As you are all aware, I am a scholar who studies obscenity and pornography. One of the main titles I work with is called The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881) and the best edition available comes from Valancourt Publishing (amongst many other titles). I became alarmed when I saw this tweet from Valancourt this afternoon:
The publisher also wrote a blog post about the situation. Because I am so involved with this title I have a stake in its continued existence (full disclosure: Valancourt is publishing the sequel to Sins later this year, which I edited). It goes further than that, however. This is about Amazon’s practices as the biggest bookseller in the world. Basically, if you can’t sell on Amazon and Kindle, you have severely limited your market and Amazon is the last word in whether you can sell on Amazon or Kindle (obviously).
I have sent the following message to Amazon asking them to reconsider their removal of Sins from their Kindle bookstore (it is still available in paperback, but who knows for how long?). I seriously doubt they are going to take my word for it, but Amazon has to know it’s not okay to just pull titles without giving detailed reasons for doing so. Even then it’s a shitty thing to do. All you have to do is google the history of literary censorship and you will see the same vague bullshit about ‘standards’ and ‘appropriateness’. It all amounts to the ‘I know it when I see it‘ line of reasoning, which is no reason at all.
I am writing to express my displeasure at Amazon’s recent censoring of the Valancourt title The Sins of the Cities of the Plain for Kindle. As a scholar of Victorian literature with a specialization in suppressed and censored works, I am intimate with the contents and history of this particular title. For Amazon to decide that it is a title not worthy of its e-book customers is not only small-minded, but hypocritical. A quick search of the titles still available in the erotica section will prove my point handily.
The book has implications in its original context as a book that explored the worlds of sexuality and gender (relatively new concepts in the Victorian era), as well as crime and punishment. The book was suppressed when it was first released and its publication was severely limited to those who had the interest and the means to obtain this and other titles that were published clandestinely or in countries with more lax restrictions than England, such as the Netherlands or France.
I would argue that the book is perhaps more important today for what it tells us about the era in which it was first published. The protagonist, Jack Saul, a cross-dressing prostitute (or Maryanne, to use the parlance of the time) sells and tells his life’s story to a wealthy patron who first hires him not as a writer, but as a sexual companion. I cannot deny that The Sins of the Cities of the Plain contains descriptions of sex, but if Amazon could see them for what they are — depictions of transgression that tell us something about the history of sexuality, gender, identity, authority, censorship, erotica, and ultimately, publishing — then I am certain the title’s importance could not be understated.
My wish is that you reinstate the title as one available for purchase on Kindle and consider similar titles not based upon what appears on the surface but rather their broader meaning. I have devoted my life to doing just this and I do not stand to earn anywhere near the amount of money Amazon would for doing so. To put it simply, I think that books are more than words on a page and I would hope Amazon does too.
*UPDATE* Amazon responded to my message on 26 May 2013. Here is their response and my response to their response (mine’s in italics).
Thanks for your comments about reinstating the title “The Sins of the Cities of the Plain” as one available for purchase on Kindle. We’ll consider your feedback as we plan further improvements.
Publisher feedback serves an important role in helping us to improve our platform and provide better service. Thanks for taking time to offer us your thoughts.
Kindle Direct Publishing
Thank you for the response. I find it rather vague, however. Especially what is meant by “further improvements” to your platform and service. My hope is that “further improvements” mean that Amazon will look more closely at what it deems unfit for print and sale and consider the broader impact of texts which may, on the surface, appear to offend some nebulous notion of pornography or offensive content, as outlined in the Amazon content guidelines.