Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is Amazon.com Homophobic?


(Image from Bill T)

In the last couple of days, people have been blogging about how Amazon has been labeling gay and lesbian books as "adult" and removing the books from their search engine. I'm glad the issue is FINALLY getting attention (see links below), because I have been complaining about it since February.

Here's my story: I'm the author of a memoir, All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. (Atria/Simon & Schuster), which is about my journey from grad student to stripper to entertainment journalist to college professor. (I'm currently Associate Professor of Journalism at Northern Illinois University.) Like many authors, I frequently check my sales status on Amazon, so imagine my shock, back in early February when the "Amazon.com Sales Rank" completely disappeared from the Product Details of my book. The book also disappeared from the search listings, so that if a customer looked up "All I Could Bare by Craig Seymour" on the Amazon home page, nothing came up.

Of course, I immediately sent emails to Amazon asking about this situation. I also placed several phone calls. But I could never get a straight answer, until February 25, when I received an email stating that "the sales rank was not displayed for the following reasons: The ISBN #1416542051 was classified as an Adult product."

I thought: An Adult product? What does that mean? Who knew that Amazon had such a category and why is it being applied to my book?

I brought this to the attention of my publisher, and they started looking into it. But, in the meantime, I also did some snooping around, and it turned out that the only books I could find without a "sales rank" had gay content like mine. For instance, my gay stripper memoir had no sales ranking, but Diablo Cody's stripper memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper,did.

Memoirs by gay porn stars Blue Blake (Out of the Blue: Confessions of an Unlikely Porn Star) and Bobby Blake (My Life in Porn: The Bobby Blake Story) didn't have a sales ranking, but memoirs by straight porn stars Ron Jeremy (Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz) and Jenna Jameson (How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale) did. Clearly, there seemed to be a double-standard.

As a former journalist, I contacted many major news organizations, but no one picked up on the story. Then, on February 27th, without any explanation, the sales ranking returned for my book and I was back in the search results.

I was happy, of course. But I was still freaked out by the whole situation and worried about how it would affect other authors, especially those who aren't on mainstream publishers. Somehow, for nearly three weeks, Amazon effectively "coded" my book out of circulation, and I had no idea how or why.

I'm so glad that more people are talking about this. Let's demand some answers!!!

UPDATE: A timeline of my Amazon.com ordeal with actual Amazon correspondence.

UPDATE #2: Glitch, please!

UPDATE # 3 (4/13 8pm): Amazon has just released this statement about the controversy:

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.


MY RESPONSE: It's a start but completely insufficient. It does not explain why writers, like myself, were told by Amazon reps that our books were being classified as "adult products." It also doesn't address why they took so long to do something about it, when they clearly knew about my issues back in February. Why didn't they address and fix the problems at that time?

And exactly what does a "cataloging error" mean? Was the error that they ever had an "adult" category or was the category simply overused? And if Amazon is going to maintain an "adult" category, who is going to determine what is "adult?" How will the criteria be applied to ensure that it's not prejudiced toward books with glbt contact; and will there be any way to appeal the process once the determination has been made? All of these questions need to be answered.

I don't think Amazon should be let off the hook until they address these very specific questions. Enough with the generic and vague statements.

Other Links:

Change.org Petition

A petition

Dear Author

Meta Writer

Queers United

Mark R. Probst

Twitter

In light of the continuing Amazon controversy, here are links to my book on other sites. Perhaps this is a good time to support independent gay and lesbian bookstores again.

LAMBDA RISING

GIOVANNI'S ROOM

BORDERS

BARNES & NOBLE

POWELL'S

SCP Books (A Lesbian Bookstore)

If any other bookstore wants me to add them, just let me know.

25 comments:

Momster said...

From: Another Queer Jewish Buddhist
Sexuality and Spirituality. Politics and Religion. Gay Activism and Culture. Advertising and Media.

Boycott Amazon: Take action against censorship of LGBT Titles

KD said...

I'm so glad people know as well! Sorry people are idiots.

here by way of a gaysdotcom tweet.

bookshop said...

When I contacted Amazon (by phone, as I encourage everyone to do, 800-201-7575) the customer support rep I spoke to *told* me that they weren't targeting books with GLBTQ content.

She was, in fact, mistaken. Between 2 editions of Well of Loneliness they only deranked the one w/ the word "lesbian" in the title.

I'm just so glad this is finally getting the major publicity it deserves. Thank you for this post.

Dyl said...

Thanks for bringing that to peoples' attention. I've signed the petition :-)

Sue Silverman said...

And it's not just books about gays. Amazon deleted the ranking for my book about recovering from sexual addiction--which has no sexually graphic content--while, at the same time, my book about incest, which is much more graphic, still has a ranking. So it doesn't make any sense.

Erika Lopez said...

thank you so much for covering this, craig!
--erika lopez
(another author)

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

It seems that at least two books on disability and sexuality have also been targeted (As reported by disability activists via twitter's #amazonfail):

The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability
The Sexual Politics of Disability, which is a sociology text book

People already commonly share the misconception that people with disabilities are supposed to be inherently asexual, uninterested in sex, unable to have sex, or that it would be morally wrong for them to have sex even if they are emotionally mature, consenting adults. Because of all of these myths, some HIV/AIDS education outreach programs intentionally exclude people with disabilities because it is mistakenly assumed that they simply don't "need" to be included. That obviously has potentially fatal consequences. Making it harder to find accurate books on disability and sexuality doesn't help the situation.

I can easily believe that GLBT books may well be more systematically targeted. But I hope the disability angle will not be overlooked also.

Alex said...

I added you to Meta_Writer.

Michael said...

According to the LA Times blog, they're interpreting "adult" extremely broadly. Foucault's History of Sexuality is now adult content? (I'd love to meet the kid who'd buy that--and read all the way through it--just for thrills.)

However, there's apparently a story in Editor & Publisher saying that Amazon is now claiming this was just a glitch.

Michael said...

Correction. In my previous comment, I referenced Editor & Publisher. It should've been Publisher's Weekly.

IM Cupnjava said...

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein has been deranked while A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality by Joseph Nicolosi and Linda Ames Nicolosi is the first hit when searching for "homosexuality".

No one can tell me this wasn't intentional.

Drakyn said...

IndieBound will help you find your local independent stores (some of which sell online).

Everything Ookiku Furikabutte! said...

I just read about this on OHNOTHEYDIDNT and Dailykos and everyone is pissed off at Amazon. I'm glad people are talking about this and I am officially not a customer of AMAZON anymore.

Dallas said...

Petition is signed and an email to amazon. Great job Craig!

J Schorzman said...

I have a website that tracks your book sales (along with lots of others) and shows that the rank has been up and down this whole time. Check it out:

http://www.shopobot.com/all-i-could-bare-my-life-in-the-strip-clubs-of-gay-hard-cover

scatterling adrift said...

Interestingly, the fourth result when searching from the front page for "heterosexuality" is "Unexpected Pleasures: Leaving Heterosexuality for a Lesbian Life."

ENGLISH! said...

wow, normally I don't agree with over-letigiousness, but it seems to me that this would be a very righteous use of the civil courts--someone should calculate the estimated loss in sales figures and royalties that publishers and authors of these books suffered or lost because of this prejudicial policy--not only is it unfair and unethical, it is bad business and should be deplored for that as well--Amazon causing losses and not representing publishers and authors properly in order to appropriately and to the best of their ability move that product.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Wow. Thanks for this, and thanks for pursuing the result you got.

I had no idea, and I'm appalled.

Stonehenge said...

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I am a musician with product on amazon, and I have a customer account with them also, so I shall most definitely be in touch with them... Aside from the upsetting implications of prejudice and double standards, I abhor censorship, particularly when it's so arbitrary and clandestine.

j said...

Hi, Craig, I just found your blog due to the Amazon sales rank story. But I think another item of interest is the price Amazon is currently charging for your book on a Kindle. At one point it was $9.99 as most books are priced. The day I went to purchase it the price jumped to $13.80. I’m sure you’re not receiving the extra 3.81. I would also like to know why the paperback is cheaper then the Kindle version too. I would like to read your book, but until the Kindle price returns to 9.99 I won’t.

Susannah said...

Any credence that it was someone using batch files to mess with Amazon and create the very outrage you rightly feel?

http://community.livejournal.com/brutal_honesty/3168992.html

Jason said...

A lot of people have said it's Amazon's right to filter adult content. But what if I don't want my content filtered? Google gives me the option. I don't want Amazon deciding anything for me. And I won't shop there if their policy of not offending the Family Values crowd renders me invisible in the process. Gay bookstores have fought against censorship for years (Glad day in Toronto and Little Sisters in Vancouver risked arrest, conviction and jail in order to battle state censorship) Yet we so easily forget about them when Amazon's oh-so-low prices tempt us away. I buy books at ADLbooks.com where I know my money's not going to be used to marginalize me.

Alaina said...

FYI, Borders is linked up with Amazon, so I'd refrain from buying from them as well.

Deborah said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon. yellow pages

Jane said...

I really liked your article. Keep up the good work.I love bondage sex