Thursday, April 23, 2009

#amazonfail: An Impactful Story

High-tech bibliophiles were aTwitter recently when news surfaced that had “de-ranked” what, according to a company spokesman, amounted to over 57,000 titles--primarily, but not exclusively, books with gay, lesbian and transgender content. By de-ranking these titles, which takes them out of the best-selling tabulations on Amazon, they also dropped from Amazon’s coveted search features. Seemingly overnight, the Wal Mart of the internet had rendered queer publishing nearly invisible.

The problem came to light when Mark Probst, author of a gay-themed novel, The Filly, noticed that two other gay male romances, Transgressions by Erastes and False Colors by Alex Beecroft, had lost their sales rankings. The next day Probst saw the ranking disappear from his book.

According to his blog, Probst wrote to Amazon and received this 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 Advantage

Within moments, “#amazonfail” was the number one topic on Twitter. According to LA Times’ book blogger Carolyn Kellogg, de-ranked books included Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Fun Home by Allison Bechdel, and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. These are all best-selling, award-winning authors, who, not coincidentally, have given readings at Left Bank Books. Other affected titles included Becoming a Man by Paul Monette, which won a National Book Award, and Orlando by shameless pornographer Virginia Woolf.

Patricia Smith, director of Amazon’s corporate communications, replied to Kellog’s blog seemingly within minutes, stating the whole mess "was a glitch with our sales rank feature that is in the process of being fixed. We're working to correct the problem as quickly as possible."

Within less time than it will take to write this article, Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener updated Smith’s comments with this statement: "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 (sic.) 57,310 books in a number of broad categories… This problem impacted (sic.) 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.”

Setting aside the fact that the word “impacted” is actually an adjective, not a verb, what Amazon initially reported as a policy for handling adult material quickly morphed into a computer glitch and was now being called a ham-fisted error. Within moments after that, Amazon further attributed the public relations mess to a programmer’s error in France. Left Bank Books also believes in blaming the French for everything—in fact, we actually named ourselves after a Parisian neighborhood.

But before one could even complete a Twitter in response to Amazon’s response to its previous response, a hacker took credit for the policy/glitch/ham-fisted error/French meestaque. Whatever you believe happened, it seems fairly clear that Amazon only corrected the situation after an uproar by authors and glbt activists called attention to it.

I can’t even believe I’m giving them this much digital time.

Their hegemonic control of intellectual property in this country would never have been legal prior to Reagan’s presidency. Anti-trust, fair trade and anti-monopoly laws would have regulated their unchecked growth into every area of book publishing. They would possibly have even been required to pay sales tax to the municipalities they drain of revenue. In these troubled times that would amount to tens of millions of dollars for Missouri.

Some, including Chris Rice (who has also read at Left Bank Books), author and board president of the “gay-themed” Lambda Literary Foundation, praised Amazon for its quick correction of the glitch and for being “welcoming home to LGBT writers”.

I was a Lammy judge for twelve years. My anthology, This is What Lesbian Looks Like, won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000. My publisher went out of business shortly after I received my award. Many of the women’s and gay bookstores who truly supported glbt authors, who contributed financially and socially to their communities and served as watchdogs and spokespersons for gay visibility are gone now too. The disappearance of these precious assets can be attributed in large part to the appearance of chain stores and Amazon. As too many glbt readers (really, too many readers period) became bedazzled by the shimmering appearance of these bookstore-like imitations of the real thing, they forgot their roots long enough for those roots to all but disappear. We are left with the illusion of gay-friendly e- and re-tailers.

What Amazon does for “its” lgbt authors is gladly make money off their books. When was the last time you attended a reading by your favorite author hosted by Amazon? When was the last time an Amazon spokesperson addressed high school students about being glbt, gave door prizes to grass roots gay organizations, co-founded local youth organizations or anti-violence projects? When was the last time they hired a gay person in your town or paid sales tax to your government? When was the last sunny day you could walk down the street and window shop on Amazon? When was the last time you recognized your Amazon shop-keeper in the grocery store and he or she greeted you by name? I’m sorry, but just because they virtually control the means of production, I do not believe they deserve praise for their paternalistic “benevolence” towards the gay community. Or any other community of disenfranchised people for that matter. Now that they have cornered the market, of course they plan on continuing to corner it.

Today, the issues of glbt publishing and bookselling are complex contradictions as glbt publishers go out of business, mainstream publishers “forget” to publish glbt writing, and the technology of print-on-demand and pay-to-publish become more accessible to anyone with an email account. Digital publishing is yet another wrinkle. As a proponent of free speech and an open marketplace of ideas, I welcome the promise of this diversity. But let the reader beware: put all your books in one virtual shopping cart long enough and one day you could discover that much more than your reading choices have been “impacted”.