How Smashwords smashed PayPal’s erotica publishing restrictions

Fast Company has an interview with Mark Coker of Smashwords in which he discusses the recent moves by PayPal to force removal from sale of certain categories of erotica, and how public pressure from writers, readers, the press, and others was able to make the company (and the credit card companies behind it) back down. He also expresses his opinions on the agency pricing anti-trust lawsuits.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is the remarkable bit of luck Coker had when he was first trying to contact PayPal to find out how to fight the requirements:

By luck, I called in to the general customer support line, and person who picked up happened to be an author, a member of the Romance Writers of America. She knew who Smashwords was, and knew it was a legitimate platform for indie authors, and that kind soul volunteered to walk us through the process and connect us with people who could actually listen to us.

I don’t know how many members of the Romance Writers of America work for PayPal (hopefully there won’t be one fewer since the Fast Company article came out!) but even (or especially) writers have to eat, so it might not be too surprising to find one with a customer service phone center day job. (Which kind of describes yours truly, as well, for that matter.) But what an amazingly fortunate coincidence! If Coker had ended up with just another bored “Sorry, can’t help you, the policy is the policy” rep,, the whole affair could have turned out very differently.

After Coker was able to rally writers, readers, and the press to put pressure on the credit card companies PayPal said were behind the restrictions, the companies backed down. Coker writes:

I think with this incident, a lot of authors realized Smashwords was standing behind them. I think if anyone tries to push the indie author community down again, we’ll be there to help stand behind these authors. In the end I think it was a great victory for free speech, and shows the rising power of self-publishing authors in the publishing community.

As for the lawsuit, Coker doesn’t think that the publishers actually colluded, though the way things turned out made it look that way. And he is also saddened that three of the publishers decided to “roll over” and settle, because the settlement terms will set their business back and possibly even hinder their ability to talk to other publishers at all.

These things they agreed to will slow down business and increase expenses at the very time these publishers need to become more nimble. If all the large publishers go away tomorrow, that probably benefits my business, but that’s not what I want to happen. I want there to be a healthy ecosystem of large publishers, because they have a lot of value to provide to readers, authors, and the entire culture of books.

But Coker is overall optimistic about the future of publishing, discussing the fall of traditional gatekeepers and the shift in power to the authors. Now, he writes, “it’s possible for any writer, anywhere in the world, instantly [to] publish a book at no cost.” And that is something to be happy about.

(Found via Teleread via Moriah Jovan through Mike Cane.)


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