Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Indie Publishers and the Inequitable Application of PayPal Policy

For young adults, being told what one can and cannot do or read is part and parcel of every day life. Parents, coaches, and teachers have expectations and ground rules that must be met, schools require that you read specific books, or bars specific books from gracing the shelves of the library. Young adults might not necessarily like it, but as with curfews, dating rules, and so much else, they're resigned to it.

It's quite the opposite for those of us who've survived the teen years and are firmly established in adulthood. We reserve the right to decide what we'll read, when we'll read it, and anyone who doesn't like it can just suck it up. We've reached an age in which our decisions are our own. They may be influenced by popular trend, by societal, familial or group expectations, but for the most part, we have the final say in what books we add to our reading lists, and what books we do not. 

In recent weeks, however, PayPal has sent a flurry of cease and desist letters to independent booksellers and publishers that have set the writing and publishing world to spinning. PayPal has informed these indie companies that they have X number of days to remove specific types of books from their stores or their accounts will be frozen and ties severed. For the most part, the books in question all fall into fringe sub-genres of adult literature.

So why am I, a YA author, blogging about it?


I've heard a lot of people in recent weeks state that PayPal has the right to tell their merchants and customers what items they can and cannot purchase with their services. This is technically true, but the issue is a lot more complex than that. Having a right to do something and being right in doing it are two completely different things. We all have the right to free speech, but that doesn't mean Fred Phelps and his ilk are right to exercise that freedom by protesting gay rights at military funerals or that the KKK is right to exercise that freedom with blatantly, overtly racist speech. The same rings true here.

PayPal may retain the right to decide what transactions it will or will not be party to, but having that right doesn't mean exercising it is right. Imagine, for a minute, if your bank (or credit card company or PayPal) told you that you couldn't use the money you've deposited in their bank (or use the credit card you pay on time every month) to purchase specific medications because they deem them morally objectionable. What if they told you that you, as an adult, couldn't purchase alcohol with your debit or credit card because they find alcohol consumption to be morally objectionable? Or that they wouldn't process transactions from Barnes and Noble or Amazon because they sold novels and materials deemed objectionable or obscene?

People would be be furious, and rightly so.

It's not the job of any company to dictate what their customers can and cannot buy or sell (when legality is not in question), specifically when those dictates come with an unequal, and often hypocritical, application. And this isn't the first time it's happened. In 2010, credit card companies and PayPal stopped processing transactions with WikiLeaks, and, in 2009, PayPal severed relationships with merchants who sold guns.

And here is where the double standard comes into play. When credit card companies stopped processing donations to Wikileaks in 2010, they still allowed you to make a donation to any number of equally as objectionable organizations with equally as suspect practices. The same is true of the recent PayPal decision.

Indie booksellers can no longer use PayPal services if they continue to sell the works deemed objectionable by the PayPal Terms of Service, but no such mandates have been placed upon larger booksellers who sell equally as objectionable and obscene material. That's not acceptable any way you slice it. It places an undue strain on indie authors and publishers who have already been forced to fight companies like Amazon, who has recently put pressure on independent publishers to push Amazon ahead of the pack by placing contractual limitations on their relations with competitor distributors.

Publishing is hard enough without these major companies slamming indie authors and publishers with unreasonable policies, especially when those policies are inequitably applied. And that's what the recent PayPal decision is about for me: unfair business practices that favor large publishers and authors at the expense (and demise) of their indie counterparts. No one says you have to read what these indie publishers offer, but it's not a company's place to decide for an author or reader what is or is not acceptable anymore so than it is for a credit card company or financial institution to decide which goods or services consumers can or cannot purchase with their own money (provided that the goods/service is legal).

PayPal's argument that this has all come about because of the credit card companies just doesn't ring true either, particularly when those very same credit card companies have no objection to individuals using their cards to purchase equally as obscene or objectionable content in other forms. Equally as mystifying as PayPals defense of their position is their confused policy on adult materials. They allow you to purchase adult DVDs, magazines and products so long as those products are physically tangible, but attempt to purchase those same DVDs or magazines digitally, and it's a no go.

As someone who's spent the last six years immersed in the legal field, I find their argument that this material is "potentially illegal" equally as unsatisfactory. Given that federal obscenity law is unclear and currently relies upon the three-pronged Miller Test to judge whether an item is, indeed, obscene, it makes one wonder how exactly PayPal even defines obscenity. One pronge of the Miller Test requires that one consider the literary, artistic, scientific or political value of the work as a whole. It would be impossible for PayPal to defend the position that every work they've forbidden would fail the Miller Test or that every work they've allowed would pass the Miller Test without an individual case being made for each of the thousands of titles they've banned being presented. The fact is, whether we approve of it or not, the material in question isn't illegal en masse. And at the end of the day, while a company may have the right to decide what it will or will not participate in, it doesn't have the right to decide what the law is or to define it to suit their own unfair practices as has been done here.

Just my two cents, 
See: Self Publishers accues PayPal of censorship.


  1. The only place I don't want to see a Paypal logo is on some nefarious website selling, I dunno, real estate on the moon or something. As long as its for a legit product or service that you are actually going to receive, you should be able to use Paypal on whatever. I just want the piece of mind knowing that I'm not going to get a virus or something by clicking on a Paypal icon. Far fetched? Maybe. But one can only be so careful. It's why I'm more likely to use eBay or Amazon than someone personal website to buy something.

    1. Thanks for commenting. So long as a product is legal, I have no issues with the transactions being made through PayPal, and I'm disappointed that they've made it that much harder for indie authors to market themselves and sell their books. As you pointed out, a lot of people would rather use these types of companies to make purchases because they do offer peace of mind. I don't need PayPal or a credit card company to decide for me what I can or can't buy from them. I can do that on my own. I just need them there to process the transaction.


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