April 12, 2009
In case you were under a rock or celebrating Easter or something today, and haven't heard about the AmazonFail brouhaha, here's what they're up to: Amazon has, ostensibly for the sake of their readers delicate constitutions, decided to strip the rankings from pretty much any book that has to do with anything related to the LGBT community, everything from textbooks to literature to scientific studies, whether those books include explicit descriptions of homosexual acts or not. This prevents those books from showing up in general searches and will ultimately hurt their sales figures. You know, the harder stuff is to find, the less likely people are to buy it? That kind of logic.
According to Mark Probst, who first noticed this a couple of days ago, and wrote to Amazon about it, a spokesperson from Amazon explained it this way:
Among the books being stripped of their sales ranks and obscured in the search function are notable classics like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, E.M. Forester's Maurice, Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, all of which I've read in English classes at some point. Oddly enough, both Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita have retained their sales ranks (Lolita is up around 2,000). Also stripped of their rankings are Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Even Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity has had its ranking stripped.
If you're unclear about what this means, go to Amazon and search books for "homosexuality." You'll notice that what comes up are largely Christian screeds against it, written by straight people, even when you click on "Gay and Lesbian" in the side search tabs. This made me feel physically sick. How awful to have decades of writing just erased from public viewing. I can only image how my LGBT friends feel watching their literature, history, and scientific studies disappear virtually overnight. This is censorship of the worst kind, and a really vile form of bigotry.
Horror aside, one of the interesting things about this event was how quickly it exploded onto the net. I saw a note about it from Charlie Anders of io9 over on Facebook this afternoon, toddled over to sign the petition after doing a little confirming research, and by 9:00 pm, it was racing across Twitter, LJ, and the blogs like wildfire. The Google search results went from two pages to 13.
So I'm urging you to boycott Amazon until they stop with censorship crap. Over at Publishing Talk, there's an excellent, excoriating open letter to Jeff Bezos, written with the kind of gentle viciousness the British do so well. There are Google bombs on the words "Amazon ranks" spreading (look! here's one now!), and numerous petitions. You can call Amazon's customer service: 1-866-216-1072 or if you're feeling particularly frisky, their board of directors. In the meantime, fuck 'em. Get your books from Powell's instead.
UPDATE: This is hitting the mainstream press now, with "Publisher's Weekly" and Salon reporting Amazon claims it's "just a glitch," which still does not explain Probst's and others reply from customer service, or the fact that this started several days ago. There's an interesting theory at the LJ of former SixApart employee who was around for the Great Strikethrough on LJ. He thinks is a trolling campaign. I'm reserving judgment. My natural suspicion makes me think that Amazon is just covering their ass with the "glitch" statement. I'd be pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
UPDATE 2: More information and sleuthing at Dear Author, which definitely makes it appear far more deliberate than glitchy. The evidence deals with the metadata entered by both publishers and Amazon and a filter applied to that data: "It appears that all the content that was filtered out had either “gay”, ”lesbian”, ”transgender”, “erotic” or “sex” metadata categories. Playboy Centerfold books were categorized as “nude” and “erotic photography”, both categories that apparently weren’t included in the filter." *rolls eyes*
FINAL UPDATE:So the word is out it was some Amazon employee in France who "broke" the system by flipping a database flag from false to true. Even if this was not a policy change, Amazon's PR needed to make that clear a lot sooner than they have (there's still no official statement, more than 4 days after this started happening). When the literature of an oppressed minority group starts to disappear without explanation, it makes people testy. And isn't spin control what PR people get paid for? Where are they? Where, for that matter, is Amazon's official explanation?
So did we all over-react? I don't think so. I think it's obvious that, thanks to the vocal activists in various movements, none of us have a real sense of trust in corporate America, or, after the last eight years, in the stability of our rights. I think it was heartening to see how fast the response moved, how vocal it was, and how much it seems to have freaked out a large corporate entity. I feel a little like the girl at the end of "V for Vendetta," taking off my Guy Fawkes mask.
If this were a real emergency . . .
Thanks for alerting people to this. I signed the petition.
Posted by: Roger | April 13, 2009 at 11:55 AM