All the current Wildcat Press editions of The Front Runner and my other gay-themed novels had vanished from the regular listings that could be found with "search." They were still lurking in the bowels of the Amazon system, but could only be found by a segue through the "Other Customers Bought" feature towards the bottom of a page. The sole title of mine that still had a regular listing (and an Amazon ranking) was One Is the Sun, which is a Western historical novel.
The biggest casualty seemed to be The Lavender Locker Room, my nonfiction book about LGBT greats in sports. It was flagged as "unavailable" -- though my company has filled every order for it that we've gotten from Amazon.
Other LGBT authors and publishers were feverishly checking to see that their titles were still available. Some found that they were listed only among the downloadable Kindle Books. The gay & lesbian top-100 list was still to be found among "bestseller" lists; some titles had lost their ratings, while others had ratings within the Kindle category, but no main-queue rating.
In just a couple of days, the national hornet's nest of publishing protest was buzzing with a deafening loudness, with petitions to be signed and threats of boycott.
However, this morning, I checked Amazon again. To my surprise, all the regular Wildcat listings had been restored -- including The Lavender Locker Room. Except most of my Wildcat Press gay-themed titles were missing their Amazon rankings. At 10 a.m. PST this morning, only The Front Runner was deemed "not adult" ...it gets an Amazon rating. Yet it is no less "gay" than my other gay novels.
So Amazon isn't making any sense -- unless they are still fixing a massive glitch.
I did a few random checks on heterosexual classics that might be considered "adult." Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater still has a ranking, though it's widely considered to be his "most obscene book," to the point where no Canadian publisher would touch it for a while. But some oldies, like Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, came up without a ranking. Ranging into nonfiction subjects, I found several titles about women's reproductive health that also are stripped of rankings -- indicating that Amazon now considers them "adult" as well. Ditto the subject of abortion, where a sourcebook on Roe v. Wade still had ratings, but the pro-abortion title Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade has no rating. My little survey was not comprehensive, but I saw enough to make me feel that something is going on.
Amazon looks to be on a roll, and it's a bigger roll than just LGBT books. Whatever it is, the happenings are sending a major earthquake tremor through the book world. With its multi-linqual sales sites all over the world, Amazon dominates the world in book sales. What Amazon wants, Amazon gets.
So -- is more going on here than meets the eye?
Laws and Disorder
Is this Amazon's first move to placate the religious right?
If so, there's a huge irony here. The Amazon change comes just months after the U.S. Supreme Court found the Online Child Protection Act (COPA) to be unconstitutional. Online book retailing was one of the big issues in this long-dragged-out court case. COPA came on the heels of several other religion-driven laws, both federal and state, that attempted to criminalize the online providing of anything that could be considered "indecent" or "harmful to minors." In 1996 the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was similarly struck down by the U.S. high court. Some state censorship laws, notably that of Arizona, were also defeated or settled out of court. If enforced, these laws would have created such panic and disorder in the book market that most online retailers would have covered their asses by axing any title that was remotely questionable rather than risk federal prosecution. Distributors to the retail trade would have over-reacted the same way, since the Internet now gets the lion's share of book sales.
With Amazon, the shunting of "adult" books out of the main queue of ratings means that minors, among others, won't find them so easily. So the Amazon policy change (if that's what it is) achieves on a corporate level what the religious right sought to do at the criminal-law level with legislation like COPA -- putting certain types of content out of reach of the under-18 reader.
We have yet to see how many heterosexual-themed books, and how many other categories besides LGBT, have been re-classified as "adult." Did Amazon management really walk their fingers through their millions of titles to decide which ones are "adult" and which are not? This would be quite a task. And what criteria did they use to determine what is "adult"? Or were they just quietly given a hit list by the religious right?
Ahead, for Amazon, is the growing outrage of every publisher and author whose books have been flagged that way. Among other things, it will hurt our sales at a time when retail sales are already in a big slump. It's going to be a lot of publishers, and a lot of authors.
Indeed, Amazon may be shooting their own self in the foot, because they too will be selling fewer books now.
Censorship "Happenings" Elsewhere
If this is a case of muffled right-wing censorship, it will not be the first time in recent years that a major book entity has managed to shuffle off "controversial content" without being up-front about what they were doing.
Some years ago, Ingram Book Co. -- the biggest U.S. book distributor -- managed to shed most, if not all, of its LGBT small-press vendors. They did this by simply setting a new policy about the split that they do with their vendors. What Ingram told us, for the record, was that they could no longer afford to carry small presses at the usual split, which was 55% of retail. From now on (Ingram said), small presses would have to give them an additional 5%. This meant that small vendors would now be paying 60%. Plus we would have to participate in compulsory promotion programs costing additional hundreds a year.
It was no secret to many of us that Ingram had come sharply under the thumb of conservative Christian book publishers, who were after Ingram to stop distributing LGBT books, as well as books in other categories that offended the fundies. In 1996 my own company became aware of this trend at the ABA book fair in Chicago, when Ingram suddenly refused to display our four new titles in their booth. When my business partner Tyler and I visited their booth and made a ruckus about it to our sales rep, they finally put our books out.
But inevitably, with the religious right on a censorship crusade, there was going to be a shift in Ingram policy. While independent publishers certainly do publish conservative content, the vast majority of American small presses own an ideological territory that is unapologetically "left of center." Small presses dominate in the "big 3" themes that fundies loathe the most -- namely LGBT rights, feminism and women's reproductive rights. The majority of LGBT titles are birthed by small presses. You can also throw in anti-war and environmental issues, Wicca, paganism, medical marijuana, and views of history that are unfriendly to Christianity, to name a few more favorite subjects of small presses.
Ingram had to know that charging an extra 5% would take away most or all of the profit margin for a small press. Profit margins are very narrow in the book business, because of the enormous overhead involved in book production vis a vis what we can reasonably charge for a book in the retail marketplace. Publishers can't stick the enormous mark-ups that make -- say -- the fashion business and pharmaceutical business so profitable. So Ingram's new policy meant that many small presses, including my company, Wildcat Press, couldn't afford to be Ingram vendors any more. We withdrew.
But there was one detail that revealed Ingram's real intentions. They would have to know that some of the small presses unable to cough up the 5% were actually Christian presses. So they created a back door where these particular small publishers could find a warm welcome. How did they do this? By inviting "anybody" who didn't go with the new program to go apply with another major book distributor, National Book Network, who had a division, Biblio, that was devoted exclusively to small presses. The catch: National is politically conservative. Any small publisher with content that fundies found offensive would likely not find an open door at National.
So -- is something like this going on at Amazon? If so, then we will see the widening of their definition of "adult." If so, it is censorship plain and simple.
Those who defend a corporation's right to sell what they please are already defending Amazon's decision. But when an ideological lobby group finally succeeds in closing all the commercial doorways to a market, then the opposite point of view can argue "restraint of trade."
Other Censorship Pressures on Booksellers
Ingram Book Co. got away with what they did -- no major uproar was ever raised. But the Ingram episode is not the only one.
For many years now, the religious right have been making many open attacks on retail booksellers' "freedom to sell." Barnes & Noble, which used to be staunchly supportive of free speech, took heat about doing (for example) store displays for Gay Pride Month. Some years ago, I did a personal appearance at the Springfield, IL B & N store whose manager had courageously stood up to the local fundies. Apparently the heat may have finally raised some blisters on B & N's skin, especially in recent years, with dropping book sales making them more vulnerable to political pressures. Today the size of Barnes & Noble's LGBT aisle has shrunk to a mere handful of nonfiction titles. But the heat they got wasn't exclusively about gay books. Barnes & Noble has been also targeted for books on abortion and other non-gay subjects.
Meanwhile Borders Book Group has buckled to the point of displaying Creationist-type titles on the "science shelf" in the children's section. Over the years, a couple of smaller bookstore chains that used to buy LGBT books -- especially those located in the Bible Belt -- no longer buy from us.
In short -- having failed (so far) to pass laws like COPA that would make it a federal crime to sell certain books to minors, the religious right have turned their assault efforts on the individual booksellers themselves. Has Amazon.com become their next victim?
We'll see what happens once Amazon is subjected to fierce protest and pressures from the free-speech side.
Publishers Weekly article on "the glitch"
UK Guardian article about protests