler or The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. And, as the parameters of what is considered “adult” change so frequently, erotica authors have to keep on top of Amazon’s vacillating and ambiguous policies.
If a title is flagged as “adult” by Amazon then it is buried in search results, making it very difficult for readers to find the books they want to read, or discover new (and new-to-them) books. This affects everyone in Amazon’s catalog, even publishers. And as a premier publisher of erotica and erotic romance, Ellora’s Cave has been hit hard by Amazon’s filters.
As cover artist (my EC cover artist!) Erin Dameron-Hill states “there is no official list from Amazon of what is or what is not appropriate,” and Amazon will flag a book as “adult” not only based on sexy cover art, but also because of the book blurb and book content.
So what actually happens when a book is buried from Amazon’s search results? Simply put, the book does not come up in a search from the Amazon.com homepage. So how can a reader find such books? They have to know how to search Amazon.
Let’s take an Ellora’s Cave example, Bunny Hunt by Stephanie Beck, the latest in the F*ck Like Bunnies series:
Go to Amazon.com
In the Search bar type: Bunny Hunt Stephanie Beck
Click the search button (will be either a magnifying glass or “Go”)
The book does not show up in the search results.
You will possibly see two other titles from the series, but not Bunny Hunt. That’s because these other two titles are from 2012 and somehow were never flagged as “adult,” probably because Amazon’s fluctuating rules didn’t think these two covers were “adult” back in 2012.
So how does a reader find “adult” content? A book will usually show up if a reader selects “Books” or “Kindle” in the dropdown menu next to the search button. The best search terms to use are title+author (e.g., Bunny Hunt Beck). The search results may display the statement “Your search contains adult items which have been hidden. If you wish to see them, click here.” However, search results, like Amazon’s policies, are inconsistent and unpredictable.
One of the criticisms lobbed at EC is that they have told their authors to send people to the Ellora’s Cave retail site to purchase books. Well, suppression of “adult” content on Amazon is one reason why.
So how has this affected me as an author? My Ellora’s Cave covers and blurbs and content for The Pleasure Device and Disobedience by Design have passed the Amazon censors (yay!). But my award-nominated, 5-star reviewed, self-published historical erotic romance The General’s Wife: An American Revolutionary Tale has been hit. Hard. And I’m feeling it every single day.
It’s no secret I rewrote The General’s Wife. What this means though is that I have the unique experience of having one version of a book not adult-filtered on Amazon and another version of the book adult-filtered on Amazon. The old version of The General’s Wife used to sell steadily. The new version does not sell well at all. I know there are a lot of reasons for this (market over-saturated with self-published erotica, etc.), but one reason is definitely that the new version of The General’s Wife does not come up in searches from Amazon’s home page or its smart device apps. In fact, I’ve had readers complain about this to me.
What does come up, bizarrely enough, is the old version of The General’s Wife, where far more snatch and boob is displayed. The cover flew under the “adult” radar back in 2009. I’m not sure Amazon even had an “adult” filter back in 2009.
|2009 cover: Emphasized side boob! Butt crack heavily shadowed! No “adult” filter.
|2013 cover: Tasteful soft-focus overlay! Text over side boob! Butt crack de-emphasized! Gets “adult” filter.
Eventually, I will have to change the cover of The General’s Wife, possibly the blurb as well. I won’t do any of this until I’m ready to recode and reformat the book to put it up on other platforms like Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, ARe, Smashwords, etc. I know iTunes dislikes the naked human body, probably more so than Amazon. So my choice to rebrand/recover The General’s Wife is driven by pure economics. I want my book to be readily available everywhere books are sold. It’s really too bad since I’ve gotten some positive feedback on that naked lady cover!
As for how Ellora’s Cave’s reduction in editorial and cover art staff will affect my Harwell Heirs series, I simply do not know at the moment. I’ve turned in the manuscript (on June 13th) for Book 3, Where Destiny Plays, and filled out my cover art form, but I’ve not received any response. I’m concerned that the timing of the release will be too long delayed to ride the wave of interest created by the release of Book 2. I’m also concerned that the new policy of having a “light edit” will affect the quality of the content. This will be the third editor for this series. I was hoping Book 3 would have the same editor as Book 2 therefore maintaining a consistency in editorial style and a continuity in storytelling.
So, in the meantime, while you’re waiting for Book 3 of The Harwell Heirs, go out and buy The General’s Wife: An American Revolutionary Tale in paperback or Kindle ebook as the naked lady cover will soon be a collector’s edition. Sold where all great adult content you could never find is sold. [UPDATE: The cover has been changed. See below.]
UPDATE: As of December 30, 2014, the filter has loosened up a bit. See comment from reader Constance and my reply, below. However, the Amazon app is still filtering search results.
Another feature affected by the adult filter is Amazon’s “also bought” suggestions, i.e. “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” which can be seen mid-way down a sales page. However, adult-filtered items do not have this text. Instead it says “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed” which is not as compelling an exhortation and may imply no one purchased the adult-filtered item at all. Additionally, adult-filtered items are not featured in the “also bought” suggestions of other products.
UPDATE: The cover has been changed. I contacted Amazon and received this reply: “After further review, we have decided to remove the search restrictions so your book will now be found in our general product search results.” So, The General’s Wife has finally been unfiltered.
UPDATE: Where Destiny Plays, Book 3 of The Harwell Heirs, was published March 27, 2015.