Retailer apologises after being alerted to titles on its site, adding self-publishing had left sellers exposed to pornographic content
WH Smith shut down its website on Sunday after it was revealed that a search for the term “daddy” brought up hardcore pornographic ebooks featuring bondage and humiliation alongside stories for children.
At least 60 pornographic ebooks – some featuring rapes and bestiality – were available on the company’s online store, and could also be found on Amazon, Waterstones and Barnes & Noble, according to the Mail on Sunday.
Alerted to the availability of the ebooks – the majority of which are self-published – WH Smith took the unprecedented move of shutting down its website until the ebooks could be removed.
In a statement WH Smith apologised to customers and said the “explosion” of self-publishing had left book retailers exposed to pornographic content. “This is an industry wide issue impacting retailers that sell self-published ebooks due to the explosion of self-publishing, which in the main is good as it gives new authors the opportunity to get their content published.
“However, we are disgusted by these particular titles, find this unacceptable and we in no way whatsoever condone them. It is our policy not to feature titles like those highlighted and we have processes in place to screen them out.”
The books had slipped through the screening process because of the “massive amount” of self-publishing, WH Smith added. The retailer also announced that in future it would not display any self-published books until it was confident that “inappropriate books” would not be shown. “We are taking immediate steps to have them all removed. While we are doing this we have decided to take our website offline to best protect our customers and the public. Our website will become live again once all self-published ebooks have been removed and we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available.”
WH Smith said it sold more than 1m titles through ebooks partner Kobo which it has previously described as “a big driver” of its profits.
The National Crime Agency warned on Sunday that books appearing to legitimise child abuse “might feed the fantasies of paedophiles and in some cases encourage child sexual abusers to commit contact offences”.
Justine Roberts of the parenting website Mumsnet said the books “glorified” rape and incest, telling the Mail on Sunday: ‘You would not expect to be able to access so easily hardcore pornography alongside children’s books.”
John Whittingdale, the chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, said: “It is disgusting that WH Smith, one of the country’s most respected retailers, is selling hardcore pornography alongside children’s books. Retailers have a responsibility to families and it is unacceptable that anyone could access this material within a click of a mouse.”
Modern digital publishing now means that any author can sell their books and set their own price. Booksellers are thought to take a 30% cut of ebooks sold under £6.60 and 35% for more expensive titles.
Barnes & Noble said offensive titles were also in the process of being removed from sale on its website, adding: “When there are violations to the content policy that are brought to our attention, either through our internal process or from a customer or external source, we have a rapid response team in place to appropriately categorise or remove the content in accordance with our policy.”
Waterstones said: “As with other bookselling websites, Waterstones takes a feed from central databases of book publications, notably Nielsen. Any of these titles can then be ordered by a customer. We do not stock in our shops or in our warehouses for internet supply any of these titles and we have never had any ordered from us in the past. Now that we are aware of the theoretical ability of a customer to order such titles by fact of their listing by Nielsen, we will investigate with them how this might be avoided.”
When contacted by the Mail on Sunday, Amazon said the books brought to its attention were not sold on the site.
The Ministry of Justice said the retailers would be liable for prosecution if a judge deemed that the ebooks breached the Obscene Publications Act.