QUEERTY EXCLUSIVE — Late Monday, Amazon — the online retailer which, over the weekend, de-listed hundreds of gay books from their page rankings — responded in a brief email explaining the incident as a “a ham-fisted cataloging error“, debunking a hacker’s assertion that he had caused the books to be removed. Uh huh.
But as angry as the “cataloging error” makes customers, what about gay authors? Queerty spoke exclusively Christopher Rice, celebrated gay novelist and chairman of The Lambda Literary Foundation, which represents the interests of gay and lesbian authors and publishers, about how Amazon’s actions have affected the LGBT community. Oh, and what Amazon needs to do to make things right.
QUEERTY: What do you think of the response from Amazon calls the de-ranking of LGBT books “a ham-fisted cataloging error”?
Christopher Rice: Well, I think it remains muddled. We’re not seeing the clear and decisive response to this that everyone was hoping for and that I know the board of Lambda Literary Foundation has been hoping for.
We’re seeing a sort of gradual reappearance of sales rankings. We’re seeing a progression of odd, oblique statements about the cause behind this and that’s really only served to fuel the suspicion’s out there. I think there’s been a lot of inaccurate rumor-mongering around around the real cause of this, but at the same time, I think there’s a knowledge vacuum there. I think we don’t truly know what went on.
I mean, if this was truly just a cataloging error, why did it seem to reach a tipping point this weekend? Why did it come to everyone’s attention on Easter Sunday? I mean, the Easter Sunday thing has led to various rumors, as if it was timed around there.
Ultimately, I’d like to speak as the Board Chair of Lambda Literary Foundation, but as a customer of Amazon– and I am a customer of Amazon– I’m confused. I still don’t have a grasp on what’s going on and I don’t know if they do or they don’t.
I think that if it’s a cataloging error, it’s a cataloging error. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t specifically effect LGBT books, it matters that it affected LGBT books in this wide and sweeping way. This is just not the time for this. I mean, publishing is going through one of its worst periods in history. It’s an incredibly painful period of transition and minority authors of all strips already feel under siege.
I mean you know, we already lost A Different Light in [West Hollywood, CA], several weeks ago and in no small part because of internet giants like Amazon. So, they need to stop acting like a drunken elephant and starting like a gentle giant. They need to recognize their influence and their size and they need to behave accordingly. I think there needed to be a much better P.R. campaign around this and there still needs to be greater clarity in their response.
Are you concerned that a site like Amazon has an outsize influence on LGBT authors and publishers?
It does concern me that they’ve become so large, but I’ll tell you honestly, it doesn’t concern me as much as the sort of parallel attitude out there on the Internet that everything should be free, including people’s writing. If we’re talking about the Internet, that is a bigger enemy for organizations like mine and for writers in general to have to combat then the size of Amazon.
At the same time, yes, it is a concern, because it does take away our options. It does take away our choices, but not if they act responsibly—and that’s the part I can’t stress enough.
What excites me about Amazon is that they are embracing technological changes that may be the new lifeblood of publishing. If the technology they’ve released in the form of Kindle. If their digital book technology gets out there and becomes competitive technology, the opportunities for minority writers or other writers that might have been shut out of mainstream publishing to reach readers directly, through these devices of the future—those opportunities will be great. And we may have Amazon to thank for that, or may not.
I’m not an anti-Amazon person and I’m not willing to bash them unilaterally. I think there’s some potential there, but I think right now, they have no competitors and I think that’s the scary part for a lot of people, but I think in the future, they may.
Yeah, I just bought a Kindle three weeks ago and I love it.
Yeah, I do, too. You can print that. I’m a proud owner of Kindle and it’s a hypnotic product. I don’t want to turn it in! [Laughs] It’s all very distressing!
It is! I’ve been buying books left and right.
Not to beat a dead horse, but if you look at that device and use it as a frame of reference, so much of when a writer chooses to self-publish, or when they don’t carry the imprint of a major publisher, so much of that stigma is visual. And when you have a device like Kindle, which gives a uniform type face, a uniform page setting to every book that appears on it, that stigma is taken away. It may seem like a subtle or superficial point, but I think it has a potentially huge impact for gay writers and for writers who are not major best-sellers who are necessarily commercial.
Looking at the troubles that gay publishing has been going through, not just this week, but in general, what sort of things has The Lambda Literary Foundation done to help the gay book market?
Well, we spend a lot of our time and energy on trying to cultivate and celebrate small and independent presses, because really, that’s where a lot of the yeoman’s work in the GLBT community is being done right now. The lesbian community has done a really fine job of supporting small publishers– most of which are outside of New York… Gay men have not done such a good job. So, I think there’s an area where there needs to be dialog. Anything that Lambda can do to elevate and publicize those small publishers is a goal for us.
If you look at our nominees for the Lambda Literary Awards, you’ll see that there’s a nice representation of those small publishers.
What concerns me is that I think that the number of gay writers is only growing. This may be my personal bias here, but I think a lot of those writers are not going to explore writing a book. They’re going to go in the world of blogs and the world of online journalism and that’s all great, but I like books. I’d hate to think that because of market forces, the next great gay novelist won’t sit down and take a chance at writing a novel.
Well, let me ask you this, with all the hating, opaque responses so far from Amazon, what should they do? What sort of things can they do to develop stronger ties with the LGBT literary community?
They should reach out to some of the individual writers who were affected and invite them to provide additional content or promotional materials that could then be included on the page for their books. Obviously, I don’t think that’s as necessary to do with say Brokeback Mountain as it is to do with say, lesbian mystery novelist Ellen Hart, who had all of her sales rankings pulled in the course of a single day.
I think if they would reach out and use the influence that they have for the good of some of these authors– and I don’t think it would be special treatment because they send this invitation to big name authors all the time. I was invited to write a personal letter about the experience of writing my last novel, Blind Fall, which is still up there on the page for Blind Fall and it’s this sort of additional tasty treat for anyone who visits the page. That kind of offer could be extended to a lot of these writers.
I also think, just a clear explanation. If there was a technical error behind this, we need to know a little bit more about this technology, particularly if we are loyal customers, as I am. I would like to know more about who was responsible and what they’re doing to contain it. It may not be intentional, but the repercussions are huge. They were really huge.