Patricia Nell Warren

Amazon.com: A Glitch...or the Ax?

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | April 13, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Fundie Watch, Media, Politics
Tags: Amazon, censorship, Child Online Protection Act

Over the weekend, did LGBT books get the ax on Amazon.com? Does the online bookselling giant actually have a new policy to target certain books as "adult books" -- removing them from the main queue of Amazon rankings and making them harder to find? An Amazon Advantage rep told one complaining publisher that this is indeed now their policy. Or is the listing mess just a glitch that they're trying to fix? This is what other people at Amazon told the media, according to Publishers Weekly.

So...which is it?

When I first got the word about dire happenings in the Amazon listings, I hurried to search under my author name, and was puzzled by what I found.

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



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A. J. Lopp | April 13, 2009 4:44 PM

Are you saying then, Patricia, that the economic and legal environment makes it almost impossible for a LGBT bookstore to present and sell LGBT books on the Internet?

All this time I assumed the various little players didn't want to "go for big" on the Internet ... but if the Feds are on the verge of throwing people in jail for selling books as mild as The Lavender Locker Room, then that's more than enough to explain the absence of any large left-oriented bookstore in the online world.

I thought that Free Speech in America was in a healthier state than that. Well, duh, perhaps I was wrong.

At the moment, there is no federal law in effect that limits what LGBT content can be sold on the web. I thought I made that clear. So far, all the attempts at censorship on the federal level have been turned back by the U.S. Supreme Court. The religious fanatics who lobby for laws like COPA will be back at some point (though they will have an uphill fight now that Democrats control Congress).

Where we are more vulnerable is precisely the kind of direct behind-the-scenes arm-twisting that Amazon may be experiencing from the religious right.

At the moment it's not 100 percent clear what the extent of Amazon's new policy is. So I am personally holding off on signing a petition till I know exactly what's going on.

LGBT books also face some scary economic problems in the book marketplace that have little or nothing to do with censorship. That is the downturn in retail sales of books. LGBT authors and publishers share in the same threat that is faced by non-gay publishers and authors. Books have been in a slow downturn for years. In the last 12 months, the slump has gotten worse. The 2008 holiday season was a huge disappointment, with even Barnes & Noble feeling the pain.

There used to be a number of LGBT bookstores that sold books online. Some, like The Open Book in Sacramento and ADL in Los Angeles, have closed down both their website and their brick-and-mortar store. Lambda Rising in D.C. still sells both in their store and online. I will check and see if a couple of others are still active, and do an update to this comment.

By all means, LGBT people can be buying from our own LGBT-owned online booksellers. Where Amazon often wins out, though, is in the diversity of titles that they offer, and the discounts, which not every independent bookstore can offer.

Quite a number of LGBT publishers and authors also have their own websites where they sell their own books direct to the public. There are too many of us to list here. But it would be nice if LGBT bookbuyers would give us their business as well.

A. J. Lopp | April 14, 2009 1:57 PM
At the moment, there is no federal law in effect that limits what LGBT content can be sold on the web. I thought I made that clear.

You did make that clear, Patricia.

I hear that a lot of the phone sex businesses, while maybe currently lucrative, operate with the constant fear that one nuanced change in the legal definition of what is "indecent" and what is "obscene" could shut them down in an instant. Of course, these criteria can differ between communications media and print itself. It would be tragic to learn that GLBT authors publish under similar fears, and I'm glad that they don't to nearly such a degree.

Thanks, Patricia, for your response. I surmise that GLBT bookstores find their challenges at business growth to be more economic than legal --- in a word, the entire print media industry is struggling for survival right now.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 13, 2009 4:57 PM

Heterosexual romance novels also were affected by this.

My guess is that Amazon had certain catagories of books they had labeled internally as possibly offensive to certain groups. Some lesser-VP or mid-level director probably turned on a filter of those books without proper corporate approval.

Now should non-erotic LGBT books been in that list? No, but someone at Amazon made a mistake. Customer Service Reps probably just toed the line on what they understood to be the company's policy.

It wasn't until the issue was raised publicly that higher-ups at Amazon became aware of what happened. They called it a "glitch" (big deal) when it probably was a human glitch.

Still, Amazon says they will correct. Given Amazon's LGBT-friendly record AND this didn't target LGBT books exclusively, I think Amazon deserves the benefit of the doubt for now.

This is latest from AMAZON: from LATimes:
UPDATED, 3:03 p.m. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener sent us the following statement, blaming the entire situation on a "cataloging error":

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 & 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.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Ellen Andersen Ellen Andersen | April 13, 2009 8:16 PM

Like every other author with an LGBT-themed book (in my case a book on gay rights litigation called Out of the Closets and Into the Courts) I checked out what Amazon's "glitch" had done to my book. On Sunday afternoon, the sales rank was absent. By Sunday evening, the book *itself* was absent. I checked again five minutes ago and discovered the book was back -- but with no sales ranking.

Again, like every other author with an LGBT-themed book, I decided to poke around to see what other books had lost their sales ranking. *Heather Has Two Mommies* had lost its ranking; *And Tango Makes Three* kept its ranking. The rankings on my colleague Andrew Koppelman's books varied. When the titles of his book made clear that they were discussing issues related to LGBT rights, they had no ranking. When the titles were ambiguous or had nothing to do with LGBT rights, they had rankings.

I should note here that books opposing marriage equality also seem to have lost their rankings.

This does sound very suspicious. It also gives me cause to raise my eyebrow when the story changes. It would not surprise me that the right wing nuts are at it again. Still, like you Patricia, I will wait to place judgment when the kinks have been worked out b3fore signing a petition.

I do feel that this could come back to bite Amazon in the hind end more than they think. I truly hope that they are thinking this one through.

The latest statement released by Amazon:

Thank you for contacting Amazon.com.

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 & 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.

Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Thanks for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.


Sincerely,

Customer Service Department
Amazon.com

Former Amazonian Mike Daisey offers some insight.

"After hearing from people on the inside at Amazon, I am convinced it was in fact, a 'glitch,'" he says on his Web site. "Well, more like user error--some idiot editing code for one of the many international versions of Amazon mixed up the difference between 'adult' and 'erotic' and 'sexuality.' All the sites are tied together, so editing one affected all for blacklisting, and ta-da, you get the situation."

According to Daisey's inside sources, "A guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up 'adult,' which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like 'erotic' and 'sexuality.' That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon."

The SLOG is reporting now that the delisting was done by a French worker in Amazon.fr who misunderstood "adult" meaning "sexuality" and/or "sexuality" in terms of a book's content. The SLOG reports:

I asked Mike for more details, and according to his inside sources, the story is that a programmer at Amazon France was editing the site to filter porn out of some search results, and he "mixed up 'adult,' which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like 'erotic' and 'sexuality.' The system he was working on is universal, so the change he made propagated across Amazon's sites worldwide.

Amazon's systems are notoriously idiosyncratic so it's not hard to imagine a change like this getting into their worldwide system, though it's certainly interesting that it would be so difficult to correct the problem.

When Mark Probst received his reply from customer service, the rep misunderstood the problem and sent him a boilerplate response on how they deal with "adult" content.

The technical reasons for this glitch (no quotes!) are still hazy at best, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Amazon will issue any sort of real explanation, unfortunately.

And yet Canada wasn't affected???

The sales rank issue is not the only anti-gay part of Amazon. Their "search suggestions" feature is completely disabled for searches using "gay" or "lesbian" as their first word.

Normally Amazon shows you suggestions as you type characters in the search box. For example if you type "Christian m" you will see a list of suggestions including "Christian marriage". You don't have to type the full search, just select from the suggestions.

If you try this same search by typing "gay m" you get nothing. Unlike the term "Christian", the word "gay" just shuts off the search suggestions feature completely. Same for "lesbian."

I wonder what kind of "glitch" this can be attributed to.

I don't know what "search" feature you're looking at -- but the main "search" in Books (which is located in the tool bar at the top of the Amazon page) is not disabled, and never was. At the time I checked it during the crisis period, the "search" feature was not blocking anything, and it is operating normally right now.

When you search there under "gay," it takes you to a section that lists 273,151 gay titles. Keying in a "lesbian" search takes you to a section with 87,332 lesbian titles. "Transgender" takes you to 6944 listings.

Not only that, but on the left side of the Amazon page, you will find a menu of the specialty bestseller lists. The gay & lesbian bestseller list is right there, and always was, during the whole crisis.

Rick Elliott | April 14, 2009 3:35 AM

This article disturbs me. I have a book being marketed by Amazon. I had trouble finding it by topic.
Another thing disturbs me: Creationism being listed under Science. My step-brother is a Biology professor at Baylor Universityin Waco--the largest Southern Baptist university. Endowment funds were given to create a "Department of Creation Science." He made the front page of the Houston Chronicle (some 150 miles away) detailing his strenuous objection that calling Creationism Science is a non sequitur because it isn't science.
My example--Robert Burns wrote, " My love is like a red, red rose." Calling Creationism science would like placing Burns' poetry in Horticulture.
However I need to take exception to one quote of the author's statements:"...and views of history that are unfriendly to Christianity." These views are unfriendly to Christian sects, religious bigots, right wing revivalists. But not Christianity. This phrase tars the largest
of Christians with the same brush as Bible Belt bigots. The founder of Christianity--much to the consternation of the religious establishment of his day--chose to keep company with what they called sinners. Today I suspect Jesus and the disciples would have a float in a Gay Pride Parade. He certainly wouldn't have been a part of hide-bound folk who practice selective literalism. In fact, "sinners" is a very specific word in Jesus' day. It referred to all who were labeled "unclean" and couldn't worship in the Temple. Women would have been a part of that group, Jews of mixed blood, shepherds were some in that group also. The most accurate translation of the word "sinners" would be "outcasts."

Rick, I have to respectfully disagree. Some historical authors have a point of view that is unfriendly to Christianity per se, though that view doesn't intend to tar individual Christians of "good will."

We could assemble quite a lengthy list of these. They would range from Karl Marx and his statement that "religion is the opium of the people," to Native American historians like Vine Deloria who had basic issues with the fundamental principles of Christianity and the way they were used to destroy First Nation cultures. In between are authors like theologian Barbara Thiering, who interprets the whole mass of documents relating to this period to show how "traditional Christianity" suppressed certain writings, and twisted certain interpretations so it could create its own myth of who the real historical Jesus was.

Dissenting authors like these do deserve to be heard. And the bigoted type of "Christian" would stop at nothing to keep these works from being read, if they could.

CCSea,

I'm not quite sure what you're referring to about the search suggest feature. When I type in "lesb-" amazon suggests lesbian sex, porn, movies, fiction, and for dummies for me. The same with gay...though, not as much--"gay" provides me with the suggestions gay porn, sex, gaydar...

Maybe I have a filter turned off? Or, was this just part of the "glitch?" (I read your comment as suggesting that Amazon has always been anti-gay)

This is the problem with one bookdealer getting too big and having too much power. When they do something we don't like, it becomes a huge deal because the alternatives are hard to find and to switch to.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 14, 2009 11:13 AM

What is fearful about this to me is the manner in which it parallels the school textbook distributors watering down of standards in history, and particularly science. By following a business model keyed in to standardization, mass sales, sensitive to "creationism." We cater to the lowest common denominator as we risk stunting a true education in the sciences or liberal arts.

I wonder if "Lady Chatterley's Lover" is still on any high school recommended reading list?