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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
If you would like to express your thoughts to Amazon about their actions, their Executive Customer Service email address is email@example.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:
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.
Customer Service Department
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. 😀
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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