Epic Fail

Why We’re Not Buying Amazon’s Gay Book ‘Glitch’


It’s all a “glitch”, says Amazon. After a weekend of being bombarded by emails organized by Twitter (we told you it was an important gay political tool!) under the hashtag #amazonfail, the world’s largest online retailer of books is apologizing for de-ranking dozens of gay books by classifying them as “adult literature.” Amazon responded to our requests for more information with a statement that it sent to other reporters:

“We recently discovered a glitch to our Amazon sales rank feature that is in the process of being fixed. We’re working to correct the problem as quickly as possible.”

As of the publication of the story, some of the books de-ranked over the weekend, including Paul Monnette’s 1992 National Book Award winner Becoming a Man, have been added back, but many others, including E.M. Forster’s Maurice, remain classified as too-hot-to-handle adult material, which means that in Amazon’s eyes, Hugh Grant was in a porn when he appeared in the Merchant & Ivory adaptation of the book.

The L.A. Times tried to get more information from the retailer, but Amazon Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith said:

“Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment further. We’re working to resolve the issue, but I don’t have any further information.”

So, is the de-ranking some random computer glitch. Not likely. The books targeted are almost exclusively LGBT titles. As one commenter points out:

“Porn star Ron Jeremy’s raunchy autobiography is still ranked. A scholarly bio of Ellen DeGeneres is de-ranked. Mein Kampf is still ranked. Heather Has Two Mommies is de-ranked.”

Amazon’s silence isn’t helping the impression that there’s some homophobic censorship going on, either. Do a search for “homosexuality” on Amazon and the first title to show up is A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. By removing gay-related content from its rankings, Amazon has made it so that they do not appear easily in searches and do not appear in book suggestions throughout the site.

Neither can we blithely assume that this is the result of a single homophobic rogue system operator. When author Mark Probst asked two weeks ago, why two of his gay-themed romance books were removed from the listings and received this reply:

“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”

41ed98qmcql_ss500_This implies that this weekend’s actions are not the actions of a single employee, but rather the result of a company policy. The Inquistor mentions that at least one author was told that the decision was based on policy, not technical error. Even if it’s not, even if, beyond all plausible reality, Amazon’s software just randomly decided to mark a wide swath of gay literature as “adult”, including the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, the fallout for the company is likely to be intense.

On Twitter, the rage towards the company continues unabated. It’s the number two topic (only outstripped by talk about the Mikeyy worm hitting PC’s) and users have already organized a full-on boycott, reaching over 9,000 signatures so far. The speed at which Twitter was able to take a single blog post by author Craig Seymour and transform it into a national news story shows just how much power the service has in collectively organizing direct political action. And of course, YouTube is now getting in on the act, as you can see from this entertaining call made about the Twilight book series:

It seems beyond comprehension that Amazon won’t apologize for the “glitch”, but the damage has already been done. The phrase “Amazon Rank” has already received a new definition:

“amazon rank
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): amazon ranked

1. To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies).
2. To make changes based on inconsistent applications of standards, logic and common sense.

Etymology: from 12 April 2009 removal of sales rank figures from books on Amazon.com containing sexual, erotic, romantic, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or queer content, rendering them impossible to find through basic search functions at the top of Amazon.com’s website. Titles stripped of their sales rankings include “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” prominent romance novels, GLBTQ fiction novels, YA books, and narratives about gay people.

Example of usage: “I tried to do a report on Lady Chatterly’s Lover for English Lit, but my teacher amazon ranked me and I got an F on grounds that it was obscene.”

Alternate usage: “My girlfriend wanted to preserve her virginity, and I was happy to respect that, then she amazon ranked and decided anal sex was okay.” ”

To say this is bad for business is an understatement. Even Amazon’s defenders are able to offer up little more than a “let’s see what they have to say first” defense. Information Week predicts:

“By the end of the day Monday, we’ll find out this is, indeed, a software glitch. Or maybe some bigoted middle manager got too big for his britches. I am confident that this is not a reflection of Amazon policy.

If I’m wrong and Amazon is singling out gay-themed books for penalties? Well, I’ll boycott them. But I’d like to wait for all the facts to come in before making a judgment. The cause of gay rights and equality will not be significantly harmed if we hold off the Amazon boycott until, say, Wednesday. “

It seems the onus is on Amazon, to answer for the de-ranking and until they do– and frankly, at this point an explanation beyond “it was a glitch” is necessary– the boycott should continue. On a personal note, what the hell am I going to do with my Kindle now?

UPDATE: How 10 lines of programming code could do this.