Propay: the Internet's Chastity Belt

I cannot recall a recent time when I have been so angry.

As you probably know, I started doing the speculative-fiction convention circuit about six years ago, upon the sale of my first novel. After a few years, I saw how silly it was for each of the authors to get a separate table in the dealer's room just to hawk our own books. It was a waste of space in the convention hall, a waste of time and money for us - you have to sell a metric ton of books to be able to make your costs back when you're solo on a table, and there's no one to back you up when you need a break from shilling your wares.

So I started sharing tables, first with a couple of my close friends who also were doing the circuit, and then bringing in other authors we met at conventions. Soon I began carrying their stock with me on tour, in the hopes that I could drum up a few extra sales for them at shows they couldn't attend. They were horror, science fiction, fantasy… and the occasional paranormal romance. You know, the genre that's burning up the top-ten lists?

Eventually it became an actual business, with commissions reinvested in the next show, the next table. My goal has always been just to keep it self-sustaining, and at that it's been… close. I established a web store so we could supplement our income selling our books to people who might not be able to catch up with us at conventions.

The idea was for small press authors to help each other, to stay alive in an economy where no one is buying books, to keep our work available in a publishing climate where bookstores are failing, chains are refusing small press and signings are harder to schedule.

Almost none of our titles are self-published. They are nearly all from traditional small press, with some published by New York conglomerates. Most are horror, science fiction or fantasy - the sort of books you'll find on the convention circuit.

They are NOT pornography.

And yet, that is what Propay is calling us.

After approximately one zillion requests from readers at conventions and online alike, I decided to look for a way to accept credit cards without having to use Paypal. I researched every service I could find.

Two friends from the convention circuit recommended Propay. Based in Utah, it had been around for five years and specialized in small businesses like mine. Its rates were reasonable and charges were simple to run and transfer. Both of these friends work like I do: they do trade shows or conventions, and supplement with online sales via a self-maintained web store.

I was careful, of course. I purchased an SSL certificate for the site via our hosting service. I checked all the caveats. Then I signed up for Propay. They took my money and gave me an account. "Welcome to Propay!" I announced to our fans via Twitter, Facebook and the mailing list that we were now taking credit cards. Huzzah! I even got my first credit-card order.

A day later, I was informed that due to the "high-risk" nature of my business, my account was being cancelled. They would refund my fee.

I was flabbergasted. What had I done wrong? I got the SSL certificate, which they didn't say I needed but which my separate reading said was a good idea. I sell books. How is that any more "high-risk" than selling yarn or corsets or perfume? What is it their concern if I go out of business?

I checked their list of banned businesses. It seems the "high-risk" part comes from their risk that I'm a scammer. No, I'm not a bail bondsman, a pharmacist (?) or running a pyramid scheme. I'm not doing anything illegal of which I'm aware and while I can't understand why they won't take on software or live-animal vendors, I still don't fit those categories.

Books are not listed as a high-risk category.

I called their customer service line and was put into the voicemail of "Spencer," in their risk department. I waited a day, and then I called Spencer back. He politely told me that he was the one who had personally reviewed my business and flagged it as an unacceptable use. As a pornographic merchant.

I really couldn't believe it. I laughed and said, "We do carry some romance novels, but they're not pornography. They're available at Borders, for heaven's sake."

Spencer told me he would have the rest of the risk assessment team re-evaluate it and get back to me by the end of the day.

I went to look at our site. What could have made them think I was hawking porn? We don't have pop-up ads with scantily-clad women waggling themselves at us - hell, we don't have ads at all. Our featured author this week is Angelia Sparrow, who does write mostly romance novels. Two of her book covers have shirtless men on them.

One has a cartoon couple sitting on a park bench together. Horrors!

I honestly felt they would take a closer look, realize we're not a porn merchant, and authorize my account. I mean, the list is ridiculous. Am I selling mail-order brides? A sexually-based dating service? A topless bar? Of course not. Homosexual content does not pornography make, not even for the Supreme Court.

Later, I got an email from Spencer: "We have reviewed your business again and still find it unsupportable through Propay. We are sorry for the inconvenience and hope you will find another merchant provider that can meet your needs."

Now I'm angry.

I guess I should have applied last week - Steven Shrewsbury was our author spotlight, and his covers have a snarling hell-beast and a swirling red darkness from which a demon will emerge. Perhaps that would have met with Propay's approval. Good thing they didn't see Sara Harvey's "Convent of the Pure"! That cover has a woman in a corset, holding a crossbow! The ghost of her dead lover dances behind her!

Dear Propay: If I were really selling porn, we'd be making a hell of a lot more money.

It is hard enough to be taken seriously as authors of speculative fiction that *gasp* occasionally includes sex in the Age of Sparkly Vampires. We don't carry smut for smut's sake. I carry work that has actual plot, stories and characters and intelligence in a fantastic setting. Books that could be characterized as paranormal romance or even erotica are maybe 13 out of more than 60 titles we carry, about half of which are on the web store.

I'm disappointed beyond words. Propay had an excellent structure, perfect for our needs. It was one $35 annual fee with a percentage taken from each purchase. By contrast, other services were horrifyingly overpriced for a tiny business like mine. Paying $35 a year is reasonable cost of doing business; $30 a month is not, unless our business picks way, way up.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't briefly consider taking down our romance section just for the day. Just to get the account going, get by the blue-noses at Propay. Once we were an established customer, they couldn't then go back and cancel our account. Hold off for a couple of days, then put the romance novels back up.

But that would mean validating their stupid morality play, and I refuse to censor my people to satisfy some bureaucrat in Utah. My authors do not write pornography. They write books of worlds far away and nearby, of the darkest desires of the human heart as well as the scariest creatures the imagination can brew in the shadows. My authors write fantastic books, and it's a pity that more bookstores don't carry them, that for many of them, Amazon and the Literary Underworld are the only places they can sell their stuff.

If Propay doesn't want our business as it is, it's their loss.

But more than taking my business elsewhere, I want to let my fellow entrepreneurs know that apparently Propay considers two men sitting beside each other on a park bench to be pornography. That they refuse to help my customers use credit cards because I might steal their money, because as a "smut peddler" I am clearly untrustworthy.

I am a writer, and yet I don't have words strong enough for this. Hell, maybe we should pick up some porn. It'll help pay the extra cost for processing those credit cards.


  1. Anonymous8:26 PM

    That's reminiscent of the owner of the Christian bookstore who all but threw holy water at me when he learned that my books were fantasy.

  2. Anonymous8:45 PM

    You might want to find out what payment processor Dreamwidth ( is using. They've had problems along similar lines, and finally found someone they could work with.

  3. What I'm confused about is - even if it was porn, what would be the problem?

    Porn sells.

  4. Anonymous9:52 PM

    One word: Mormons.

  5. Anonymous10:16 PM

    Yup,NBrooks said it above. Mor(m)ons.

  6. Officially, their acceptable use policy lists it as a high-risk business for fraud. Basically, they assume if I'm hawking porn, I might steal my customers' credit card numbers. I have a feeling, however, that Naomi has the right of it.

  7. Sent an email, we'll see how it goes. I am pissed, too and demanding an explanation.

    Email follows:
    Hi there,
    I am an author with the Literary Underworld online bookshop, a business that recently signed up for your service. Your service came HIGHLY recommended by other small business owners selling everything from yarn to perfumes to corsets.
    Elizabeth Donald is my point of contact for the Literary Underworld and takes care of the business matters for the online storefront as well as our national bookstore, convention, and conference events and appearances. She was very happy to sign up for your service, until today, when she was informed that our business was not welcomed with ProPay.
    She was informed, and in turn informed us- the other authors and business partners- of this turn of events and that your company's stated reason was that we apparently sell pornography. I can tell you that nothing is farther from the truth and would like to know your point of view on this matter. What evidence do you cite that makes you think we are selling pornographic materials? Yes, some of the titles (about a dozen out of the sixty or so the online storefront carries) are romance novels but ALL the Literary Underworld titles are sold at mainstream brick-and-mortar bookstores, mainstream online book retailers, and other retailers that sell books (CVS Pharmacies in my personal case). None of these retail outlets are allowed to sell pornography, yet, for example, carries all of the books of all of the Literary Underworld authors.
    So, what I am failing to understand is how your company would classify the Literary Underworld as a site peddling pornographic materials?
    We sell no pictorial or video representations of sex acts and all of the books that have any degree of sexual content are labeled as such, just like television and movie ratings, and contain no more sexual content than an average Hollywood blockbuster. Again, hardly what I would classify as pornography.
    I would like some resolution on this case as I think you may have misunderstood or misinterpreted our books and I would like the Literary Underworld account reinstated.

    Thank you for your time and consideration,

    Sara M. Harvey

  8. Anonymous10:58 AM


  9. Anonymous11:21 AM

    I'm thinking it's the Mormon thing...Realy and truly....It's too buttoned up not to be.

  10. Anonymous12:03 PM

    That's simply disgusting (their practice, not your content!). You know the saying-- do a good job, and your clients will tell one person. Piss them off, and they'll tell twenty. Well, they've pissed me off, too, and I'll be sure to spread the word. Sara wrote a wonderful letter and I hope some satisfaction comes of it! Good luck, guys.

  11. Anonymous12:36 PM

    I wonder if they're related to the folks in Utah who sold DVDs of movies with nudity and naughty words excised - without approval of the studio any of the people involved.

  12. I'm just as pleased. I don't do business with Mormons when I can avoid it. I refuse to give money to people who use it to harm me and mine.

    Now, all that's left is finding a reasonably priced service that will take us.

  13. It's fair to recognize, guys, that we're basing the assumption that it's run by Mormons solely on it being based in Utah. Yeah, statistically it's a good shot, but even so, that's a pretty big assumption there. To be fair, it may have nothing to do with Mormons or any religious faith, but just general asshattery. (Is that a word? It is now.)

  14. That's very disappointing.

    I sometimes forget how bigoted, stupid and just plain mean some people are. I bet if you were actually selling gay porn (and making quite a tidy profit I would imagine) that they would overlook the "smut" for the cash they would get from you. :(

  15. Anonymous11:14 PM

    Proof? ProPay has a bigwig exec that's not only Mormon but a descendant of Joseph Smith, Jr. himself.

  16. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Apparently porn has the highest rate of chargebacks (No, I won't pay that! That wasn't me buying that porn! No sirree I would never buy porn!) in the industry.

    I learned this from the Dreamwidth vs. PayPal/Google Checkout debacle. (Dreamwidth found another provider, though it involved a lot of custom development on the backend; it wasn't as relatively low-hassle as PayPal and Google Checkout are supposed to be.) The lesson they took away from it was that given the state of the industry, checking up front to make sure that explicit content was OK was worth the hassle.

    Ugh. It was horrid for them to go through, and I wish you the best of luck with this as well.

  17. Anonymous10:14 AM

    Go to your bank and look into a merchant services account. See if the bank offers one that can function as an internet shopping cart.

    Best thing? Take Propay's numbers to them and see if the bank'll match their monthly fees. Normal businesses actually -want- your business, so they're likely to knock $15/month down to $5 for you, no problem.

  18. Unbelieveable. It is patently obvious that the titles carried by Literary Underworld are mainstream. They are in Borders, Barnes and Noble, and all kinds of public retailers which an agent at ProPay can discover with about 5 minutes of research. Sorry you are having to endure that.

    And as for DA Adams' comment at the top: You should have reminded the Christian Bookstore that two of the giants of the fantasy world are J R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, one a Catholic, one a Protestant, and both about as devout as one can get.

  19. Anonymous7:28 PM

    Your first mistake was doing business with anyone/thing in Utah. FFS, their Walmarts make Harlequin and other romance publishers produce special covers for the UT stores. Sexy is if an ankle shows on those covers. LOL. (I'm not blaming you in any way for this nonsense, of course.)

    I hope you can find a better service--one w/o a stick up its nether areas.

  20. You are very lucky they turned you down, just check they're reputation on the web. There M O is to take all your money first, disable your ability to transfer your collected funds back into your own account and claim you are a high risk business. Then they will keep your funds anywhere from 90 to 180 days and some people claim they never got their money back. They don't answer emails and don't return calls. They are a scam and they are thieves and need to be terminated. They have hurt many of people.


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