As one among hundreds of authors and publishers who were directly affected by the Amazon crisis, I'm putting my final two cents on the table. I've read all the blogs, including those as far afield as the Guardian in London. Various bloggers are calling for a boycott of Amazon.com by the LGBT community. Boycott Amazon? Why?
Make no mistake -- I'm still very concerned about threats of online censorship leveraged by the religious right, that I discussed in my previous post. But what good would a boycott do? Amazon scrambled to fix the problem.
Just last Saturday, the listings of titles published by my own company, Wildcat Press, were in disarray -- some of them missing, most of them shorn of their rankings. Two days later, all our Wildcat links and rankings had been restored. A week later, I see no news reports or current complaints that there are still problems at Amazon. Evidently the crisis is over.
Most likely the public will never know what really happened inside Amazon. Was the giant website sabotaged by an anti-gay hacker, as one story has it? Or was it a glitch, a "ham-fisted cataloging error," as Amazon management says? Did a homophobic rogue employee try to tinker maliciously with the system? Did a sales rep (the one who sent that now-famous email to a complaining publisher) misinterpret policy? Amazon is probably not going to tell us the whole story. Among other things, they wouldn't want customers to fear that credit-card information is at risk.
But the fact is -- Amazon fixed the problem. To me, the company's swift action shows that they intended no homophobic change of policy against certain books.
If they did, Amazon would have been up-front about it, announcing their new policy to the world, and sticking by it through the firestorm of protest. Indeed -- since the problem also affected tens of thousands of non-LGBT titles in the areas of sexuality and human reproduction -- it appears that Amazon aimed no book-banning changes at them either. Indeed, Amazon is free-speech-friendly to the max. For example, they carry multiple editions of art books by noted American photographers Jock Sturges (Last Days of Summer) and Sally Mann (Immediate Family), which some conservatives tried to have prosecuted as child pornography back in the '90s.
Where Is the Homophobia?
To those who insist that Amazon is and has been homophobic, I have to say -- I don't agree.
My own professional experience with Amazon.com goes way back. My editions past and present were listed with them when they launched in 1995, putting their first database together from information provided by large distributors. Later, when Amazon started its Advantage program so smaller publishers could vend directly to them, Wildcat Press joined up.
Amazon's complex array of features don't slight our genre. Searches lead to browsable categories of thousands of LGBT books. Amazon maintains a gay and lesbian "top-100 list" on their long menu of bestseller lists. There are bestseller sub-lists for "gay history" and "gay literature." There are reader reviews where people can vent their positive and negative feelings (comments that are obscene or too negative are removed). It's easy for any LGBT author with a self-published print-on-demand title to join Advantage and get their book listed. In fact, it's way easier than getting that same book carried by some of the large conventional wholesalers, who turn up their noses at POD books and self-publishing authors with just a few titles.
On the morning I wrote this post, the Gay & Lesbian category showed 20,654 titles. Under "search results," we show the following profile:
gay -- 273,852
lesbian -- 87,414
bisexual -- 9311
transgender -- 6964
gay erotica -- 2113
lesbian erotica -- 1042
homosexuality -- 63,219
So it looks to me like we are solidly represented and easy to find at Amazon. In a few other areas of the American book marketplace, I do see faltering support for LGBT books because of censorship pressures from the right. But until there are clear and present signs that Amazon is also under the thumb of the fundies, I have nothing to say against this bookseller.
Is Big Really Bad?
A lot of the anti-Amazon feeling expressed by some bloggers is welling from convictions that "big capitalist corporations are bad."
It's easy to get up on a soapbox of ideology about the LGBT book marketplace, for people who don't make their living there. Those of us who do (and I've been doing it since the 1970s) have to deal with the cold reality of success or failure as a business. I don't claim to speak for absolutely every author and publisher, but I've talked to enough of them over the years that I know how most of them operate.
Personally I don't know of a single gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered author who is PC enough to tell their publisher, "I don't want my books sold in the big chain stores." Nor do I know of any LGBT-owned small press who refuses to sell into the chain stores. If they did, it would be economic suicide -- especially in today's recession climate, when books are among the retail sales being hard hit. Even bestselling authors who have a big mainstream publisher know that their financial future stands or falls on sales. If their current title doesn't sell well, their next book gets a smaller advance...or even gets the boot.
The truth is -- we all hustle books anywhere that we can. Naturally we support the gay and gay-friendly bookstores as much as possible. We even sell to gift stores that have a sideline of books. We ship to the gay-owned distributors like ASP Wholesale and Bella Distribution. But we also sell to the big mainstream distributors like Baker & Taylor and Bookazine. We sell to Barnes & Noble and other chains. We make sure our titles are listed on the big online sellers like Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, Powell's, AbeBooks, Waterstone's and others around the world. Many of us have our own websites with online shopping carts.
Meanwhile, we make a few extra bucks by selling our "hurts" into the used-book market. We do appearances with community organizations... which means pitching our books to seniors, youth, gay athletes, lesbian moms, bi veterans, transgender activists, or whoever the audience is. We put up a booth at Pride festivals and other community events, and hand-sell books to the public over a weekend.
Failure to put energy into any of these areas could mean the difference between profit and loss. Indeed, all these areas are legitimate bits in the mosaic of American marketing for LGBT books. Chain stores and independent stores have different customer bases, so you can reach a wider buyership through selling to both.
With its subsidiaries in other countries (UK, etc.), Amazon.com provides a unique global platform for LGBT books, including the translations into French, German, Spanish, etc. In short, this "big capitalist corportation" sells a lot of books for a lot of us. In my experience, they usually pay promptly, and they don't over-order or ship you piles of returns (meaning unsold stock). For LGBT book people, it doesn't get much better than that.
Putting Gay Money Where the Gay Mouth Is
To those LGBT fellow citizens who advocate buying books only from independent bookstores, I say, "By all means, follow your heart." There are still around 60 community stores left in the United States where you can shop. Several online bookstores remain active. Among them is the pioneering website owned by Lambda Rising Bookstore in D.C. And Alternaqueerbooks, a newer site owned by Suspect Thoughts Press.
Of course, it would have been nice to see more advocates leaping into action 10 years ago, when there were still quite a few LGBT bookstores in the U.S. More community dollars would have helped them survive. Every time another store closed, the book professionals got themselves interviewed by the media and pleaded for more community support. But the buyer response was never enough. The fact is, our people shop less and less at a gay or lesbian bookstore in their city, if there is one. Some of our citizens apparently buy fewer books than formerly. So... one or two at a time, our indie stores have been going Chapter 11. It has been heartbreaking to see them go -- some of the owners are friends of mine.
When my own publishing company first launched in 1994, the combined U.S. mailing list of "gay and gay-friendly" stores was around 400 names. Now, according to a list kept by the Lambda Literary Foundation, there are fewer than 60. Count 'em. And stores continue to close. Boycott Amazon? The waning book-purchase performance of the LGBT community over the last 10 years tells me that a boycott wouldn't make much of a dent in Amazon's pocketbook.
I would love to see the soapbox orators aim their voices in a more productive direction. For instance, they can go talk to the LGBT magazines that are ga-ga for TV and movies but seldom mention books. They should tell these editors to do more for books if they care about the survival of "gay culture." The orators also need to ask these same big publications why their ad rates are so high that we publishers can hardly afford to advertise our books to our own primary demographic.
The day that I see our own media putting more LGBT authors on the cover, and fewer non-gay oddities like Paris Hilton on the cover, I'll know that we're finally turning the corner on saving the LGBT book business. But right now we book people need Amazon.com to help us bridge that scary gap between making it... and not making it.
More resources of bookstore information can be found at:
Lambda Literary Foundation
Gay City USA