Patricia Nell Warren

Chicken Little and the Great Amazon Flap

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | May 21, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Amazon, fact checking, gay books, journalism standards

Over the 30-plus years that I've been active in the gay media, Thumbnail image for Chicken LittleI've pondered the thing that some of us do when a shocking rumor comes along. Without fact-checking to see if the rumor is true, some of us panic and go knee-jerking into print about it. Other rumor-mongers spread the panic further. It's the Chicken Little thing -- somebody screams, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" A case in point is the latest Amazon flap on May 19, which alleged a new round of anti-gay censorship by the bookselling giant.

Yes, centuries of bigotry have left us collectively paranoid and emotionally paranoid. We're easily roused to suspicion, and all too ready to notice what might be the next wave of persecution. But there's no excuse for not checking the facts first.

If we're going to demand that our media be respected by the rest of the world, we have to earn that credibility. Publishers and editors and writers (including bloggers) have to uphold the standards of good journalism. That includes recognizing the responsibility we bear for getting a story right, and doing our legwork on the facts, before we start hyperventilating and imagining some new threat to our welfare and our rights. Especially in these times, we have to remember how small and wired the world is getting -- how strongly people react to every little thing that they hear.

A sad fact about the two Amazon flaps: back in April when the first one happened, some of us didn't got the story right.

Since then, some of those people have never figured out that they did a Chicken Little thing. Nor have they re-checked their facts, and corrected their inaccurate and inflammatory statements.

Sharp-Eyed Commenters

Back in April, when the Amazon.com website system first exploded with mysterious disappearances of sales-rankings and title listings, some LGBT authors, publishers and bookreaders were upset to discover that this problem was touching them personally. Some gay media jumped to the conclusion that this was "censorship of gay books."

I was one of the many authors affected -- my publishing company is an Amazon Advantage vendor for many years. When I heard about the problem, the first thing I did was log into Amazon and spend a while looking around. True, most of my titles had either disappeared altogether, or had their Amazon rankings removed. But I was unable to construe this as "gay book censorship." Why? Because I investigated further and noticed that the same thing was happening to listings and rankings of some non-gay books as well. It had to be a technical problem.

A few days later, Amazon talked publicly about what it called a "glitch" and a "cataloging error." I accepted their explanation because, over the years, my publishing imprint has seen its titles affected by a smaller Amazon glitch or two -- like cover jpgs that mysteriously disappeared for no apparent reason. And the glitches were always fixed when we brought them to Amazon's attention. This time, I didn't even bother to send a complaining email to Amazon Advantage -- the company was overwhelmingly aware that they had a problem.

Indeed, in a few days, our book listings and rankings were back to par. And so, it seemed, were those of everybody else who had been affected. Yet even though Amazon had apparently fixed the problem, some of our media and commentators continued to insist that Amazon was "censoring gay books."

Yesterday, May 19, when the latest Amazon panic broke, some of our media were harking back to the first panic, alleging that "Amazon is censoring gay books again." (Emphasis mine.)

But at Queerty.com, a dozen sharp-eyed commenters (including well-known gay book reviewer Richard Labonte) had done their own homework, and were pointing out that the problems they'd encountered on Amazon were affecting the whole Amazon search system, not just gay titles. "Amazon Search is completely messed up since 3 hours," said one.

Once again, I went to my own Wildcat Press listings to see what was up. When I searched under "Patricia Nell Warren," my novel The Front Runner came up normally, right at the top. So it didn't look likely that gay books were being targeted -- though all my other titles had disappeared once again. In their place, was a scramble of two dozen other titles by authors not named Warren. What were non-Warren titles doing on the Warren page?? Clearly the Amazon gremlins were at work again. But they didn't act like anti-gay gremlins.

This morning, May 20, the problem was fixed. All our titles come up normally once again under an author-name search.

A Myth Is Hatched

So the flap is over. Or is it? A search on Google reveals a mass of literally hundreds of outraged editorials and blogs out there -- all of them alleging Amazon "censorship of gay books" and mentioning specific titles that vanished briefly in April.

Indeed, a myth has been hatched -- that Amazon not only censors gay books, but also has a new category called "adult" and puts certain books in it, making them hard to find with Search. Yet a month later, when I go and actually look around on Amazon, I find these titles right back where they should be, easily searchable, with rankings intact. There is no "adult" category that I can find, though one can certainly search under "erotica," and "erotica" is not hard to find.

Conclusion: some people seem to want to believe what their own paranoias push them to believe. And they go on believing the worst even when the threat that they fear so much never materializes.

To Boycott or Not To Boycott

Back in April, the Chicken Little crowd were actually calling for a boycott of Amazon... even though the problem had been fixed by then, and there was no real evidence of anti-gay intent, i.e. misdeeds that would merit a boycott. I thought it was ridiculous for LGBT people to be putting energy and money into a boycott about nothing, and said so.

Besides, if the gay community are so untogether that they couldn't even organize some "American Idol" voting on behalf of Adam Lambert, they definitely are not going to organize a bookbuying boycott that would put a dent in Amazon.com.

Meanwhile, all across the country, there IS real censorship that more of our LGBT citizens should be worried about. The sky IS falling in some places. The real misdeeds are very naked and visible, and there's no doubting what they are. In some communities, boards of public libraries and school libraries ARE openly suppressing and eliminating LGBT books. Our books are being railroaded out of school reading programs. These are real battles that we should be fighting in those communities, instead of battling with phantoms like imagined slights from Amazon.

So far, in the decade-plus of its corporate life, Amazon.com has actually been very gay-friendly. Right now, they list nearly 18,000 LGBT titles in print, audio and Kindle editions. They even carry print-on-demand titles by self-publishing gay authors that some wholesalers won't carry. Right now, if there has been any hidden anti-gay agendas at Amazon, I have never run into them.

And believe me -- if this big bookseller ever does decide to turn aggressively anti-gay, those of us who sell books to Amazon will be the first to know about this 180-degree turn in policy -- and we'll shout it from the rooftops.

Till then, I suggest that we put the Amazon panic back where it belongs -- under the bed, along with all the other boogeymen.

Just Because Others Do It...

Admittedly the gay media are not the only ones who sometime shoot from the hip, or refuse to do fact-checking. Today, all across the mainstream, good journalism is in terrible decline. Many print and cyber media are too uneducated or lazy or stupid to check facts. Or they deliberately lie and distort for profit, whether's it's entertainment or religion or politics. But just because others do it, we shouldn't justify our own doing it.

in our case, we LGBT people damage ourselves when our limited energy and resources get spent uselessly on a Chicken Little panic. It's not smart for us to do this to ourselves. Worse, it leaves some of our citizens deadened to the need to act when the sky really IS falling.

We should stick to fighting the real battles, and leave the Chicken Little battles alone. And the only way we can tell the difference between the two is to look before we leap -- to check the facts.


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christophe | May 21, 2009 10:49 AM

Patricia, I totally agree with you on this. Editors should definitely check their facts before trying to spread fear among the gay community in order just to do that......spread fear. Yet you are all to right that the gay community, which isn't a real community either, could never be able to unite over anything. The ONLY and I do mean ONLY thing that makes us similar is our sexuality, that's it PERIOD. This is the reason I worry we will never be able to make any real progress in politics today. As you said, and I said in a long article on Queerty about how we as a group can't even get it together enough to vote for one of our own in a singing contest. How are we going to unite over things that affect our daily lives. Its sad that most people missed the point of the entire AI win. Whereas the right wing christian fundies sure were smart enough to realize the impact that a GAY AI winner would have and they would have NONE OF THAT. A boycott? In everyones dream could we ever unite over something that affects us, no way, no how.

christophe | May 21, 2009 11:12 AM

Patricia, I totally agree with you on this. Editors should definitely check their facts before trying to spread fear among the gay community in order just to do that......spread fear. Yet you are all to right that the gay community, which isn't a real community either, could never be able to unite over anything. The ONLY and I do mean ONLY thing that makes us similar is our sexuality, that's it PERIOD. This is the reason I worry we will never be able to make any real progress in politics today. As you said, and I said in a long article on Queerty about how we as a group can't even get it together enough to vote for one of our own in a singing contest. How are we going to unite over things that affect our daily lives. Its sad that most people missed the point of the entire AI win. Whereas the right wing christian fundies sure were smart enough to realize the impact that a GAY AI winner would have and they would have NONE OF THAT. A boycott? In everyones dream could we ever unite over something that affects us, no way, no how.

Great article Patricia,

I agree on many levels...even the point that we as a community cannot unite on anything...so sad.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 21, 2009 10:32 PM

Thank you Patricia. As always true. I am curious as to how you would react to the drama about the "Dallas Principles" if you would not mind.

What is this "fact checking" of which you speak? When TV newscasters regularly say things like "WTF" and other slang that's not exactly "proper," it makes them seem cool and hip and up to date, right? I mean, "professional" is such a hard and academic word, right?

Keith Olbermann may say "WTF" but he is also "professional" and has a lot of fun showing how sloppy conservative legislators and commentators are about fact-checking. I especially enjoy his glee when he can vivisect Bill O'Reilly on facts.

On the LGBT front, I've been taking a close look at those alleged "Adam Lambert kissing boyfriend" photos, and am not sure all of them are authentic. One of the guys has to be clearly identifiable as Adam, but that's not the case in some of the pics. Yet some of the gay media have been plastering them everywhere. If ever there's a need for serious fact-checking, this is it.

William C | May 22, 2009 8:11 PM

This is a little off-topic but really fun, and it involves Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Mountain-Three-Wolf-T-Shirt/dp/B000NZW3KC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=apparel&qid=1243037221&sr=8-1

click the link, and then scroll down to the customer reviews section and start reading! Afterwards, click on some of the products in the "customers who bought this item" category.


One of my facebook friends turned me on to this and I am forever grateful!

;)