de-ranks LGBT books, blames "glitch"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Online bookseller blamed technical problems after lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual (LGBT) themed works disappeared from searches on the site over the weekend. Several authors, however, are skeptical of Amazon's explanation, and outrage over the de-ranking of the works has led to outcry within the online community.

Early this afternoon, Amazon began re-ranking some of the affected works and, shortly thereafter, offered an explanation for the disappearance of the books, telling the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Drew Herdner, spokeman for 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.

Drew Herdner, spokeman for

Among the books that vanished on searches of Amazon's offerings were some editions of John Barrowman's and Stephen Fry's autobiographies, some editions of Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence, and Lesléa Newman's children's book Heather Has Two Mommies, as well as works of erotica such as Emmanuelle Arsan's Emmanuelle.

Mark Probst, author of gay-themed romance novel The Filly, said in his blog that problems began on April 10:

On two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings....

Probst then contacted, whose Member Services team replied that

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.

Sales rank is an important part of a book's visibility on the website, determining whether it appears in searches, on the website front page, and in recommendations to customers.

Amazon told Publishers Weekly that a "glitch" was to blame for the de-ranking on Sunday evening. The period of the de-ranking covers a holiday weekend in the United States and it is possible that technical staff at the company were unavailable. Amazon director of corporate communications Patty Smith told the Los Angeles Times, that the problem was being resolved, but when asked for further details replied "Unfortunately, I'm not able to comment further. We're working to resolve the issue, but I don't have any further information."

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal: "GLAAD has reached out to and they indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately, and any loss of visibility of gay-themed books as a result of this error will be made right by Amazon."

Author Jules Jones, meanwhile, told Wikinews that the suppression of sales rankings is not solely a gay issue. "[An]other point to make is that a lot of the people affected by this are straight", she says. "the two books that sparked this are published by a mainstream publisher, and intended to be marketed in the romance section in stores, to the same women who read any other romance books."

Authors of the affected works have expressed skepticism of Amazon's explanation, accusing Amazon of homophobia and deliberate censorship. Craig Seymour, author of All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C., recounts an exchange in early February 2009 with Amazon. On February 2, his book lost its sales rank, in the same fashion as the other LGBT-themed works this month. After inquiring about the loss of rank, Seymour received a reply on February 25 saying "the sales rank was not displayed for the following reasons: The ISBN 1416542051 was classified as an Adult product"; Seymour then found through routine searches that the rankings of gay themed works had been dropped but that rankings of books by porn stars like Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson had not, in an apparent double standard. Seymour's ranking was restored on February 27 and All I Could Bare is not among those books whose rankings have been dropped this month.

Protesting what they see as censorship, many people in the online community began organizing petitions and boycotts of Amazon. Microblogging site Twitter saw conversations about the de-ranking, tagged with the word "#AmazonFAIL", rise to the most popular subject on the site, and an online petition entitled "In protest at Amazon's new 'adult' policy" garnered 13,000 signatures within 24 hours of its creation.

The online community has also been investigating the de-rankings in order to clarify what works were dropped. Jane of publishing blog suggests in an analysis of the known dropped books that the de-ranking was performed automatically by a program examining the metadata of each book and dropping rankings from those tagged "Gay", "Adult", or "LGBT"; not all editions of the same book carry the same tag, which explains why some editions of books were dropped and others not. Meanwhile, Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Making Light suggests that the de-ranking started out as well-intentioned but that important information was lost along the way:

Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries....Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from "let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff" to "we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone."

Amazon has yet to put out a general press release on the incident.


This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.