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Amazon excluding LGBT material from searches!

April 12, 2009 | | Comments 13 |

EDIT: Amazon responds to my email! See below.

In his Livejournal post today, Mark R. Probst revealed this shocking news:

On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.”

Now “sales rankings disappearing” might not mean a lot to the average reader. What matters is the result — that hundreds of LGBT books were now no longer showing up in Amazon.com searches!

After writing Amazon customer service, Probst got this response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

Yes, you read that right: Amazon is now classifying LGBT books as “adult material” and excluding them from searches. Remember Manly, the book I reviewed last fall? Back in September, when I reviewed it I was able to find that book on Amazon by typing in the name of the book and the author’s name in the Amazon.com search box. Now when I type in that information, this is what I get:

Amazon search for "manly dale lazarov" fail!

Ah but, you say, Manly actually is an explicitly sexual comic — that’s not so strange to label as “adult”, no?

Well, it’s not just the sexy books that are being hidden from search. Here’s Pete Cashmore from Mashable:

In the comments of that post, and elsewhere on LiveJournal, readers have been searching Amazon to find bias in the books removed from the rankings. The examples found do appear to hold water: for instance, the aforementioned post claims that the raciest section in The Well of Loneliness, one of the novels no longer ranked, is the phrase “And that night they were not divided.” Another, False Colours is a historical novel about a gay relationship with a single, non-explicit sex scene, explains the same source. The classic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover has also been removed from rankings.

(Cashmore somewhat misleadingly uses words like “accused” and “alleged” in his post, I assume in an attempt to appear balanced – the reality is that these results are easy to confirm for yourself and have been confirmed by others online. More on the broad brush Amazon is painting with at Queers United.)

As it turns out, Young Adult books with gay characters, prominent romance novels and many other titles have been made inaccessible via Amazon’s main search function. It would be one thing to give customers the option to have their Amazon searches be “child safe” – certainly giving readers the option to be shielded from explicit sexual material seems reasonable. But to paint with so wide a brush (including what seems to be ALL GLBT fiction as “adult”) and to take the choice out of the customer’s hands. Well, that’s just wrong.

Here is the email I sent to Amazon customer support:

Hello,

I’ve been a very frequent Amazon customer for many years and am an Amazon Prime customer as well. I am horrified by the hamhanded new policy you have of excluding LGBT books from search and sales ranking. I use Amazon search to find nearly everything I buy on Amazon and to have that limited is insane. In a regular bookstore, if I was looking for a book, I could just ask the shopkeeper and she would bring it to me – but if you are limiting your search based on LGBT content, you are effectively hiding those books from me and keeping me from buying them.

Even using the author’s name in a search box with the name of the title gets me no results!

Instead of this: http://ow.ly/2GkG This is what my Amazon search for “Manly Dale Lazarov” returns: http://twitpic.com/388qk

And you’re even excluding gay classics with no sex at all! http://ow.ly/2Ggj

This is awful! What were you guys thinking?!

I buy nearly everything from Amazon and now I’m going to have to rethink whether I want to be your customer at all. It’d be one thing if you instituted a safe search provision that gave people the option for a “child safe” search – but just to make these changes for everyone with a sweep of your mouse… This is hateful!

Please, rethink this policy. I want to stay your customer but if you continue to discriminate against LGBT work, then I won’t be able to do so.

Sincerely,

Alex Woolfson

If you would like to express your thoughts to Amazon about their actions, their Executive Customer Service email address is ecr@amazon.com and their U.S. Customer Support number is 1-800-201-7575. This won’t change unless people speak up. If it matter to you at all, you should take the 5 minutes to let them know your thoughts!

(Amazon Customer Support reps apparently also encourage you to log in your Amazon account and use their internal email to complain as the best way to get their attention. I agree as is shows you are an Amazon customer and I did this as well. To send them an email, go to their home page http://www.amazon.com/ click Help (upper right), click Contact Us (yellow button, middle right), enter your username and password, click Email and choose “Other Questions & Comments” as the Issue in the dropdown menu. Then let them know exactly what you think of this change.)

For more on this, I recommend reading this excellent article at Dear Author and this smart business focused article from the net.effect blog of foreignpolicy.com on the growing reaction on the Internet and how Amazon must respond. And now, the always excellent Simon Jones of Icaraus Publishing discusses the bigger picture of having companies like Amazon.com be the monopoly gatekeepers of digital content.)

Please, don’t just sit there shaking your head. Let Amazon know how this choice will effect their business now!

EDIT 1 (Monday morning): Amazon is now claiming it’s all just “a glitch”. The Dear Author blog responds with some very compelling evidence that it was clearly targeted against LGBT, making a “glitch” seem unlikely. (And in that same link offers a good explanation why A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality was spared the axe and thus became the #1 search result for the word “homosexuality” in Amazon.) Also, writer-superstar Neil Gaiman, of Sandman and Coraline fame, weighs in.

EDIT 2 (4/13 5:00 P.M.): Amazon just responded to my email from yesterday, stating there was an “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”. Well, more of a mea culpa than a “glitch” at least…

Here’s the text of their email:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting Amazon.com.

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Thanks for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.

Sincerely,

Customer Service Department
Amazon.com

EDIT 3: And now here’s a plausible account of what happened — about what I figured, user error lead to painting with too broad a brush. That said, I still think search filters for “adult material” should be in the hands on the individual customers. And the response of the Internet community still speaks volumes to how far we’ve come in the last decade. :-D

EDIT 4 (4/14/09 12:30PM): And now that the dust settles, editor Cheryl Morgan offers this excellent re-cap and commentary on the whole thing. (Although while I do think that if “WH Smith or Waterstone’s decided to put gay literature on more obscure shelves” it wouldn’t have been as big a deal, a more analogous example to items not appearing in the main search would be if shopkeepers acted like the gay books you were looking for weren’t on the shelves at all — and I do think that would have gotten noticed! ;-)) And a link from that article gives the blow-by-blow of what was happening inside of Amazon as the problem got noticed.






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About the Author: Filmmaker by day, yaoi creator by night, Alex has dedicated himself to helping cute guys fight evil and find love.

RSSComments (13)

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  1. rorsdors says:

    Good morning, I’ve just put all the titles in your article into the Amazon search and all have come up, so have you solved the problem!

  2. @rorsdors

    Well, I'd love to take credit for that – and supposedly Amazon is working to fix the "glitch" – but Manly is still not showing up for me when I type in the search (even after clearing my browser's cache).

    I have talked to other people and even when this started, some were still able to access some of the books through search. If I were to guess, I would think that the changes Amazon made hadn't propagated throughout all their servers and that's why it didn't seem to affect everyone.

    Hopefully, Amazon will be able to give a better response than "it was just a glitch" as day breaks here in San Francisco! :-D

  3. rorsdors says:

    I buy most of my books off Amazon , the yaoi included and a lot of manga so I’d be a little upset(understatement) if they started getting all fundamentalist on me.

  4. ButterflyFomori says:

    @_@ *gaspu!*

    That is. . .ridiculous!

    I don't use Amazon.com, but I do use Amazon.ca. I checked all the books you mentioned, and they do still show up in my Amazon.ca searches – for now. I will complain though, because usually, what USA does, Canada is sure to imitate!

    Ah! Morality is such a highly individual thing and to censor (with inconsistent prejudice, even!) authors' ability to be 'known' is a terrible thing indeed!

  5. @rorsdors

    Me, too, but I smell ham-handedness here vs. real malicious intent. My theory is that they got some complaints about "adult material" that they wanted to fix it quickly and whoever was in charge of coding the metadata filter just assumed that all LGBT material wouldn't be safe for kids. Back in the 80s and 90s nobody would have thought twice about that reasoning. What I find really heartening is the response across the Internet to it now – it's been huge. It's a great sign that the world is changing – that people are finally beginning to see gays and lesbians as worthy peers. As someone who grew up watching TV show after TV show get boycotted by fearful advertisers because of one gay kiss, this whole response fills my heart with joy.

    EDIT (4/13 5:00 P.M.): And they even used the words "ham handed" in their email response to me! Could Amazon PR folks be Yaoi 911 comment readers? ;-)

    @ButterflyFomori

    Yeah, as you can see from that other comment (and an email I received), not everyone has been affected. (Though, according to some accounts I read last night, it wasn't just the U.S. customers who weren't able to find the GLBT books.) And of course I wrote that post yesterday afternoon — I just got up and haven't had a chance to check the Intertubes yet, Hopefully, there's been some positive change on Amazon's part here!

    But regardless, this does show the scary side of having a (mostly always) benevolent near-monopoly like Amazon — they don't need to actually ban books or stop selling them, all they have to do is not show them in searches to keep them from the majority of the public. Things for us to think about!

    Thank you both for commenting! :-D

  6. rorsdors says:

    It was the main news over here in the U.K. Glad they backed down as they really are the only real internet book seller. Thanks for the heads up, it really is amazing how easily it would be to make gay invisible again.

  7. @rorsdors

    You're very welcome and I'm glad as well that they seem to be moving so quickly to restore the listings. And yes, I think the major takeaway from this is the awareness of just how important a site like Amazon has become– both as a resource and to our visibility. Let us hope they continue to use that power for good. ;-)

    Thanks for commenting — and hope to see you here again soon! :-D

  8. ButterflyFomori says:

    @Alex Woolfson

    *chuckle* "Ham-fisted." *chuckle* I did actually look up the meaning of that expression after reading your post, just to make sure my understanding was correct. *_^

    *goes off to try and find opportunities to use IRL* Thanks for your posting – I always enjoy them.

    You've probably already seen this, since I am a notorious slow-draw with my media info gun…

  9. @ButterflyFomori

    I actually hadn't seen that (just woke up ::blush::) but it's a pretty good recap of what I've been seeing in the Twittersphere — and from Fox News no less! Thanks for sharing it. :-)

    And yes.. Ham-fisted… Mmmm… Ham….

  10. Khalin says:

    Wow. Absolute bullshit. A site as respectable as amazon.com pulling something like this. I'm pretty disappointed and concerned about it. I hope it doesn't stem…

    "Adult material"? Give me a break.

  11. @Khalin

    Hey Khalin,

    Nice to see you again. :-) Yeah, at this point, I'm not too worried. Whether it was carelessness, foolishness or an honest mistake, they seem to have done the right thing and taken care of it quickly. And I imagine with the response that they received, they'll be a lot more careful in the future.

  12. Khalin says:

    There was another company besides amazon.com that did something like this, but I can't remember which one.

  13. What I believe is that Amazon has ONE homophobic employer that just got to make a lot shit and then the whole company has to pay for it. The point is they should just have been more open about saying « an error occured because of an employee and the whole team is sorry» instead of « it’s just a glitch». Okay, there is a possibility that it was really a mistake (those things do happen with computers) but since the books were mostly LGBT, sure was done on purpose. Anyway, let’s not make such a fuss over it. It’s not due to Amazon’s policy, we are not targeted by their team so there’s no need to go on with the whining.

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