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At the Back Fence Issue #184

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

July 15, 2004

Welcome to At the Back Fence. First up is some late-breaking publishing news, followed by a segment from me on the Western Historical Romance. Then I’ll announce the winner in our eighth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. We end this column with a segment from Anne Marble regarding PayPal and its “mature audiences” policy.

Late Breaking News (Laurie Likes Books)

It’s been confirmed that Harlequin/Silhouette is restructuring. The relatively new Flipside line is to be discontinued next summer. Also beginning next summer Harlequin Temptations and Harlequin Historicals will no longer be sold in the U.S. via retail, although they will remain available internationally and online (it’s unclear whether their mail order book club will remain). Apparently, though, the number of Blaze titles will increase, as will Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired titles, which may seem odd as these are perhaps two ends of the spectrum. On the Silhouette Side, the number of Intimate Moments available per month will be reduced from six to four.

And finally, “Harlequin American is being ‘repositioned’ in the market.” This last in quotes as I’m not sure what it means. All current published authors and their agents received notice of this on Tuesday, July 13th, and information was posted about it at eharlequin on the 14th. Isabel Swift, Harlequin’s VP of editorial is quoted as saying: “We are driven by what our readers tell us is relevant to them, are totally focused on the women’s fiction market and we constantly look for ways in which to lead rather than follow the competition.” Which leads me to believe that again, the online romance community is perhaps fairly different than the entire community of romance readers. What do you think, not only of the changes, but of the idea that online readers are not representative of readers at large?

(Harlequin reversed its decision on Harlequin Historicals in the fall of 2004)

The Western (LLB)

I think hell froze over a few weeks ago because I’m on a Western Romance glom. Usually my Western reading is limited to no more than a few books a year, by authors such as Lorraine Heath, Jodi Thomas, and Jill Marie Landis. Then came Kate Bridge’s The Surgeon, followed by two of Lorraine Heath’s older Westerns, than another Kate Bridges title from 2003, and a Mary Burton release from 2000. And then the unthinkable – after having traded in Elizabeth Lowell’s Only His as a result of grading it a C+ last year, I decided to pull the other three Only books from my bookshelves. I read them and liked them – so much in fact, that I bought back Only His and re-read it. And I liked it this time. This is the one and only time I’ve ever changed my mind about a book, unless it was to “up” the grade from a B+ to a DIK; has it ever happened to you?

Each of the books features very hard and difficult men; a former Army scout, a half-Cheyenne/half-English horseman, a gambling gunslinger, and a wanderer who uses a bullwhip as his weapon of choice. These are men who have killed before, men who have very black and white senses of right and wrong. These are also men who easily jump to the wrong conclusion, and generally about the women they come to love. In the past these types of heroes didn’t often appeal to me because they so skirt the edge between alpha hero and alpha ass. But now I think I’m in love with Caleb Black (Only His), Wolfe Lonetree (Only Mine), Matt “Reno” Moran (Only You), and Rafe “Whip” Moran (Only Love), even though they gave Willow Moran, Lady Jessica Charteris, Evelyn Starr Johnson, and Shannon Smith an often horrible time.

Let’s see: Caleb believes Willow is Reno’s “fancy lady” (aka whore) when she’s really his sister and vows to sully her because he believes Reno impregnated his own sister, who then died alone. Wolfe will do anything to break Jessi and annul the marriage she forced upon him, not giving her credit for being anything but spoiled and weak, and failing to understand the reasons why she fears all men (but him). Reno is sure to the nearly bitter end that Eve is a “cheating saloon girl” (aka cheating whore). And Rafe, who’s probably the “nicest” of the bunch but a “yondering man” who can’t handle commitment, also has his suspicious streak and at times believes Shannon may try to trap him into marriage simply by virtue of the fact that she’s an innocent trying to live alone in the wilderness.

Are these men catches, or what? I don’t think I’d have enjoyed Only His the second time around had I not read the latter three books from the series, because it’s from reading those other three books that I saw how Caleb and Willow’s relationship changed and grew from the first book where he treated her like crap throughout most of the story. And, interestingly enough, though Caleb initially believes Willow to be weak and a “fancy lady,” the women in the later books are measured against her, by Wolfe and Jessi, Reno and Eve, and Rafe and Shannon. These other women come up wanting – and not only by their men – for there’s a poignant moment in each book when Jessi, Eve, and Shannon compare themselves unflatteringly against the perfect Willow.

But that’s because of the men. When Jessi flirts with the Moran brothers Wolfe humiliates her in front of everyone for being a tease and half the woman Willow is. Later, when Jessi braves a violent snowstorm to save valuable horses, Wolfe at first believes Willow did it. It’s only when he realizes how close Jessi came to dying to, as Willow put it, “guard her future,” that Wolfe softens toward his wife, unknowingly setting off the near “Gift of the Magi” ending that both Wolfe and Jessi engage in to save the other from a fate neither believes the other can handle.

As for Eve, she gets Reno’s message loud and clear: as a saloon girl she’s not fit to stay in Willow’s house, and when he misinterprets something at a critical juncture late in the book, his reaction is so cruel that the other men practically beg each other to be the one to lay into him. Caleb does the honors where Jessi and Wolfe are concerned, while Rafe does it for Reno. In Shannon’s case, Rafe is ready to “give in” and give up his “yondering” to keep her safe, but she knows that’s not the life for him. But each of the different arrangements he devises to keep her safe cause her to feel like a whore, and in the end, it’s Willow who plans to lay into him, but she can’t. Instead, Caleb steps up to the plate, again, and delivers the coup de grace.

Again, I ask, are these guys a trip, or what? What makes it all work, purple prose love scenes, melodrama, and more, are three things: in each book the heroine does at least one thing that’s incredibly heroic, often saving the hero’s skin, and in each book the hero is either set-down by “his woman” or brother or friend and made to see not only the sacrifices these women have made, the indignities they’ve endured, simply for loving these men, but also that they love the women in return. And after these set-downs, the men grovel…two even cry. Watching a hard man cry because he loves a woman and fears losing her does me in every time.

Something else that makes these books work is that honor works both ways. Though the men don’t see it until their faces are rubbed in it, their women are as honorable as they themselves are. And because love is so critical to a woman, in each instance this means the heroine will give up the man she loves in order to save him from a marriage born of duty.

It used to be that when I read books like this I could see “doormat” written upon the heroine’s forehead. But because these women have inner strength, fortitude, and pride, and because these men are made to suffer for their actions, I found myself liking these women enormously. Each began as a victim but grew out of their victimhood if for no other reason than they had to prove themselves to the men. And prove themselves they did, so much so that the men were humbled, not only by the power of love, but by the women themselves, their character and their strength.

What the Westerns I’ve read share with one another reminds me in some ways of the Medievals I used to enjoy. Life was hard on the frontier, where it was something simply to survive the weather, the “Indians,” the outlaws and general lawlessness. I can quite easily imagine the strength in the hold of a gunslinger or sheriff’s arm around a woman holding her tight and safe while it’s more difficult in my mind to get that same feel when considering a Regency-era hero, no matter how buff he is from boxing.

Then there’s that whole black and white thing. Seeing things in black and white is elemental, and since survival was at an elemental level in the Old West in the wild, it makes sense that people would do so. The men in Westerns generally have a very tough time learning that the world exists in varying shades of gray, and it shows strength of character to learn that and to accept it.

That comes through loud and clear in the four Lowell titles, but also in Bridges’ The Midwife’s Secret and more particularly in Burton’s A Bride for McCain. In the former, set in western Canada in 1888, Tom Murdock must come to grips with his feelings for Amanda Ryan, a divorced woman. This is quite possibly one of only two or three romances I can remember that delve into the persecution of divorced women, and what makes this story particularly touching is that Ryan was divorced by her husband because she became barren after losing their baby. Even when Murdock learns the truth behind her divorce, the townspeople don’t, and their disdain and prejudice – which extends to Murdock’s brother – is incredibly hurtful to Amanda.

Murdock turns out to be a far kinder and gentler sort of Western hero than I’ve read before, but at his core he remains one of the guys in the white hats. The Midwife’s Secret isn’t as good as Bridges’ The Surgeon (acceptance for Amanda by Tom’s brother and the townspeople seems to happen “off-stage,” as though I missed a chapter I’d have wanted to read), but it’s a nice book nonetheless, if not as powerful as A Bride for McCain.

In A Bride for McCain, the will stipulation serves as a device to start the story off with a cosh on the head. Jessica Tierney refuses to abide by her deceased father’s will and marry the man he chose for her. But the man wants the money that comes with marrying her, and tries to force himself on her. In return she knocks him out and escapes. At the rail station in Sacramento she pretends to be another woman – a schoolteacher hired by Ross McCain to teach the children in the town he built in Wyoming, including his long, lost son.

McCain is every inch the proud and stubborn self-made Westerner, with a code of ethics that leaves him separate from just about everybody around him. He’s determined that this new teacher will stay after two others ran off to marry, and so forces all the single men in town to agree to stay away from the new schoolmarm. But she’s so lovely that the men refuse to abide by the pact. Rather than lose yet another teacher, he decides to marry Jessica (known to one and all as Emma Grimes), and forces the marriage upon her even though she knows she’s not cut out for life in McCain’s small town.

Theirs is a marriage in name only; both are intensely attracted to the other but McCain trusts no woman because of his first wife, and Jessica because a) she was forced into the marriage, b) she has little confidence in her abilities, and c) she cannot see herself surviving in the small town even though she’s contractually committed to do so for a year. But they become closer, ready to admit their feelings, when, just as in all mail-order bride romances with a twist, it really hits the fan. The truth about Jessica’s identity is revealed and McCain’s moral code cannot abide lying, so how can the two work through her lie? The denouement in the story is quite well done, in particular a scene between Jessica and McCain that brought tears to my eyes because of her quiet dignity and pride. As a result of reading A Bride for McCain, I’m going on a Burton glom, even though there’s some clumsy writing that brought my grade down slightly.

I honestly never thought I’d be on a Western glom; it’s absolutely been my least favorite sub-genre throughout a decade of romance reading. The Western may turn out to be what the traditional Regency was for me over the past few years. If so I’m excited because it’ll open up a whole world of new authors to me. I realize that many readers think few Westerns – good Westerns – are published these days, so thank goodness for the UBS, and for Harlequin Historicals, which generally releases one Western a month.

Last night when I told my husband about this new interest in Westerns, he looked at me and asked, “It’s just like Sundays in college, isn’t it?” I began to laugh, because it wasn’t until he mentioned it that I remembered sitting in our apartment during my senior year of college and first year of graduate school doing homework while the Sunday line-up on a local UHF channel of Rawhide, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Big Valley was on TV in the background. I’d never really seen these shows growing up – they were mostly before my time – but I got hooked on them. What appealed to me then is probably what appeals to me now, although shows like The Big Valley were certainly less “intense” than Rawhide and The Rifleman. And my husband, god bless him, sat there and watched with me, even though he’d seen all these shows while he grew up. I guess it’s tough to be a Texan and not love Westerns.

I thought I’d share from my database those Western/Frontier romances I most enjoyed. Of all the romances I’ve read in a decade of romance reading, fewer than 8% have been Western/Frontier Historicals. Of those few books, the following earned grades of at least B-.

  • *** One White Rose Julie Garwood B
  • Only His Elizabeth Lowell B
  • Only Mine Elizabeth Lowell B
  • Only You Elizabeth Lowell B
  • Only Love Elizabeth Lowell B
  • *** Prince Charming Julie Garwood B
  • Promise Me Laura DeVries B
  • Rebellious Bride Donna Fletcher B-
  • Spring Rain Susan Weldon B-
  • Summer Moon Jill Marie Landis B
  • The Surgeon Kate Bridges B
  • A Taste of Heaven Alexis Harrington B-
  • Tempting Miss Prissy Sharon Ihle B-
  • To Kiss a Texan Jodi Thomas B-
  • Topaz Beverly Jenkins B-
  • Western Rose Lynna Banning B-
  • Winter Bride Teresa Southwick B
* Australian “frontier”
** Canadian “frontier”
*** Given that nearly all my Garwoods received DIK status, these B’s are actually low grades.


While the historical Western has lost most of its popularity, the appeal of the West remains, as evidenced by all the contemporaries featuring ranches, cowboys, and sheriffs. But life in the West today isn’t the same as it was in the middle/late 1800’s, so the feel just isn’t the same. I quite frankly prefer the original, and hope one day they’ll make a comeback. Earlier this week I went to the UBS I frequent and took the owner into the stacks with me so she could help me pick out some Western/Frontier historicals to read in the coming weeks. Among them were two additional Lowell titles she said followed the Only series, along with many, many others (I’ve got a huge trade balance there). But I also welcome your recommendations; just keep in mind that I like schoolmarms, mail-order brides, the box-lunch auctions and barn dances, cabin/road romances and cattle and wagon drives, the “house-keeping,” and apparently hard-hearted heroes who see things in black and white, and often see their women in dark hats for whatever reason.

2004’s Purple Prose Parody Contest (LLB reports the results)

I don’t know about you, but I thought some of the entries in this year’s PPP Contest were absolutely, fabulously brilliant. I was particularly impressed by Cheryl Sneed’s (our co-winner from 2002) The Rake’s Reward, in which a villain hopes to one day be a hero. But all he encounters from his partner in crime, the villainess, is derision, who just wants some skanky villain sex. But how will she manage this with “his quiescent manhood…One might even say flaccid” manhood? She makes fun of his name, “Drake Ravensby? You think Drake Ravensby is a hero’s name?…It’s a duck. Your name is a duck. There is nothing manly about that,” than she brings out the Casket of Carnal Consolation and force-feeds him oysters. As for Drake, he’ll do anything not to engage in carnal activities, going so far as to think of Lady Townsend, his “acerbic dragon of a godmother,” to avoid becoming excited. When the carnal casket’s goodies prove too much for him, he tells himself to “think of something. Lady Townsend… Little Jack Horner sat in the corner… A ring around the rosy… Baby Kittens! Lady Townsend in a corset!” He eventually fails to deny himself the pleasures of the flesh.

In Varina Martindale’s homage to Kathleen Woodiwiss entitled The Elusively Flammable Flame: The Villain Explains All, I LOL when the heroine’s age is described as “ten-and-five-and-one-and-one-and-one-and-one years.” But what I found even more hilarious was her telling the villain how certain she is that her husband, wrongly accused of killing his ex-mistress, will rescue her at any moment because his love for her is “Shakespearean, Chaucerian, Spencerian, and even exceeds that of the Brownings!” When the villain queries her on this last, she remembers that “in 1820 neither Robert nor Elizabeth Barrett Browning had yet published any of their poetic, verse-filled volumes.”

It’s hard to describe Amanda Grange’s Regency-era Chick Lit diary entitled Miss Bridget Jane’s Diary without simply copying and pasting it here. Like Cheryl Sneed, Amanda Grange is a past co-winner in this contest, and the format and sly humor of the premise never falters for a moment. The traditional historical companion to an old lady mixed together with a Chick Lit sensibility was, as one reader commented, “pitch perfect.” Do I agree with the heroine that she is “cut out to be a [19th century] career girl” because she counts her erotic encounters with the earl who employs her? Although once caught in the broom closet with the earl by the butler, I’m so pleased that, by the end of this tale, the heroine is able to write: “My last diary entry. Engaged career girls don’t have time to write in diaries. They are too busy examining broom cupboards with earls.”

K.T. Shaw’s Lord St. Lucifer and the Librarian managed to feature so many mixed metaphors that I too was “made dizzy” by them, and heartily agreed with the heroine about the hero’s use of euphemism at the end of the entry when she begs that he allow her to teach him some technical terms. She gets ’em all in there: aching buds, and honey-pot overflowing with nectar, not to mention feminine dingle, mossy, bedewed glen, tumid nubble, indurate frigate of passion, and fjord of love. But again, it’s all in a name. What else could Lord St. Lucifer do but seduce every woman he meets with a name like that?

I found Phoebe Belsley’s Character Assassination very inventive. After the hero dies he learns that his beloved wife was meant to marry his best friend. And though he thought their love grand and love life fine, he soon learns that it should have been clear he was not his wife’s true love – how could he have been with such a dull name? His wife’s true love makes her multi-orgasmic and now she likes it doggy style…and you wouldn’t believe the blow jobs she gives. When he protests that he was a good lover and she had orgasms with him, he’s told, “those two will scorch the sheets, and the walls and chairs and saddles, if you know what I mean.”

Helen Derbyshire pays homage to Amanda Quick, Stephanie Laurens, and Sabrina Jeffries in her A Motive for Marriage. In this inspired piece of writing, the hero totally botches his seduction of the heroine in his carriage, doing himself great bodily harm in the process. Unfortunately for him, the heroine soon discovers that being pressed along the floor of a carriage is in some ways similar to sitting atop a washing machine, from what I understand. She comes to realize she doesn’t need a man for pleasure, just a new carriage.

While I enjoyed each of the 17 entries in this year’s contest, the above are my favorites. They were among your favorites as well, along with Theresa Luke’s homage to Suzanne Brockmann entitled Overheated. Given that I’m not a Brockmann reader I probably missed many of the in-jokes, but who wouldn’t love a hero named Sponge-Bob who arranges for an extraction with is SEAL buddies (Stain Washyershortz, Ken Spaghetti, and Brian Brigadoon, among others, all from “team 69”) of the heroine from a bar when her car breaks down? And what about that trouble in Istinksistan? On the contest page itself I’ll be adding some of your comments about this year’s entries in a week or so, but I’m sure you’d like to know who won our eighth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. And so, without further ado, I give you…

For the second year in a row, Amanda Grange. Voting was extremely tight this year, with Theresa Luke’s entry following directly behind Miss Bridget Jane’s Diary. Congratulations, Amanda – please email me with your comments so that they may be included on the contest page shortly. Your prize will be mailed to you at the end of the month. As for the rest of you, I’d love your comments on this year’s results

PayPal and Romantica (Anne Marble)

A brief news item in a recent issue of Romantic Times magazine had me exclaiming “What?!” According to RT, PayPal would no longer process payments for erotic romances. For those who avoid making purchases over the web (Hi, Mom!) PayPal is a service that people can use to buy and sell things on the Internet. PayPal is the on-line payment service at this time, especially on eBay, so this is an important action.

While looking into this I soon discovered that the complete story is broader than the RT news item. What happened was this: in 2003, PayPal decided to get out of the “adult content” business.

Early in 2003, PayPal announced that there would be a change in their Mature Audiences policy. (The current policy is dated October 2003, but the policy first went into effect in June of 2003.) According to Amanda Pires, PayPal spokesperson, “There was a time when PayPal did allow its services to be used for adult content.” The new policy was created because of the many cases of fraud involving the buying and selling of adult materials. The decision was made “after a long look at the business.” An article on Wired magazine’s web site corroborates that there is a greater financial risk in allowing sales of adult materials as this sort of sale often results in fraud complaints, customer “chargebacks,” and the like.

PayPal’s new policy stated that they would no longer process payments for “adult materials.” This included sales of erotic items sold through eBay (which is owned by PayPal) and pornographic sites. There is some flexibility to this rule. For example, PayPal can be used to buy and sell pre-1980s issues of Playboy, Playgirl, and Penthouse. On eBay, these can be categorized as “Collectibles” rather than as “Mature Audiences.” You can’t use PayPal to pay for items in the Mature Audiences section. Nor can you use PayPal to buy or sell “any material clearly designed to sexually arouse the viewer/reader.” While “Mature Audience” books are covered by the new policy, other things are not. For example, you can still use PayPal to buy and sell fine art that might be deemed “adult.”

The vagueness of this policy makes it seem more straightforward than it is. “Collectible” Playboys and Penthouses are not much different than later ones. Nudity in fine art is okay but who is to say what is really fine art? Books classified as “romantica” – ie. books about people falling in love and making love are not allowed – but who is to say what is romantica and what is just hot romance? Print romances seem to get a pass. Readers can go onto eBay and find print erotic romances such as those published by Kensington’s Brava line. They can also find books far more explicit than erotic romance novels for sale, and their PayPal payments will be accepted. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, one of Anne Rice’s BDSM novels, is one obvious example of this.

I asked people about this and got a number of comments. One poster, Allison said that she does not like this policy and disagrees with the reasoning behind it. She sees it as censorship – and the equivalent of a credit card company telling her she couldn’t subscribe to certain sites because of the “chargeback” ratio. “Who is PayPal to say what I can or cannot purchase? How do they decide what sites are ‘okay’ to carry? Who decides what qualifies as ‘porn’ and what is ‘erotica’ and what is straight ‘romance’? Is Emma Holly erotica? My local library carries her novels… Does this mean she’s just romance?”

PayPay’s spokesperson agrees that “books are a different animal. What’s so hard about these issues is that they’re kind of gray.” She agreed that there are many books, including mainstream books, where sexual content is included, though it’s not the primary purpose of the book. For PayPal, the main question is whether or not the sexual content is “part of a bigger issue, part of a book” – or if it is the primary purpose of the book. However, she confirmed that the staff at PayPal does its best to remain consistent about these issues.

Many authors and publishers affected by the policy disagree with PayPal’s new policy and the way it has been handled. Author Brenna Lyons has published several erotic/sensual romances available through eXtasy Books, as well as a paranormal romance series available through Treble Heart. She has received numerous awards, including the Fallen Angels Reviews 2003 Author of the Year for eXtasy Books. Brenna believes that there are problems with this policy. PayPal claims the policy was instituted to stop scams involving adult materials. But Brenna doesn’t see this happening, arguing, “What they are doing will not stop the illegal use of PayPal, and they are punishing long-term account holders with legitimate businesses in the bargain. They have formed a breeding ground for illegal activities and are only now starting to feel the burn of it. What they should be doing is checking out new accounts, not punishing the old.”

But is this censorship, even if we broaden the definition so that it goes beyond a governmental action? Maili doesn’t see this as censorship because you can still buy “adult” items through eBay (although you can’t use PayPal to do so). “It’s purely business. I’d go as far to say that they are playing a game of anti-trust, edging out competition by denying them the services of PayPal.”

Author Sahara Kelly argues that it is a form of censorship:

“No one has the right to dictate what books are acceptable to whom. It’s outrageous to think that one company, maybe even one small group within that company, is making decisions that affect readers worldwide. The era of banned books is behind us, and should stay there. Even the Supreme Court agrees. In a recent ruling against a Justice Department attempt to censor adult material on-line, Justice Kennedy writes [that] ‘Content-based prohibitions, enforced by severe criminal penalties, have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people.’ While this decision is not directly aimed at erotic romance publishing sites or PayPal, the underlying principal certainly applies. We here in the USA are a free people. Those freedoms were hard-won, and are defended daily by people of courage and resolution. How can PayPal pursue this course? Have they not read the First Amendment?”

Yet Andreya Stuart, author of “sensuous romances,” points out that you can still buy erotic books on eBay – yes, even if you use PayPal. She sees it as a a class action suit waiting to happen in part because, “ebooks are being hit, but those selling used books are ignored.”

Yet, according to PayPal’s spokesperson, used books are not given a “free pass.” The format of the book is not the issue – sexual content is. “Our policy says that any material clearly designed to sexually arouse the viewer/reader (e.g., books, text, photos, videos, X-rated movies, cartoons, pornographic materials, etc.) are violations of PayPal’s Acceptable Use Policy. However, we clearly state that PayPal can be used to sell books as long as they are not primarily about sexual matters.” She explained that while it is true that you can use PayPal to buy used books with erotic content on eBay, “the policy is that if the book’s topic is not primarily about sexual matters then PayPal can be used to sell the book.”

According to Brenna Lyons, when the new policy went into effect, many people noticed that the adult content guidelines were vague. For that reason, many publishers of sensual and erotic books asked PayPal to check out their sites. PayPal’s adult content guidelines are open to interpretation and so changes can be made. PayPal did, in fact, assure the publishers that their sites were acceptable.

Early in 2004, almost a year after the announcement of the new policy, PayPal began freezing the accounts of publishers, writers, and even readers of erotic romance. Brenna herself knows of four publishers, five self-published authors, and two review sites that had their accounts frozen by PayPal.

What happened to warrant such drastic action? PayPal was investigating them for violations of their Terms of Service (TOS). When an account is under investigation it can be frozen for up to 180 days.

Though those under investigation often disagree, Amanda Pires says that the investigation is “not an invasive process.” PayPal doesn’t contact the vendor until they’ve decided it’s violating the Acceptable Use policy. They will, however, investigate sites on the basis of a single complaint. According to Amanda, this is because PayPal “encourages people to let them know because the Internet is so large.” She adds, though, that while a single complaint is enough to start an investigation, that single complaint isn’t enough to get PayPal to take action against a vendor. As part of this investigative process, PayPal staff review both the sites and the content. In the case of an electronic publisher, they might ask for downloads of the books. In a case like that, the process could take longer because they have to evaluate books rather than just evaluating a web site.

The evaluation process involves trying to determine “whether or not the sexual content is a small or insignificant part of the book.” Ms. Pires adds, “We allow PayPal to be used to sell a book, not based on length or number of loves scenes, but on the topic or intent of the book. If the sexual scenes or content is part of the story line but not the primary purpose of the book, then PayPal can be used to sell the book.” Staff members performing this evaluation must decide whether the books adhere to the Acceptable Use policy. When performing these evaluations, the staff members “try to be as fair as possible.”

Many authors and publishers of erotic romances who have been investigated disagree that PayPal treated people in their industry fairly. According to Brenna Lyons, no warning was given to small publishers and self-published authors that they were about to be investigate. Their PayPal accounts were suddenly frozen. “Just wake up one morning and have your account frozen. If you happened to have most of your working capital in there, you were screwed. Pardon the frank language. Here’s the cute part. When they started going after the big boys, they gave them a few weeks to change providers for sensual and erotic book sales.” A publisher didn’t have to use PayPal as a payment option to be affected. For example, eXtasy Books, which sells sensual and erotic romances such as The Truth About Vampires and Slave Heart, did not use their PayPal account to accept payments for their books. It was used for third-party payments, such as paying authors. And it is still frozen. And, Tina, a spokesperson for the publisher, argues that only smaller publishers seemed to be targeted by PayPal, and even then, only certain publishers.

“Suddenly, one day, I received a letter from PayPal informing me that the account had been frozen. Subsequently, I phoned, and phoned, emailed, left messages on their web site, every day for at least a month. Finally they transferred the funds out of my account to the bank, but left the account frozen. Their explanation, we were selling goods of a questionable nature and not allowed through PayPal rules and regulations. We were told to take the PayPal logo from our web site. However, upon reading the rules and regulations, Penthouse and Playboy magazines prior to 1982 were permitted as they are collector’s items… go figure. They put us through hell for a month. Only after threatening lawsuits and that we’d join class action suits, did they finally release our funds. However, the account is still frozen. Just sitting there empty. I found many of the reps I got to talk to on a daily basis, quite rude. From then on, we refused to have any dealings with PayPal and now use who is extremely thorough and do not object to sensual romance. They tell you ahead of time if material is objectionable. Great customer liaison. The only drawback is that they’re fairly new and growing and don’t have all the abilities that PayPal offered, but they’re great for paying our authors and other bills.”

PayPal’s Pires cannot discuss a specific user’s account, but in general terms, if Paypal finds “a personal account was used to sell items that violate our Acceptable Use Policy, that account will be restricted as well.” She adds that where releasing funds is concerned, Paypal’s User Agreement “clearly states that if an account has been restricted, funds in that account can be held for up to 180 days. Because chargebacks from credit card companies or buyer requested refunds may be brought against that account for that time frame, PayPal maintains that money in that account for that time to ensure all credits are issued.” She also indicated that the company reviews accounts and tries “to work with merchants individually. If we find accounts that violate our policy, we do try to work with them to come into compliance with our policies. If they can do that, their account may be re-instated.”

Erotic romance publishers are not the only ones affected. GLB Publishers sells print books and e-books by and for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. While publisher W. L. (Bill) Warner did not face the fund-freezing process, PayPal did suddenly refuse to handle payments to their site – despite the fact that the site sells few erotic titles. Warner sees what happened as antagonistic to publishing in general. Their books are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, but “there is ‘romance’ there just the same.” He adds:“None are pornographic, but some are somewhat erotic. Some of our authors are noted academicians, lawyers, psychologists, etc. In our case, they said simply that we were in violation of their policy, nothing specific. When I pointed out that we did not use frontal nudity in covers and there was no erotic content in the reviews, they seemed to shrug and went ahead anyhow.” He was also concerned that while PayPal had refused to handle payments to his company, what was to stop PayPal from withdrawing money from their account for trumped-up reasons? “I arranged a three-way telephone conference with them and my bank to make it clear to all concerned that we no longer did business with PayPal.”

Like Tina and W. L. (Bill) Warner, some publishers reported having extreme difficulty contacting anyone at all at PayPal regarding the investigation. Others were still able to contact someone at PayPal, but may still have problems reaching an agreement. The differences could be because of the varying sizes of the companies or because some people got stuck with a bad account representative.

Ellora’s Cave is likely the largest and best known e-publisher of erotic romances. According to the company’s COO and publisher, Christina M. Brashear, PayPal had an issue with some of the covers of their books. However, they haven’t as yet named specific covers. Yet while other publishers were investigated because of the contents of their books, nothing was said about the content of the books at Ellora’s cave. Christina added, “Ellora’s Cave is being reviewed and they may have some issues with our covers, but I’ve yet to get specifics from them. Our accounts are open and doing business as of this email. My account rep assured me that if it came to pass PayPal and EC would not be doing business together, the end would be graceful. Our account will not be frozen.” She also explained that Ellora’s Cave has a great account rep who kept her posted on any changes that might affect them. She adds, “I have hopes in amicably settling our content issues without either party having to compromise their integrity.”

Jane Bierce, president of the Electrically Published Internet Connection (EPIC), indicated to us that, “Although I don’t write erotic material, I defend other writers’ rights to do so, and publishers to publish it. For an entity like PayPal to decide arbitrarily what is a proper use of its service and what is not endangers all the epublishing world.” Jane also indicated that many publishers have sought out alternatives to PayPal, such as, because of PayPal’s actions.

It’s not just the authors and publishers who have taken up arms against PayPal. Brenna Lyons notes that many readers have also joined them, closing down their PayPal accounts in protest and sending letters to PayPal explaining why they were shutting down the accounts. “The funny thing is that, while PayPal originally stated that they believed this wouldn’t lose them much business from this policy, when the mass exodus started, they made a desperate attempt to get the account holders back.” For example, many authors received offers inviting them to reopen their closed accounts. Brenna wonders “if they are losing more business than they counted on over this.”

Lynne Connolly has written Georgian and Regency historical romances sold through NovelBooks, Inc. and Awe-Struck Books. She understands the response other electronically published authors are having and believes that PayPal made a big mistake. “IMHO PayPal are shooting themselves in the foot, because potentially lucrative contracts are now sourcing elsewhere for paying methods.”

This may simply be a case of a company trying to protect themselves against fraud, and shooting themselves in the foot with loyal customers. Refusing to accept charges for materials based on their “adult” content has enraged many honest authors, booksellers and readers who have learned to depend on PayPal. Their businesses and buying habits have been interrupted based on speculation that their materials are likely to be fraudulent.

As is always the case with these things, one wonders where the limits lie. Taken to extremes, PayPal’s policy could cover all sorts of romance books and other material as well. We all know how some non-romance reader snobs react to romance. It is not unusual to be told by otherwise intelligent people that romances are about sex, sex, sex and that they are just there for the titillation of frustrated women.

W. L. (Bill) Warner of GLB Publishers faces similar discrimination. “Some people (bigots as far as I am concerned) have decided that anything that is g, l, b, or t is pornography. I encounter this reaction at all levels and am no longer surprised. (That includes some e-book distributors.)”

Many will argue that PayPal has the right not to process payments on certain items but its actions will certainly have consequences with many authors, booksellers and readers. As Spiderman learned many years ago, “With great power comes great responsibility.” PayPal’s actions raise difficult and serious questions that we should all think about.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Rather than provide specific questions this time around, I’d like to have you simply consider the various segments on Harlequin (and our readership), the Western, the Purple Prose Parody Contest, and the PayPal/Romantica policy, and to make comments on them.

 TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books and Anne Marble

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