Ellora’s Cave & E-book Sales: A Cautionary (First Amendment) Tale

If This Was Your Cover for your erotic e-pub Amazon would hide this search result.
Amazon Would Bury This Image in Search Results
In a Publisher’s Weekly article, Ellora’s Cave admitted to some shocking news:

Ellora’s Cave CEO Patty Marks confirmed the house is downsizing in the wake of what she described as “drastic’ and unexplained declines in its e-book sales via Amazon. Marks confirmed the layoffs of freelance editors, and said the house continues to have discussion with Amazon to find the cause of the sales dropoff.

According to Marks, the issue is likely related to a change in Amazon’s search algorithm. Many of Ellora’s Cave’s bestselling authors and titles simply don’t show up in the Amazon search engine anymore.

Marks said Ellora’s Cave sales via Amazon have dropped by as much as 75%.


E-publishers like Ellora’a cave have a profoundly unique relationship with e-retailers like Amazon. Suckling at the teat of lower production costs and easy distribution, e-publishers have traded one evil for another. They aren’t dealing with the higher costs of print production, but they are at the mercy of the policies of their distributors.

Chuck Wendig makes this point about Amazon:

Amazon has not demonstrated that this control has been universally favorable to authors. The ability to self-publish isn’t enough. Amazon controls an alarming number of access points and algorithms in terms of how they sell your books. Sales rankings, author rankings, also-reads — all these things exist outside not only an author’s control but also outside their understanding. They have put up a rather large curtain in the Emerald City, and we can’t see who or what hides behind it. Author-publishers who have been stung by changing algorithms or changes to their relationship with Amazon (and by proxy, to their readers) know this all too well.

Apparently there are even more devious ways Amazon controls sales:

Amazon does have various schemes in place to maximize their income by showing certain titles and concealing others. I’ve seen books disappear even when searched for by the exact title simply because there were others with that title that cost more and thus gave Amazon more profit. And an Amazon lawyer defended that practice to me.

I also know from Amazon sources that there’s at least one search scheme in place that does the opposite. It hides books deemed too pornographic for the general public.—Mike W. Perry, commenter on Ellora’s Cave article.

Ever since Milton Friedman declared that that the only social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits, corporate types have used this argument to justify all sorts of schemes, most of which works at odds towards individual’s interests. So it is no surprise that Amazon will do whatever is in its power to maximize sales, even if it means hiding authors.

But hiding books based on content is another issue entirely. One can scan the Amazon comment files to find complaints about explicit books being shown in search results with vanilla fiction. Here Amazon is shooting craps, again promoting the more profitable items at the risk of irritating the sensitive hackles of mainstream America. Why Amazon doesn’t construct filters that customers can set themselves is a mystery. But considering that Amazon continues to be hinky on what’s allowed to be shown on erotica covers, they are sensitive to the issues that peddling erotica can create.

It would seem that hiding content, and restricting cover art is censorship, something that violates our First Amendment rights to free speech. This battleground, whether a single entity can control the information flow of a publisher has been fought on other ground. The Supreme Court weighed in on whether a city or town has the right to restrict the location of news racks. Cities argued that they have the right to control “visual clutter” of the streets, while newspapers argued that such restrictions violate their First Amendment rights. The ultimate result gave neither side a clear victory. Cities can adopt a uniform code for newspaper distribution as long as it is applied to all forms of newspapers, paid daily and free shoppers alike. They can even issue permits and impose fees on newspapers for the placement of racks on city land. But they cannot pick and choose what news racks can appear on the streets.

Now this might seem as far away from the topic of Amazon controlling the sales of erotica as one might get. But think about how publicly traded companies like Amazon, on one hand, want the access to and the benefits of a free marketplace, and then assert their right to act as their management sees fit whether or not those goals mesh with public policy. This seems to me a bigger issue than a single publisher putting all their eggs in one basket and losing out to a corporation. And this is one fight that no one seems to want to take on. Ultimately though, someone is going to have to, otherwise, like Ellora’s Cave we will lose our rights to distribute our material to the vagaries of corporate profit strategy.

Image published under a Creative Commons license issued by Flickr user Sheri

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9 thoughts on “Ellora’s Cave & E-book Sales: A Cautionary (First Amendment) Tale

  1. Good article…but you’re wrong about the First Amendment violation. If Amazon was the country’s ONLY publisher, then denying authors the right to publish their works would be a First Amendment violation. But since they aren’t…there are legions of small independent publishers willing to publish almost anything an author can think up…Amazon’s refusal to publish certain authors or genres is simply a matter of their corporate policy. The problem is that their TOS is so deliberately vague that they can enforce it as arbitrarily as they choose…and no one can do a thing about it.

    What they ought to do is create an adults-only section, like eBay has done. All erotica, all adult movies, toys, lingerie, etc. should be marketed from there. That will solve every single problem, keep “adult” products and stories away from the “vanilla” mainstream public, and maybe even placate the so-called Moral Majority (of which they are neither) in the process.

    1. Jo,

      I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue. Legions of small independent publishers, who go in and out of existence at the wink of an eye is not comparable to the distribution power of Amazon. Nor do I believe that just because one is a business that it has the right to arbitrarly decide how to treat its suppliers and customers. There are many examples of how industry is regulated by the government because of abuses of public policy. If this were not true, then women could still be legally be fired for being pregnant, and women, at least on paper, could still be denied management track positions because of their gender. I agree they should create filters to allow people to decide what content they want to see, but wholesale blocking of certain genres is just wrong.

      I will say again that denying distribution of the printed word for whatever reason is censorship and a violation of free speech. Corporations do not have the right to abrogate the rights of others in the name of profit.

      1. Actually, we agree on this a lot more than you realize. 🙂

        I agree completely that Amazon has garnered an unacceptable amount of power. Nor does it have the right to arbitrarily abuse its authors or customers. No business does, or ever should.

        Likewise the idea that they can arbitrarily block genres is totally wrong. Yes, it is censorship. But it is NOT a violation of the First Amendment. Don’t believe me? Look up the legal definition of censorship as it applies to the First Amendment. It refers ONLY to specific cases where the government is involved.

        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

        Additionally, “The Free Press Clause protects the right of individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without interference, constraint or prosecution BY THE GOVERNMENT.”

        It says nothing about corporations, whether closely or loosely held…ONLY the government.

        Whether we like it or not, Amazon has the right to pick and choose what they’ll publish, just as you or I do. But unlike us, they don’t spell out clearly what they will or won’t publish. Their Terms of Service are deliberately vague and misleading. And if that wasn’t enough, they don’t adhere to their own rules and regs; they change them arbitrarily to suit their whims de jour. That includes changing algorithms, blocking genres, suppressing individual books, and hiding direct urls that worked yesterday but mysteriously don’t work today…even though the books are listed as “active” in the KDP Dashbook.

        Amazon is the 500 ton gorilla in the corner…you may not like it, but it’s so big and dangerous that you can’t ignore it. But if you’re willing to do the extra work, you CAN outwit it…by spreading your eggs around with as many different publishers as possible.

        Amazon is not the end-all and be-all of the publishing industry, even if they do currently claim the lion’s share. The smaller publishers, taken individually, don’t have the power Amazon has, and maybe even all of them grouped together don’t. But as Amazon blocks more and more genres, the people who want to read them aren’t simply going to stop reading. They’re going to go searching for other sources. And who are they going to find? The smaller publishers who aren’t afraid to publish what their customers want to read.

        Even King Kong wasn’t invulnerable. And I truly believe that in the long run, the smaller publishers are going to have the last laugh…all the way to the bank…if they’ll just hold firm, and work together.

        1. Another blog picked up my arguments and told me much like you did that I am wrong in my assertion that Amazon hiding erotic fiction from their search engines is not a First Amendment violation. And on the face of it you are right. But on this other blog a commenter wrote this:

          Amazon has gone after erotica publishers, including Ellora’s Cave, at the behest of Eric Holder, US Attorney General and the Justice Dept. who put on a slide show to pursue(r) the likes of Amazon and credit card processors, not to sell romance erotica. In return, the Justice Dept, has agreed not to pursue anti-trust and monopoly cases against Amazon. A little tit for a little tat, as they say in erotic cliterature.

          Phaedrus T. Wolfe
          Lot’s Cave
          Publishers of Erotica other Publishers Refuse

          This is a stunning allegation, but it is true. Eric Holder does indeed have in place “Operation Choke Point” which targets the access of certain businesses to payment processing systems. And one of the items on the (incomplete) Wikipedia list is, you guessed it “pornography.” That means us, the writers of erotic fiction.

          My assertions are correct. A government agency is attempting to abridge to the First Amendment rights of erotic fiction writers by making corporations defacto agents of the government.

          And while I sincerely applaud your company’s efforts to distribute erotica in as many markets as possible, nothing is to stop Mr. Holder from going after the other distributors. In the end, like Ellora’s Cave, smaller publishers, instead of laughing all the way to the bank will be crying. That is if no one does something to stop this government intrusion into our business.

  2. Private enterprise are not subject to the same first amendment rules as the gov’t. They have a right to sell what they want any way they want. We need to look at what we’re doing and improve on it, rather than blame Amazon for poor sales.

  3. WOW! I knew I never liked Amazon, I’m a nooker! But I understand the selling power and some authors have to choose who to publish through and Amazon normally wins over BN.
    And I’ve had first hand experience of trying to find an MM book that AZ thought had a racey cover. Couldn’t find it under title or author. Had to go to authors AZ page and she had it listed. So if I just browsing, and not looking for that certain book that author would have lost that sale. She being a self pub, that’s big bucks for her!

  4. This is why I’m willing to do duck out of Amazon, and maybe pull all of my books out of Amazon. They’re sabotaging one of the prestigious e-publishers in the adult industry. I don’t really support them much, not like I used to and I’ve decided to publish through Kobo or All Romance eBooks, including Smashowrds. I’m willing to go through Bookstrand and several more publishers, if possible.

  5. Anarchy, avoid any publisher that REQUIRES you to use their online editor…and don’t use the feature on any site that offers it but doesn’t require it. The fine print on that one, which they don’t tell you in their TOS, is that if you use their online editor FOR ANYTHING, they can confiscate it and use it themselves. Writing it on their server makes it their intellectual property, and you automatically waive ALL rights to it, permanently. That’s illegal…but since Microsoft managed to get away with it, everyone else has been pushing the boundaries, too. And so far no one has managed to legally force them to stop.

    I know for a fact that BookTango REQUIRES you to use their online editor…they don’t provide a way for you to simply upload books that are already properly formatted. We were looking at BookStrand a year or two ago, and opted to avoid them…I don’t remember why now, but I think it may have been for the same reason.

    Use extreme caution with any site that offers an online editor. If there’s no way to avoid using it…run like hell and don’t go back!!

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