Scott Kaiser

Hold Your Horses: Don't Boycott Amazon Yet

Filed By Scott Kaiser | April 13, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Amazon, banned books, boycott, gay authors, gay literature, victimization


[YET ANOTHER UPDATE: See below] Ok, the Twitterverse and LGBT blogosphere are in an absolute snit over a recent change at Amazon.com classifying most LGBT fiction as "adult content" thereby excluding the material from sales rankings, etc.

Worst yet, when author Mark Probst wrote Amazon about the policy change, he supposedly received the following response from Ashlyn D in Amazon.com Advantage Member Services: "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."

This is a pretty major transgression against the LGBT community. I have an author friend who just released a work of gay fiction earlier this month, and this new policy could seriously jeopardize the sales and success of his book. The LGBT community should immediately band together and boycott Amazon. Take action! Spread the word!

Hold. Your. Horses.

As of 10:30pm PST as I write this on Sunday evening, Amazon has issued a statement to Publishers Weekly claiming that this so-called policy change is a glitch and will be corrected. News may change by the time you read this, but that's where it stands tonight. Keep in mind that it is a Sunday night after 10pm on a holiday weekend. I doubt very few-high level Amazon officials are working this evening, so it is a tad unrealistic to expect more of a response from Amazon until tomorrow (believe it or not, this can wait until Monday- the world won't end in the meantime).

Now up until now Amazon has been a LGBT-friendly company. They have a non-discrimination clause that includes sexual orientation. They have carried LGBT-material since as long as I can remember, and I've been visiting Amazon.com for a long time (I can remember when they only sold books and had quite a different logo than today). They've even had Gay Pride Month features (at least I've seen them on my "customized for me" Amazon page).

So was the policy change a glitch? Oh, I doubt that, but that's typical corporate-speak. Most likely some lesser-VP or mid-level director made a bad decision that wasn't in line with the company's policy of non-discrimination. The Member Services representative was just regurgitating what she had been told. Will Amazon fess up to that? Most likely not. Corporations (both gay-friendly and not) don't like to admit stuff like that publicly as it might shake investor confidence. They'll continue to call it a glitch.

The more important thing is to watch and see how Amazon does correct things. Do they follow through and treat LGBT literature and products the same as any other product? If so, then it most likely was a change made against the larger company's wishes (regardless of how exactly it happened). It would be wrong to crucify Amazon over it.

HOWEVER, if Amazon does not change course and correct things promptly, then we do have a problem. In that case I will be the loudest advocate for boycotting Amazon until their policies change. A company that invokes such a anti-gay policy must be prepared to pay the price.

The thing about this that bothers me the most is how many people seemed to fly off the handle about this. Instead of taking a calm, measured approach, we as a community instantly played victim. People all across the Internet were treating Amazon as if they just signed Anita Bryant as spokesperson and appointed Dr. James Dobson to their Board of Directors. I really don't think that helps the LGBT community any. When we turn so quickly on a former friend before giving them a reasonable chance to respond, we look like a bunch of whiny hotheads. I think we teach people to avoid us altogether rather than risk our wrath should they make any misstep at all. Shouldn't we be willing to work with our friends and allies to help them see when a mistake is made and give them a chance to correct it rather than instantly damning them for it?

Just my 2¢, I know not everyone will agree, and I'm sure that they'll be plenty of people ready to boycott me over this.

(And no, I don't work for Amazon nor do I know anyone who does. I don't own Amazon stock. I have no interest in the company other than being an occasional customer.)

UPDATE: Amazon issued the following statement today:

"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."

As you can see, they are outlining that yes, the "glitch" was in fact human error.

UPDATE 2: A blogger is claiming responsibility for getting the LGBT books flagged as inappropriate on Amazon. Read the story on CNET News.com here.

UPDATE 3: An Amazon employee is giving a behind-the-scenes account of what happened. It doesn't necessarily coincide with the blogger's claim, but it also makes the case for what happened being unintentional.


Recent Entries Filed under Entertainment:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


While I understand that LGBT books were delisted it really bothers me that few even bother to mention that feminist books were delisted as well. This is not just about reducing the voices of LGBT peoples this is about silencing progressive voices that seek to challenge our systemic inequality.

Agreed, womanistmusings. It wasn't just LGBT books that were caught up in this and far too often it's the only category being discussed.

So far I've noticed that from our roster of contributors Almost all of Patricia Nell Warren's books are either unrated or "unavailable" and Mattilda's book is also unrated. I haven't checked everyone though - I just thought of those two automatically.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 13, 2009 4:45 PM

Also "delisted" were several romance novels. If Amazon was targeting the homosexual community, why would they also delist heterosexual romance novels.

A. J. Lopp | April 13, 2009 2:09 PM
HOWEVER, if Amazon does not change course and correct things promptly, then we do have a problem. In that case I will be the loudest advocate for boycotting Amazon until their policies change. A company that invokes such a anti-gay policy must be prepared to pay the price.

Instead of boycotting, compete with them! Delivering books off the Internet isn't exactly rocket science! It is too easy to set up a mega-LGBT-book-portal of our own! Several such contenders already exist, I expect. Plus I know of several brick-and-mortar LGBT bookstores on the block, including OUT-ward Bound Books here in Indianapolis, that could be used as a business foundation for transformation into a thriving Internet business.

If Amazon wants to shoot themselves in the foot, and drive profitable customers and their transactions elsewhere, then let them! Some enterprising LGBT entrepreneur will show up without delay, ready to pick up all the cash they leave lying on the table.

I don't know, it feels like it was appropriate to fly off the handle. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, even if it was a glitch they were defending it as appropriate censorship of adult material. More likely, mid-level executive managed to move the company in an extremely discriminatory manner. Both seem egregiously protest worthy. Even of a friend. Frankly, I'd prefer them signing right-wing representatives and keeping their policies the same rather than keeping their left leaning representatives and creating ultra-conservative policies.

Now that they've promised to fix it, we can calm down a bit. But let's not forget that it's quite likely that the internet response is what got their attention and elicited a decision to fix the glitch / reverse the mid-level executive's decision even on a sunday of a holiday weekend. That's exactly how direct action responses are supposed to work.

Now someone's claiming he hacked the Amazon site to cause the LGBT delisting. I'm not technical enough to evaluate the claim--but I think it just goes to show that we still don't know exactly what happened. To Scott's point, we should wait before condemning.

I do think that Amazon should make a nice gesture to the LGBT community, even if the error came from a hack. Say, donating a bunch of books to each of the LGBT community centers across the country.

I think this is just an important example of how the corporations and corporate-owned media uses orchestrated tactics to set the reality for people's futures and families. Watching the Logo channel shows me exactly which corporations are REALLY gay-friendly, not just kneejerk public opinion responders like Amazon. I just listened to an episode of The Joan Kenley Show (progressive Bay Area podcast) called The Media: What’s True, What’s Not on the same topic - media manipulation, and manipulation of the world's opinions on politics and ethics by corporate interests.

A. J. Lopp | April 13, 2009 2:41 PM

Addendum: Others may read the above and point out that both Oscar Wilde Books in Greenwich Village NYC, plus A Different Light Bookstore in Los Angeles, both recently went out of business. (Bilerico's Matt Comer wrote about Oscar Wilde Books here.)

Although I will not say either deserved to go out of business, I will say that neither one showed that they knew how to take advantage of the power of the Internet. Both had small websites that merely advertised the existence of their brick-and-mortar store. Neither one put their inventory catalogs online so that customers could order books from them online nationally or internationally.

What a failure of vision when it comes to establishing an online presence! Check them out:

A Different Light Bookstore

Oscar Wilde Bookshop

A Different Light Bookstore even had separate websites, with unrelated URLs, for their San Francisco and West Hollywood locations. (I don't know, maybe they even managed separately, or were effectively separate businesses.)

I don't mean to criticize --- instead, my intent is to point out the opportunity just waiting there for someone to pick up and pursue. Let B&N and Amazon kiss the Religious Right's rear-end if that is the business they want to go after ... but again, once they abandon or suppress a whole market, there's plenty left for someone else to make a thriving business out of.

Marco Flip Channing | April 13, 2009 3:11 PM

@womanistmusings - GLTBQ books were twittered about mostly by GLBTQ folk. I'm sure there's a lot of non-GLBTQ books that were affected by the "adult" policy as well. It's terrible, isn't it, that a minority can't take the cudgels for the majority, too?

@Scott K - It's just not corporate-speak, it's a LIE. Aren't you insulted that a company would lie to your face and think they can get away with it? BTW, Amazon is not your friend. It's a company that made money off you. It's interesting to me that you found a way to make better excuses for them before they did. They should hire you.

bigolpoofter | April 13, 2009 3:17 PM

Mary, puh-leez! Amazon and other businesses should stand on notice that the loyalties of LGBT customers should not be taken for granted, including when one implements a new bit of functionality for an e-commerce website.

I've worked for and with e-commerce firms in support and systems development for over a decade, and the Amazon debacle left three impressions for me, none of them favorable:
1. Amazon did not test out its nanny filter well before moving it to production. Multi-billion-dollar businesses usually know better, but maybe the test lead was too hyped up on Mountain Dew and Wii to care.

2. Amazon chose a flawed policy and/or implementation strategy from the start, such as leveraging the "obscenity" list from AFA's web filter. Strange, but plausible, and it again begs why one didn't test Queer vocabulary on it before intoducing it to the public.

2. Amazon got hacked. Least likely and most scary, since it would call into question the safety of consumer data.

Over-react? F-- no! I enjoyed watching #amazonfail unfold while tweeting last evening.

Will it happen again with another business? Probabaly not.

@bigolpoofter

Scott,

Thanks for your sanity especially here:
"The thing about this that bothers me the most is how many people seemed to fly off the handle about this. Instead of taking a calm, measured approach, we as a community instantly played victim. People all across the Internet were treating Amazon as if they just signed Anita Bryant as spokesperson and appointed Dr. James Dobson to their Board of Directors."

I've had similar thoughts, and a few more; the issue is hugely complicated and neither Amazon nor the queer community has come off too well here - I'll be writing more on that.

Wait and see, wait and see....

Imagine taking a pragmatic stand....

I live in a major metropolitan area that has no brick and mortar Queer bookstore (Lamba Rising closed months and months ago). I can't imagine what it must be like to live in Goldsboro NC and want queer titles.

Everybody complains, but nobody comes to the table with cash in hand....

Scott,

I frankly could not disagree with you more. Although I can understand the need not to want heads to roll the instant that the story materialized (and frankly, although a lot of the blogs that I read were upset, most of them seemed to want more details first before taking action), but if we had the type of mentality that you are suggesting, we would never have had a "Stonewall" or even a gay movement. It's the times when we HAVE shown our outrage (think the early days of Act Up as well) that we are truly able to move forward.

I would love to live in a world where a more measured methodology would be successful, but frankly that is just not the world we live in. I am afraid that a healthy dose of outrage is more than not just what is needed to smack some sense into people.

I disagree Dijiba. I think Scott's right on the money on this one.

If Amazon didn't have a history of being very LGBT-friendly? Then the response would be completely appropriate. But with Amazon's history of being very supportive, it was a holiday weekend (and, really, who rolls out a new upgrade on a major holiday?), and not even during the usual workweek of Mon-Fri, I'm inclined to think it was "a glitch." Whatever the "real" cause, I have a feeling that a "glitch" got fired.

um - please re-read Scott's fourth paragraph. He wrote it on Sunday night, and suggests we can wait until Monday to see what they come up with. And then he promises to be a loud and vocal critic if they don't fix it promptly - so how long will you allow Scott to hold his outrage? (and btw - form all indications, the problem was not a corporate, or even low-level "decision" to change LGBT content to adult content - the problem was that Amazon allows readers to "Flag" so-called adult content, and with enough FLAGS the book gets identified as "adult" - Amazon has already removed the "flagging" feature, and now needs time to undo the damage)

YES! Boycott Amazon!!! While you're at it, boycott Barnes & Noble and Borders too! Buy your books from small, locally owned bookstores that these corporate monoliths have practically driven to extinction. Media is controlled by far too few entities and book retailing is a prime example.

So I half agree with Scott...don't boycott them because they did something dumb that they're gonna fix. Boycott them because they're part of a corporate oligopoly in the realm of ideas...just the place where we need them least.

(In the name of honesty and disclosure, I have to admit that I'm not as idealistic in practice as in principle. I regularly order non-book items from them...thereby supporting the beast...)

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 13, 2009 8:25 PM

I wouldn't go so far as to say boycott Amazon, but I have strongly advocated for buying books at an independent bookstore before going to Amazon or a chain store like B&N or Borders.

A friend of mine from high school recently had to close his independent bookstore in Des Moines. It was a well run store with lots of interesting and worthwhile community events, but the store just couldn't compete against the chains' prices.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 13, 2009 9:28 PM

In another discussion thread elsewhere on the Internet, someone said what I was trying to say so much better than I did:

"The knee-jerk phenomen doesn't help us in the long run, because if you go off on the relatively small stuff, when something big happens, political enemies can dismiss it with a "there you go again.""

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."

Crazy stuff. The LGBT community, especially the more politically-moderate, mainstream part, seem pretty easy to set off these days and look like they're looking for an enemy to rage against.

There's nothing wrong with that, but this isn't Stonewall. This is just a bookstore.

Folks, I may be living mostly outside of cyberspace with good reason I would guess. I have never used Amazon.com for anything. I am not even sure if we have a "Brick and Mortar" book store in my small big town. I don't remember where or when I got hold of book sellers ALIBRIS.COM some years ago I would guess when ordering on line and getting info was limited. It may have started with bookfinder.com...However all the books that have been mentioned in the past months on BILERICO and GREG IN HOLLYWOOD have given me the titles of books and DVDs that I would want in my library and film collections. You folks in your blogs have mentioned them by name and author and I found new copies at ALIBRIS.COM these fine folks (and I am not an owner or have any financial interest in them) list with each title where a copy of the suggested title or item is located from Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to New York City, Charleston, and New England and the asking price including shipping costs. They give me a "DELIVERY NO LATER THAN" date and securely transact my ATM card for billing. I am pleased with these folks although of late they have bombarded me with savings coupons (code at checkout through a shopping cart) a bit more than necessary.

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 15, 2009 2:15 PM

Hi Daniel-

If people still want to stop using Amazon, fine.

I would suggest though that BEFORE they start shopping at another bookstore to check that store for its gay-friendliness. Do they have an anti-discrimination policy in place toward sexual orientation? Are they known for supporting the gay community?

It's one thing to stop shopping at Amazon, but if we jump in be with a bookstore that isn't gay-friendly, we may be doing more harm than good.

P.S. There are a lot of gay-friendly bookstores that aren't Amazon out there. It shouldn't be too hard to find one.

I think that we should avoid Amazon.com/Barnes and Noble and Borders regardless of any hacking, purposeful de-ranking, etc. The idea of one giant corporation controlling access to books in the U.S. is frightening to me.

I honestly don't believe that any corporation cares about the LGBT community or any marginalized community for that matter. The only reason corporations like Amazon.com/B&N make any attempts to cater to the queers is to make money. Plan and simple. Like many other corporations in the 90s, they realized that the LGBT market was potentially quite lucrative and therefore they should try to get our sales. And judging by Pride in Atlanta alone, they have succeeded.

I think anyone who is social justice minded should shop from feminist bookstores, queer bookstores and other independents.

I wrote more of my thoughts on the Amazon.com hoopla here: http://caitlinpetrakischilds.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/why-are-queers-shopping-at-amazoncom-anyway/