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Amazon.com 'embarrassed' at gay glitch
News update April 13, 2009
by TRACY BAIM
2009-04-08

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LGBT authors of all kinds were outraged last weekend when Amazon.com removed their books from its rankings ( which hurts sales ) and in some cases removed them from searches entirely.

Amazon.com finally issued an apology Monday, April 13, but it did not seem to fully explain what happened.

Amazon.com spokesman Drew Herdener stated that: "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- and 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."

As of Monday, Amazon.com had fixed some rankings and searches, but not all. There were also further explanations on some Web sites blaming it on a programmer in France who made an error that wrongly categorized erotic with adult content.

But the range of LGBT books was immense, from family titles such as Heather Has Two Mommies to young adult novels, mysteries, religious titles, and more. If the categories impacted were in fact those listed above, the question becomes how did a gay-related children's book ever get tagged as erotica? Many anti-gay titles in fact remained searchable and ranked, as did heterosexual romances and straight sexuality books.

Amazon's apology falls short of fully explaining how in fact it may "tag" any LGBT titles in their back-end programming. Weeks before this uproar, which was fueled by Twitter and Facebook posts throughout the holiday weekend, at least some gay authors had been receiving letters from Amazon explaining why their erotic titles were not good enough to be ranked.

Craig Seymour noticed his gay stripper book All I Could Bare: My life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C., and titles by gay porn stars were not ranked, but one by straight stripper Diablo Cody, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, did get ranked. After he complained, Seymour's book was ranked again.

"I was happy, of course," Seymour wrote on his blog, Craig's Pop Life. "But I was still freaked out by the whole situation and worried about how it would affect other authors, especially those who aren't [ with ] mainstream publishers. Somehow, for nearly three weeks, Amazon effectively 'coded' my book out of circulation, and I had no idea how or why."

Romance writer and publisher Mark R. Probst posted this letter he had received from Amazon after he complained about the de-ranking of his book The Filly prior to the weekend's massive de-ranking occurred: "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." The letter was signed by "Ashlyn D" in Amazon.com member services.

Such an explanation, sent before the "glitch," would seem to indicate a much deeper problem for gay-related titles on Amazon.com .

"This comment spells it out and gives us a partial name of the speller," said mystery writer Ellen Hart in an e-mail to Windy City Times. "I don't think they can backtrack or manipulate their way out of this one. I hope people see this growing behemoth--Amazon.com--for what it really is. I do not write 'adult' fiction. I write mystery novels for Ballantine and St. Martin's, no different from any other writer's mystery novels with one exception. My main character, Jane Lawless, is a lesbian. If the tender feelings of Amazon's customer base are being protected from this, than their action is censorship, plain and simple. I'm not just disappointed, I'm furious."

"I think Ellen DeGeneres and her mother, Betty, might be interested to hear that Betty penned an 'adult' book when she wrote Love Ellen: A Mother/Daughter Journey," Hart continued. "Amazon has effectively shelved all GLBT writers in the 'adult' section."

"It is outrageous that something like this could happen," said Michelangelo Signorile, whose own titles were de-ranked. " [ One ] does wonder how, if they were flagging 'erotica', specifically gay political or self-help titles could be singled out while sexual titles of a heterosexual nature, like Playboy, were not."

Gay writer Lawrence Schimel, like Hart and Signorile, was spreading the word far and wide about the de-ranking: "Either Amazon is homophobicly considering 'adult' ( in an erotic context ) any LGBT title, regardless of its erotic content ( and I know that my own non-erotic LGBT books Found Tribe: Jewish Coming Out Stories and Best Date Ever: True Stories that Celebrate Gay Relationships have been de-ranked ) and/or a double-standard is at play, and the 'adult' policy is being used selectively, and with bias, to specifically target LGBT titles, something we in the queer community have seen before, such as in the specific targeting and harassment by Canadian Customs of shipments of LGBT titles to the Little Sisters Bookshop. No matter what excuses they come up with--and already Amazon is claiming this was just a 'glitch,' even after various gay authors have been getting communications from Amazon about this 'new policy' for weeks, ever since first noticing in early February that their titles no longer had sales rankings nor showed up in searches--this should not have happened; it should not have been possible."

Schimel pointed out that even though print editions of some gay books were de-ranked, the Amazon.com Kindle electronic book versions sometimes did show up.

One irony of the timing of this Easter-weekend problem: The Chicago-based founder of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, Judith Krug, 69, died April 11 of complications from cancer. The ALA celebrated Banned Books Week every year since 1982, often pointing out how GLBT books were targeted for censorship. Krug worked in the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom starting in 1967.

Some LGBT writers said this incident further points out the risk of having very few companies be the primary focal point for sales, becoming the arbiter of culture. Giving Amazon.com that power means they can wield it like a club against titles that may offend some of their customers. There are just a handful of feminist and lesbian and gay bookstores left in the country; but some, like Women and Children First Bookstore, offer vast selections of books online, and perhaps will benefit from a backlash this de-ranking is causing against Amazon.com .

Lesbian romance writer Karin Kallmaker posted on her Facebook page: "'Ham-fisted and embarrassing,' I totally agree with. But 'A guy in France did it' is really straining credulity. … Still listening hard for the words 'We value LGBT literature and we're sorry it was equated with porn."


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