Amazon: “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

From the Seattle PI blog, quoting Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener:

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.

You can find the original here

You know, I’m not really happy with Amazon’s response, rather, their lack of response. This should have been put on the front page of the site. Moreover, even though I realize that the magnitude of the error was because of a human making the wrong SQL and metadata choices, I’m not really happy about the initial decision to exclude “adult” books from the Sales Ranks, and thus, from Search. A large number of the books they’ve chosen to hide this way are standard scholarly history texts, novels, and critical theory texts, as well as book that feature queer characters, or are by queer-identified authors, even if the books have no sex, or queer characters. They’ve also “hidden” books about sexuality that are standard college text books—not only Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex, but the text books my father used to use in his classes at Keene State and UNH. My father the tenured faculty member, and ordained minister, by the way. Not porn.

My feeling is, if you don’t want people to find the item in your store, Don’t Carry It In Your Stock.

Richard Nash has written a thoughtful post here that I think makes a very very good point

The vigilance and outrage demonstrated on Twitter are necessary, not because the folks at Amazon are bad people, but because the books that were de-ranked were de-ranked because it is always the outsider whose books get de-ranked and “mainstream” society and the capitalist institutions that operate within it, whether my old company or Amazon, must self-police ruthlessly in order to guard against this kind of thing happening.

I’m removing all Amazon affiliate links from my site, starting now. I’ll be keeping the links to Powell’s, and to Books for Scholars.

Amazon Rankings Reek of Homophobia and Puritanism

On Amazon.com beginning April 10, 2009, sales rankings of hundreds of books Amazon considers to be gay and lesbian began disappearing. These are not porn, most aren’t even romance or erotica. These are all books that Amazon subject metadata identifies as having gay and/or lesbian interest. Mark Probst, author and publisher, broke the news here. He wrote to Amazon as a publisher, 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
Amazon.com Advantage

Here’s a screen shot of Amazon’s page for C. J. Cherryh’s Regenesis. Notice the sales rank circled in blue. Next to it is the screen shot of Amazon’s page for Nicola Griffith’s Always. Notice the circle where the sales rank should be?

I want to be very very clear here.

Amazon is not removing books from sales rankings because of graphic sex. They are removing them because they have gay and lesbian associations. There’s a list of books here, being built by volunteers, but I want to talk about a few specifics. For instance:

Adrich, Robert. Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History.
This is about as far as you can get from being titillating. It’s a dry accurate, historical document. Thorough, balanced, and well-done. Not even a little bit “adult.” A standard college supplementary text though.

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle.
This is part of the canon. It’s taught all the time. It’s even considered a YA classic.

Forster, E. M. Maurice.
Again, a classic novel, taught in History of the Novel classes, by a major British author. I’ve taught this book; half the time people don’t even realize Forster is obliquely referring to sex.

Griffith, Nicola. Always.
This is a detective novel, and a love story. There’s more sex in a Harlequin romance. This is just a really good book that happens to be by a dyke, and that happens to have lesbian characters, including the lead, Aud, who, by the way, don’t die all miserable and alone.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness.
This is one of my least favorite books of all time, but it is firmly part of the novel canon, and routinely taught in college lit classes. The raciest thing in the book is this bit: “And that night they were not divided.” I think this book is personally responsible for 90% of all the subsequent books where lesbians characters have to be killed off, and generally made to suffer. This is where the trope started.

Newman, Leslea. Author. Diana Souza. Illustrator. Diana Souza Illustrator. Heather Has Two Mommies..
This is a charming, award-winning children’s book about Heather, and the fact that she has two mommies. Unless you live in dreariest podunk, your public library problem has this book. Amazon sells thousands of this a year—they’ll sell you a copy right now, they just don’t want the neighbors to know. Or something.

Tin, Louis-Georges. Editor. Marek Redburn.Translator. The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience.
Again, a scholarly, academic and solid history. You’ll find this not only at most college libraries, but a most large public libraries; it’s a standard reference work.

You can still buy the books, of course. If you know what to look for.

Here’s why this is a problem. This is the book equivalent of putting the books “in the back.” They are much harder to find. For the average book browser, someone who doesn’t have a particular author or title in mind, these books are not going to show up in the first five or ten or twenty screens. They may not show at all. The default settings for search show books based on sales rankings; no rankings, no showing.

And now, here are some other books you can buy, all of which show their Amazon sales ranks:

Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Famed in pornography trials, now embedded in the canon. It’s a really really poorly written, sexually lame novel by a closet homosexual homophobe who pretty clearly doesn’t like women, and has never even heard of a clitoris, but still . . . the fact that this tripe isn’t banned, when Well of Loneliness is, and the styles are similar, says rather a lot.

Ellis, Brett Easton. American Psycho.
This is too disturbing to describe, frankly. It still has a sales ranking, and lots of samples. You go have nightmares.

Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds.
Yep. Still has a sales ranking. Fortunately you can get it gift-wrapped so those models don’t get cold.

But the fact that Joseph Nicolosi and Linda Ames Nicolosi’s A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. is still ranked when Heather Has Two Mommies isn’t, says it all.

There’s a certain irony that Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex is unranked, while the most violent movies imaginable are ranked. I’m fine with Amazon deciding not to sell anything they want. But they’re not hurting their sales, only that of authors who write these books, and they’re making it harder for readers to find the books we want to buy. Guess I’ll have to start shopping elsewhere; they’ve removed the single reason I shop online: the ease of finding what I want.

There’s a petition you can sign in protest here.

ETA:This post from Dear Author pretty much satisfies me regarding what happened; a poorly formulated sql query and subsequent database commands because somewhere someone at Amazon has some odd understandings about what “adult” means, and included “gay and lesbian,” among other tags, as books that should have their sales rank removed. No, I don’t think it’s a corporate agenda, or conspiracy. Note too that generally the “Category” data is provided by publishers.