Amazon Says Gay Book ‘Adult’ Label, Stripped Sales Rankings a ‘Glitch’

UPDATE: AMAZON blames "glitch" for problem. "A groundswell of outrage, concern and confusion sprang up over the
weekend, largely via Twitter, in response to what authors and others
believed was a decision by Amazon to remove adult titles from its sales
ranking. On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a
glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the
process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new
adult policy."

Amazon will need more than a one-liner to explain this situation. It must have been a very intelligent and homophobic "glitch" to have selectively de-ranked gay titles while leaving equally "adult" straight titles alone. The issue exploded on Twitter (#amazonfail) over the weekend where it is still high on the trends list. Unless Amazon explains what happened and publishes a transparent set of guidelines on how books are classified going forward I don't think anyone will be satisfied. Demand answers.

It also brings up a wider issue. This kind of double-standard happens not only across the internet but across media. Towleroad, for example, although we carry no pornographic content, is widely blocked as "adult" by many corporate filters simply because we write about gay issues. It's the same reason magazines like OUT and The Advocate are often placed among porn titles on newsstands when they clearly don't belong there.

***Previously…

Amazon.com appears to be exacting a double standard on material it deems "adult" and has begun stripping hundreds of gay and lesbian books of their sales rankings, writer Mark Probst reported this weekend on his LiveJournal blog:

Brokeback "Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening. As I am a publisher and have an Amazon Advantage account through which I supply Amazon with my books, I had a special way to contact them. 24 hours later I had a response:

"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.

"Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

"Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services

Amazon.com Advantage"

Giovannisroom Meta Writers has posted a list of the books that have been stripped which includes almost all novels in a user's Top 100 Gay Novels List including James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, and Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance.

Our theatre critic Kevin Sessums reports that the hardback edition of his memoir Mississippi Sissy retains a sales ranking while the ranking for the paperback edition has been stripped. Michelangelo Signorile reports that his books have all lost their rankings.

Writer Craig Seymour says he noticed the de-ranking happening months ago

The L.A. Times reports on the de-ranking:

"Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: "Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs; "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, "The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1" by Michel Foucault, "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), "Little Birds: Erotica" by Anais Nin, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and "Becoming a Man" by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

"Books that remain ranked include: "Naked" by David Sedaris; "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller; "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis; "Wifey" by Judy Blume; "The Kiss" by Kathryn Harrison; the photobooks "Playboy: Helmut Newton" and "Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds"; "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs; "Incest: From 'A Journal of Love'" by Anais Nin; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (2007 Vintage International edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 Penguin Classics edition)."

No doubt there will be forthcoming revelations about what is happening at Amazon. A petition protesting the de-rankings has sprung up on Facebook.

Comments

  1. paul c says

    BOYCOTT!!!

    Amazon hurts small businesses of all kinds, but they are particularly killing independent bookstores. They really should have been boycotted previously just for the damage they’re doing to local communities, but this is it.

    They know how much money they make from each of us, so e-mails would be very effective at getting this point of concern across to them.

  2. qjersey says

    Twitter is going nuts over this #amazonfail, and a google bomb ‘amazon rank’ has been launched and is already the first result.

    amazon rank
    Function: verb
    Inflected Form(s): amazon ranked

    1. To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies).
    2. To make changes based on inconsistent applications of standards, logic and common sense.

    Etymology: from 12 April 2009 removal of sales rank figures from books on Amazon.com containing sexual, erotic, romantic, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or queer content, rendering them impossible to find through basic search functions at the top of Amazon.com’s website. Titles stripped of their sales rankings include “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” prominent romance novels, GLBTQ fiction novels, YA books, and narratives about gay people.

    Example of usage: “I tried to do a report on Lady Chatterly’s Lover for English Lit, but my teacher amazon ranked me and I got an F on grounds that it was obscene.”

    Alternate usage: “My girlfriend wanted to preserve her virginity, and I was happy to respect that, then she amazon ranked and decided anal sex was okay.”

  3. Wheezy says

    F–k Amazon, “Powell’s world of books” has LGBT themed books galore and will happily take my Queer $$$$. Plus, it’s an independent book seller. http://www.powells.com/

    p.s. They also de-ranked “Heather Has Two Mommies”. WTF? Since when is that porno?

  4. says

    Previously their Books section was criticized for forcing independent authors to use their printing service instead of third party and arguable better services and I didn’t care all that much.

    But this time I’m rather angry, so I’ve started a facebook group to call for a boycott (link at my name). Homophobia and censorship are among my least favorite things in the world so together it displeases me to a great extent.

    Awfully enough, a book with scenes of incest orgies remains ranked while autobiographies of gay people are being deranked.

  5. Stan Scott says

    Ellen DeGeneres’ autobiography about her relationship with her mother is delisted. This means that any book by a GAY AUTHOR can be delisted by Amazon, unless s/he stays safely in the closet and doesn’t write about “that stuff”.” Now, go to Amazon.com and search for “homosexuality”. The results are disturbing, to say the least!

  6. jakob1978 says

    Can i just go off topic slightly and ask why, in the yellow box at the bottom of your front page, in the top right corner above the google link there is a barely visible link, with the words “n****r barrack obama”, except without the asterixes obviously.

    highly offensive

  7. Eric says

    I don’t shop amazon, I prefer alibris, so my protest may not mean much to amazon. Still, this will make me hesitate the next time I search amazon’s database. If they filter my search like this, what else are they filtering?

  8. baophac says

    you can still search for gay books on amazon canada but i don’t know where you can see the ranking

  9. CJ says

    ANDY: “n****r barack obama” IS ON YOUR SITE! I do not believe this is something you placed, perhaps someone has hacked your site?

  10. says

    Thank you for alerting us to the offensive language that was at the bottom of the site. We apologize that some of you came across it. We believe our site may have been hacked and have removed the associated search box and are looking into it.

  11. says

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. we were able to get it off the page but so far have been unable to figure out how it was done or where it came from. We’re going to do our best to get some answers from Google which we rely on for site search, to help us get to the bottom of this. If anyone has information or insight, please forward it on directly to us at tips[at]towleroad.com.
    Mike at towleroad

  12. says

    I’ve refused to buy from them for a long time, due to their refusal to stop selling materials on dogfighting (not documentary but actual how-to materials–it’s something I just blogged about last month, here and here). This just gives me one more reason to maintain my boycott.

  13. Liam says

    I must be missing something. I can still find all of those books by just typing the title in the search box. And that’s on the US portal. Is this something that only the author’s would see?

  14. Catalyst says

    History of sexuality by Michel Foucault classified as adult!!!! hahahahaha!! Foucault wold have been delighted by the stupidity of this! I can’t believe how many morons you can find in charge of censoring everything.

  15. says

    Amazon has been somewhat selective in what they have reclassified. I searched for all three of Randy Shilts’ books and only Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military has been reclassified as “porn.”

    Both “The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk” and “And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic” have been left alone. No doubt that these books have been left untouched because of the popularity of Milk, the movie and the fact that “And the Band Played On” is the #1 all-time best-selling book in the HIV/AIDS department on Amazon.

    Shilts was an out gay author who died of complications from AIDS. But only his least successful book was declassified, also the only one with the words Gay/Lesbian in the title.

    Amazon may be run by gutless, homophobic trolls — but they are selective and greedy homophobic trolls. I’m sure that they’ll try to convince us all this was a harmless mistake or glitch. I’m not buying it, or anything else from them for that matter ever again.

    I’m sick of this crap.

  16. says

    Thanks for this post–I just checked and my gay travel memoir “You Can Run” has also been de-ranked. My book details 2 years spent in the “third world” which is, it appears, mighty less homophobic than Amazon.

  17. Boxerdad says

    If you know anything about programming you know that this statement:

    Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

    is utterly bogus. It is spectacularly easy to design programming to exclude certain items from a list without having to corrupt your sales ranking data. Assuming you have to exclude things at all of course.

  18. bobbyjoe says

    If you look on some of the commentary threads linked to GLBT books on Amazon, you’ll find discussion threads on GLBT books and Kindle that date back to at least February that were already noting the de-ranking Amazon was doing for many GLBT books. If Amazon tries to claim this was a “glitch”– and they will– it’s a “glitch” that was pointed out to them at least two months ago and they did nothing about it.

    Oops! Clumsy us! We hit the wrong button and suddenly, selectively de-ranked all sorts of gay titles, from biographies to histories to children’s books, but not some of our most graphically sexual hetero titles. And then when some people pointed this out by contacting Amazon a few months ago, we ignored them until it became a big embarassing internet scandal. Just like if we accidentally spilt milk all over the kitchen, we’d wait to clean it up until the sour smell became so strong all of our neighbors formed a mob and threatened to evict us. Whoops!

    Amazon’s got some serious ‘splainin’ to do.

  19. Marc says

    WTF??? I’m terribly confused by all this. When the clinical term Homosexuality is used I get a significantly different compilation of books than with the word Gay

  20. Chris says

    Foucault!!!! Are you F****ing kidding me. That’s the English title not the French title, and if any young child gets their hand on that the worst thing its going to give him is a headache. I mean that is what Amazon is protecting us against, right?

    Excuse me while I go burn a copy of Nietsche’s Gay Science. I don’t won’t no kid a mine readin’ that there godless sh*t.

    haha
    c

  21. Eric says

    It’s a shame that so few of us are willing to support our local gay bookstores. A Different Light in LA has closed. Oscar Wilde Bookshop in NYC has closed. Instead we are willing to allow megastores to relegate us to being “adult”-oriented.

    Although Amazon does have a large LGBT selection, purchasing online is not the same as browsing in the bookstore, holding and feeling the books, flipping through the pages, allowing a book to jump out at us in way that doesn’t happen in online bookstores.

    Large retailers like B&N and Borders have such a small LGBT selection, it is pathetic.

    If we want LGBT authors and LGBT-themed books to be respected, we should do our best to support our local gay bookstores. Unfortunately, they are dying, for no other reason, than our lack of support.

  22. says

    ALL of my gay lit books have been de-ranked by Amazon! Their homophobic corporate culture and censorship are inexcusable in a modern, educated society! This after I (and many of my fellow gay writers) tried to support Amazon by adding Amazon direct-link widgets and other Amazon promos to our sites.

    Apparently, Amazon feels that LGBT literature is “unacceptable” and “disgusting”, and I belive the next step will be systematic de-listing og LGBT books from the Amazon site. Online availability og LGBT titles is critical to the sales strength of LGBT authors, because there are countless localities in the US and abroad where you cannot just go to your local bookstore and purchase gay lit!

    In addition, it’s often easier for people to purchase LGBT lit online, because it affords privacy and convenience. There are plenty of LGBT people out there who would feel uncomfortable purchasing a gay lit book in Barnes & Noble, publicly broadcasting their sexuality to strangers.

    Finally, I wonder if Amazon has ever stopped to consider how many of our greatest literary and artistic figures were/are LGBT? Would they now de-list works by Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Audre Lorde, Alan Turing, Michelangelo, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, or Henry david thoreau, just to name a few?

    I fully intend to write, blog, comment, and generally make noise about this blatant attempt at censorship until Amazon sees the light.

    In the meantime, all of my books are available via other online sites, such as barnesandnoble.com, or via my website.

  23. gecko says

    The problem isn’t just that the material was reclassified…I just confirmed another rumour: if you go to the main page and search “homosexuality”, in first five hits:

    1. A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality
    2. You Don’t Have To Be Gay
    4. Can Homosexuality Be Healed?

    Seriously?

  24. Jim says

    I sure hope they get this cleared up. I actually like shopping at Amazon and have been addicted to my Kindle. This cannot stand! I’ve fired off one letter to Bezos.

  25. JACKNASTY says

    Amazon back to their old Republican ways, eh?

    Well, won’t be doing business with them anymore. Buh-bye!

  26. dm says

    Gecko, I tried your search and was appalled. I really thought Amazon was a bit more enlightened.

  27. Andrea says

    “I hope that the authors whose works are being censored plan to contact the ACLU tomorrow morning.”

    Amazon is a private company, not a government entity, so they can censor whatever they want on their own website, and the ACLU can’t get them for violating anyone’s 1st Amendment rights.

  28. cls says

    This article tells you how to get even. You can still use Amazon to source cheap books, and actually use them to find books cheaper than Amazon offers with one click of the button. With just a little more effort you can then get the same title, at the even lower price, without having to give Amazon any profit on the deal. This link has clear, detailed instructions on how that can be done.

    http://gayworldreport.blogspot.com/2009/04/amazon-screws-over-gay-publishers-how.html

  29. brentbent says

    Amazon can indeed be sued–in Canada, which has specific laws regarding sexual orientation equality and those books are being deranked at Amazon.Canada. Also, state laws proclaiming sexual orientation parity would also apply since the vast majority of the books being censored this way are GLBT. They could not legally derank the vast majority of books regarding Chinese history or Women’s Studies and those states with such laws will hopefully put some pressure on Amazon.

    Personally, due to the timing of this and how it had before been a book here or there followed by a massive number of books this weekend is that some homophobic tech person in charge of some aspect of the IT structure decided “to save the world from teh gays” and overplayed their hand. At least, that is what I am hoping it is beceause I have a Kindle and I am not buying any more books for it until this is properly resolved and I told them so. I’ve also forwarded this to several friends who have written to Amazon and they’re also forwarding to other people they know. This is exploding big time in Amazon’s face and I bet within less than a week we will see something like a well endowed (hahah) scholarship for GLBT students make its way forward to show their understanding and compassion regarding GLBT issues along with donations to GLBT organizations.

  30. PM says

    Hmm ; my first reaction was of course dismay, boycott and petition signing – but I’ve read the technical theory and it does sound credible…

    I’ll wait and see for now, but if it is as simple as it seems or they just don’t care enough to undo it then I have no choice but to take my business elsewhere.

  31. says

    The technical “glitch” explanation may be plausible, but that doesn’t explain the customer service response e-mail posted in the original article above.

  32. Sarah says

    My book, UNCLE BOBBY’S WEDDING, lost its sales rank for a while last month. It has one again now.

    It’s a children’s picture book which ends with a same-sex wedding. It has no “adult” content whatsoever.

  33. kujhawker says

    A glitch my ass! I declare bullshit. They told Probst that they were purposely decalaring something as an adult. But now it is a glitch. It is Amazon trying to cover its ass when it is being flooded by emails and threatened with boycotts.

  34. crispy says

    I ain’t buying the glitch explanation. But I also don’t think all of Amazon is homophobic. Methinks there’s a bad apple within Amazon management and they’re just now being rooted out. I hope whoever it is gets caught, fired, and publicly shamed.

  35. says

    Even more dangerous is the gay teen coming out out books and gay teen suicide books have been declassified…does this mean amazon.com wants gay teens to stay in the closet or kill themselves???

  36. Carl says

    Here’s how this “glitch” seems to be working. At the moment, every single title that appears in the bestseller list on the Gay & Lesbian page

    http://www.amazon.com/s/qid=1239631320/ref=sr_pg_1?ie=UTF8&rs=301889&bbn=301889&rh=n%3A!1000%2Cn%3A301889&page=1

    has no sales rank (Amazon Kindle books excepted). This includes some weird selections such as Robert Bly’s Iron John. The link to the bestseller list explains why vol. 1 of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality has been de-ranked while vols. 2 and 3 aren’t.

  37. Carl says

    If you want my theory, I believe that Amazon was trying to figure out a way to keep gay books from popping up on bestseller lists, recommendations, etc, but didn’t intend for the books to disappear from general searches. In short, it is a glitch to some extent, but one that exposes a real attempt to ghetto-ize gay books. It’s good that it got exposed now instead of going ahead in some more subtle form: now people will really be on the lookout. And yes, Amazon deserves to lose a lot of business.

  38. eric says

    Just on a side note, but in looking at some of the linked stories it seems Amazon employees have very strange first names (Krishna, Swathi, Ashlyn, etc)

  39. Chitown Kev says

    Hold on gents, I need to fess up about this.

    I am an African American in Chicago who is new to the the gay blogosphere. I have been doing some background research “catching up” on various news items on gay blogs, including this particular offensive reference to the President of the United States.

    I was the one that typed that those specific words in the course of doing an Internet search. I thought the search would simply be confined to my laptop and by no means intended for this search to be visible to the Towleroad community.

    My apologies to any and evryone who is deeply offended, just as I was deeply offended by some of the postings that that same Internet search turned up.

    Flagellate me, if you must.

  40. says

    I love Amazon, but this is messed up. I first noticed that the rankings for two of my books, ‘The Out Traveler: Atlanta’ (OutTravelerAtlanta.com) and ‘ATLANTAboy: An Insider’s Guide to Gay Atlanta’ (ATLANTAboy.com) disappeared a few weeks ago. These are travel guides (in no way adult) that have received positive reviews from mainstream media like the Associated Press, USA Today, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Atlanta magazine, and National Public Radio.

  41. CJ says

    CHITOWN KEV, thank you for your honesty and for the explanation (for those not aware of what is being referenced, earlier the words “n****r barack obama” were posted towards the bottom right corner of the Towleroad home page).

    I am curious as to how a search for those words turned up on Towleroads site.

  42. adamblast says

    I stopped being able to access Towleroad and other gay blogs at work over 2 years ago. And our defensive IT v.p. deems all complaints about web filtering as inappropriate and subject to discipline review.

  43. CJ says

    As for what an earlier poster stated (by Eric I believe), it is very important that not just the gay community but everyone supports their local businesses. In a time when the economy is severely crippled, small businesses are closing faster than ever. Certainly the large and impersonal online stores may save you a few cents, however when the long term effects of being frugal result in less choice and more situations such as the blatant censorship from Amazon, I would rather save my pennies in other ways (such as perhaps skimping on that Starbucks latter) than allow Walmart, Amazon, etc. dictate our freedom to chose.

    (Lord, I sound like the character of Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail”)

  44. Chitown Kev says

    Andy,

    Should that kind of record for a search have been displayed like that, though? Does the site have a glitch?

    Anyway, I don’t buy that much from Amazon (they are good for out-of-print stuff) and now I won’t buy anything. I will support more independent bookstores, used bookstores, and find an online bookseller that does not cater to homophobia. Fuck you, Amazon

  45. Kevin says

    Can someone explain Amazon sales rank? I looked up “Running with Scissors” and it has an “Amazon.com Sales Rank”. Was this the rank that was missing? Has this been added back/fixed? How do you tell if a book is ranked?

  46. Carl says

    It looks like the gay books are having their rank restored one by one. When I checked Running With Scissors and Unfriendly Fire a couple of hours ago, they had no rank, but now they do. Rank allows a book to be displayed on bestseller lists. It also seems to be connected with the search function. Before books started being restored, you couldn’t find them on Amazon’s main search page. So if you looked for Brokeback Mountain, you saw the DVD of the film, you saw out-of-print versions of the book, you saw posters and so forth, but not the in-print paperback.

  47. Carl says

    And — the fact that the code is having to be rewritten page by page argues against the claim that this was some overnight glitch. Otherwise, they could just reverse the situation en masse.

  48. E. says

    Why isn’t Amazon holding some kind of press conference about this right NOW? Don’t they realize the massive amount of business they can and should lose if they don’t clear this up immediately with a full explanation?

  49. DCMatt says

    I love what Suze Orman said 2 weeks ago: “I want every single one of you in this room to take note of what corporations put their time and money behind gays, behind lesbians — behind you. Do you want to continue to give your money to people in corporations that oppress us, that keep us down? Or do you want to give your money to the corporations who can help us rise and change what needs to be changed in the United States of America today.”

  50. tyler says

    I think this kind of discrimination is not so subtle. Why should Instinct or Advocate be with porn at my Borders? That just doesn’t make any sense. There’s an automatic stigma attached to “gay” and this is unfair and unjust.

  51. Kyle Sullivan says

    I have a couple of books listed on Amazon so I contacted them about them suddenly being de-listed and here’s their response —

    Hello,

    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.

    Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

    If yes, click here:
    http://www.amazon.com/rsvp-y?c=wbwwvbuf3477023793
    If not, click here:
    http://www.amazon.com/rsvp-n?c=wbwwvbuf3477023793

    Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail.

    To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our web site.

    Best regards,

    Srikanth P
    Amazon.com
    We’re Building Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company
    http://www.amazon.com/your-account

    According to my publisher, the problem should be fixed by the end of the week. If not, there’ll be hell to pay.

  52. Wheezy says

    Glitch? Only that they got caught!

    As I’ve said many, many times before, If someone doesn’t respect LGBT, take your queer ass and your queer cash elsewhere.