Quickly: The Amazon Thing

I wrote about AmazonFail 2009 over at Broadsheet this morning, so if you’ve been dying to discuss it here, check that out and come back.

One thing I didn’t get to in that post (which got out-of-hand long very quickly) was this post at After Ellen, in which Sarah Warn reminds us that the problem at the bottom of all this — gayness being strictly associated with sex — is hardly anything new. 


With so many media images working together to over-emphasize the sexual aspect of homosexuality and bisexuality, should we be surprised someone at Amazon.com apparently put gay and lesbian books like Heather Has Two Mommies and John Barrowman’s biography Anything Goes in the “adult” (i.e. explicit sexuality) category?

Amazon.com is calling this a “glitch with our sales rank feature that is currently being fixed.” Even if that turns out to be true, this kind of glitch is inevitable in a culture which relentlessly oversexualizes gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

Amazon isn’t alone in making this correlation. Internet filters at schools and libraries, ISPs, even whole countries routinely block gay and lesbian sites, even when they contain no “adult” content. YouTube requires users to be over 18 to view a video of an innocuous same-sex kiss, but not an opposite-sex one.

Go read the whole post. In the meantime, I’ve changed the sidebar link to our book so it goes to Powell’s — but, for reasons explained in the Broadsheet post, I’m really hoping not to have to write off Amazon for good. Beyond my (selfish, lazy) desire to keep buying from them, as an author, I would like to be able to recommend them in at least sorta-kinda good conscience, since they are a major fucking bookseller everyone knows. So, you know, APOLOGIZE ALREADY, GUYS. APOLOGIZE A LOT. SOON.

48 thoughts on “Quickly: The Amazon Thing”

  1. I do Alternate Lifestyles programming at a SF/F con in the Pacific NW.

    Up until last year, any panel that mentioned “Gay,” “LGBT” or “Queer” in the title was automatically rated 18+ for attendance. Last year I fought tooth and nail to get them to quit doing that.

    This year our new programming head was made of pure awesome and we got LGBT panels at reasonable hours without age limits, without my having to fight for it. It’s so nice.

    But, yeah, I really wish people would quit pearl-clutching about anything labeled queer.

  2. The fact that they are horribly inadequate with their “apology” (what apology?) just makes me angrier. IDK, when I experience a “glitch” in my life that excludes huge sums of people/causes major problems, I am falling all over myself to apologize. Perhaps that is my weakness as a human being? Ugh.

  3. On a mostly off-topic sidenote, have you seen this thread, which has a rundown of non-Amazon books available for Kindle, many of which are free? That’s at least a stop gap solution to the kindle issue (I’m completely dependent on mine now). :-)

  4. I find it highly amusing the people most likely to shout at me to stop ‘causing trouble’ (direct quote) and sit down and STFU about it ’cause it’s just a glitch (a homophobic glitch! That can TOTALLY happen!) are white, hetero males.

    I find their trust in corporations amusing. And sad.

  5. A friend of mine who used to work at Amazon wrote this on LJ and gave me permission to reprint:

    Okay, I have only just heard about this, but I used to work at Amazon and it is inconceivable to me that this would have been internally motivated or organized by the company. Also, Amazon is a HUGE company and it takes a lot of effort by a lot of people to get something done sitewide; that’s the result of a site architecture that was built on the back of explosive growth, meaning things do not work as efficiently as they could. If targeted trolling/griefing was done by thousands of non-employees, it would take the coordination of many many different employees (who have to go through certain protocol to change things on the site and possibly will have to change item info on each item by hand) to get corrected content on the site.

    My knowledge of how things work there is a few years out of date, obviously, but I just can’t see this happening as a deliberate move by Amazon. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be angry; for me it means that I want to know more before I decide at whom to focus my anger.

    But just to give perspective, when I was there, for some types of content (say, a “product description” paragraph), in order to get it online you would have to do a “build” process that could take up to an hour. Before you could start that, though, you would have to get content signoff by key people from several different teams: Books, Media, Electronics, Camera, Tools, Baby, etc. To get signoff, obviously all of those people would need to be out of meetings and available to check the current state of their content and make sure it was right–which might not be the case if someone on their team was in the middle of editing content, which would mean that if you started the build, unfinished or incorrect content would be pushed to the site. So the absolute soonest you could expect to make certain types of corrections would be 2-3 hours. And that’s not counting the work to actually MAKE the corrections to however many items. Even in emergencies, you had to get signoff because if you just pushed your content, you might be loading content from other people that is not ready to go live yet.

    Like I said, I’m sure the system has changed since I was there, but I am NOT certain it’s changed to be more efficient. The sucky thing about having such a big company is that the people who write code for things like content builds may not have much of an idea of what editors would actually want; similarly, customer service people may not be trained to know anything about the actual items that are sold (like, say, why it would be inappropriate to call LGBTQ items “adult”–imagine that you are a customer service rep and someone calls to ask why book X has been removed from the list; you look and see that it’s marked as “adult,” and you say so. You don’t know who marked it as such or why).

  6. Deborah, ha. I saw that claim a while ago (after the BS post posted, though), but I smelled bullshit, so I didn’t bother linking to it. Which is not to say the basic premise is wrong — I’m definitely leaning toward hack for the lulz, rather than thinking this is Amazon policy (and was even before reading what I just copied above), but that dude’s post does not have the ring of authenticity.

  7. I have to concur with one of the BS commenters about the seeming conspiracy in search terms that return mostly anti-gay books – it actually makes total sense that “homosexuality” searches come up with scads of “anti” books. I come from a very conservative family and background and have certain family members I am very close to who are activists against the “homosexual agenda” and so on. I only ever hear the word “homosexual” from people in my family and certain churches/etc. talking about how bad it is (except maybe for news articles using it in a more medical sense). Other people say “gay.”

    But then I love, love, love Amazon and it’s completely integrated into my life, so I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  8. It’s right to be outraged and suspicious that it was a “glitch” but I don’t think this is Amazon’s fault?

    On Gawker.com today, there’s a convincing post that the glitch was due to a hacker attack on the “appropriateness” ratings. The ability to rank items as inappropriate by users was taken down this weekend, so apparently Amazon is investigating. If an item is ranked obscene by users, then it is taken off the ratings. I believe haters hacked their user rating system and flooded titles of gays and feminists with bad ratings and took them off the rankings.

    The oddness of the incident happening over Easter holidays is another factor that points to religious terrorists who hate gays and feminists, because only their content was attacked.

    I believe Amazon.com spokespeople who say it was not intended.

  9. I think that Yes Means Yes is no longer ranked as well. Ditto books on sexuality for the disabled, Full Frontal Feminism and, oddly, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, by Michel Foucault, which is a huuuuuuuuuuuuge text in the humanities and social sciences.

  10. @deborah…christ. all that stuff is WAY over my head aka makes me scared that any of my info is on the internet.

  11. Thank jeebus I bought Yes Means Yes a few weeks ago before this bullshit censorship erupted :)

  12. It’s also interesting that, while it seems like a lot of GLBT fiction for adults is not coming up, gay-positive young adult fiction is still listed. That alone would incline me to think that this is indeed a hack or a non-intentional error, since if you wanted to censor GLBT books, you’d probably start with the ones aimed at young people.

  13. Lori, I think the whole shitstorm actually started with a gay-themed YA novel. The best theory I’ve found for there being any rhyme or reason behind who got screwed is here. Short version: all the deranked books had “‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transgender’, ‘erotic’ or ‘sex’ metadata categories.” The far pornier stuff that didn’t get deranked fell into different categories, and presumably, so did the novels you’re talking about.

  14. It’s not a glitch, a lot of authors were told that their items were being deranked and categorized as “adult” back in February. Only now that people are paying attention does it count as a glitch.

    Among the items being deranked were also books related to disability and sexuality, so it wasn’t only the LGBTQ community being affected.

    This isn’t the first time Amazon has let down disabled customers, they really dropped the ball with allowing ebook publishers to disable the text-to-speech function on the Kindle if they want to preserve their audiobook sales.

    (I also found a blogger I like while I was watching live updates of #amazonfail. This new technology is way cool.)

    I spent a little time searching for titles I remembered, and a few of them only popped up when I appended “erotica” to the end. My wish lists have been wiped clean for some reason. The contents were mostly women’s studies, erotica, and paganism books, but I’d also had a huge collection of hard to find knitting books on there. It’s going to take me weeks to straighten that out.

  15. Well, and what bothers me most is that Amazon is trying to censor my search results without giving me an option to un-censor them, the way that Google does.

    And since Amazon was sending out emails saying that de-ranking adult books was their new policy, I don’t think it’s entirely just a glitch. (That the deranking was to keep ‘adult content’ out of searches confirms my first sentence.) Perhaps it’s bad programming rather than malicious intent, but since they’re one of the biggest tech companies right now, don’t they have, you know, software testing people?

  16. I feel like part of it had to be a glitch because i have a hard time believing that they meant to delist things like Brokeback Mountain; that would be insane in a way I don’t think Amazon is insane. I guess I’ll reserve judgement until I find out what they were trying to do – I don’t like removing “adult” material from search results but I think I’d be willing to overlook it in a way I wouldn’t overlook a blanket removal of gay and lesbian “adult” material only.

  17. Statement is out that it was “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error,” for whatever that’s worth. I’ve got a new post on Broadsheet appearing soon.

  18. Hmm, I hadn’t heard about this yet (living under a rock, obviously), thanks for posting about it. I’va actually boycotted Amazon for several years now, although I can’t for the life of me remember why I started in the first place. (I blame it on pregnancy brain.) So I can’t say that I would be surprised if it was intentional.

  19. I’m generally dubious of big internet panics over things like this. The corporate world does not move on Internet time. Amazon is a big company with offices all over the world. It was going to take time for them to figure out what happened and how to fix it and they aren’t going to say too much in public until they’re certain of what to say. People screaming for blood and boycotts and demanding why Amazon hasn’t replied fast enough for them are, IMNSHO, overreacting.

    I’m not going to get my knickers in a twist until I know exactly what is going on. If they are reclassifying all content with GLBT tags in the metadata as adult as a matter of policy? Then yes, I will be offended. But the stripping of search results for certain metadata tagged content in the last few days seems, by current reports, to have been a genuine error, and one that occurred in the middle of a huge holiday weekend (meaning 2 major religions) when I’m sure Amazon wasn’t exactly crowded with staffers.

    It’s easy to jump on bandwagons and join in hysteria, especially when a massive corporation is in the role of the bad guy. But that doesn’t mean they are (always) the evildoers.


  20. You know, DRST, I never really cared who the “evildoers” were, if there were any. What I cared about was that this went on all weekend and all day today, and there was no apology — even when they finally issued a statement this afternoon. I didn’t need an explanation of what happened right away — what I wanted was an acknowledgment that the company actually values the GLBT, feminist, and disabled authors, publishers, consumers, and their allies who were affected by it. All they had to say was, “We’re really sorry this is happening, we DO want your books and your business.” That could have come straight from Jeff Bezos last night.

    As an author — even though I wasn’t really affected (YMY was deranked, but I don’t get royalties from it) — and a former small press editor, I do, in fact find this completely outrageous. That you could search for a title on Amazon and not have that book come up, even though they carry it, is totally scary. Those of us writing (and publishing) for niche markets really depend on Amazon, because B&N and Borders are the only games in most actual towns, and they’re probably not carrying our books. (Powell’s is wonderful, as are indies that allow online ordering, but Amazon is still where most people go to buy books online.) People’s livelihoods are at stake here. And while I don’t expect a huge company like Amazon to fix a problem of this scale immediately, I do expect someone high up to get a statement out about it beyond, “It’s a glitch, more later.”

  21. Why support Amazon in the first place? Charis, an independent feminist bookstore in Atlanta, has an internet site where you can order any book you want. It’s easy to use and you will be supporting an organization that uses its money for programs that build inclusive community. http://www.charisbooksandmore.com

  22. This kinda makes me want to go to Barnes and Noble (or another major competitor) and stock up on gay, feminist and pagan books just out of spite.

    If only I hadn’t vowed to myself not to buy anymore books until I’ve read at least most of the unread ones I have.

  23. I guess I should clarify; I know you stated your reasons, but why not recommend people another website to go to, especially when it carries the same books, is better for our society and is just as easy to use? Changing the site you use when it works just as well is something so simple even the laziest person can do it.

  24. KC, that looks awesome, but do they deliver to Canada? I’ve had trouble finding any non-Amazon sites that will take Canadian orders.

  25. Just to answer everyone questioning why we would want to support amazon after all this/why we want an apology/why we care: I like amazon! I’ve always liked amazon. They have books for good prices and I read a lot, both as a student and as a person who reads a lot. I also have an amazon kindle, which has been really, really great for me for a lot of reasons. I’m not really pleased with the way this whole thing has been handled, but I’m willing to give it some more time to see what’s actually going on before I ascribe malevolence to (what I really hope is) carelessness and stupidity.

    Amazon is useful. There’s no real way to deny that. It provides a lot of people with the very books this glitch/experiment/error affects, including me! I purchase feminist/gender theory books from amazon often, and I hope they don’t push loyal customers away from purchasing products they are willing and eager to buy from them. That’s why I’m not running to higher priced independent chains just yet; I, quite frankly, like the services amazon provides (good prices, kindle books, etc.) and I hope they continue to offer them without alienating their customers.

  26. Ha, I just noticed “independent chains” makes no sense at all. I meant independent booksellers, but I’m sure you all know what I mean, yeah?

  27. I think the key to this is the APOLOGY part. Whether or not you like or approve of Amazon, I think everyone would benefit from a sincere, thorough apology.

    Certainly, it would help clear Amazon’s name and help them reclaim their incredibly powerful position.

    More importantly, though, a well crafted apology would help answer the question, “What exactly are they sorry FOR?” If Amazon apologized for simply rearranging the rankings, I don’t think it would appease many of the (rightfully) perturbed consumers (and authors).

    However, if Amazon were to acknowledge the homophobic/stereotyping sources of its “glitch” it would go a long way toward restoring good faith. It would be a step forward for everyone.

  28. That’s why I’m not running to higher priced independent chains just yet; I, quite frankly, like the services amazon provides (good prices, kindle books, etc.) and I hope they continue to offer them without alienating their customers.

    I agree. You know, I’ve had this discussion with people when they tell me why I should be buying all of my yarn and knitting supplies at local yarn stores, rather than going through certain large websites. The thing is, my experience in both independent bookstores and local yarn stores has never been great: often prices are marked up significantly, which I’d be willing to accept if I were getting a level of customer service I can’t get from a large impersonal corporation, but in my experience that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve found that many times I end up not being able to find what I want, dealing with unhelpful if not downright rude and snotty employees who act like I’m an imposition on their time, and then having problems getting things straightened out if there’s a problem with the order/purchase. I think there’s this idea that people shop at these large online sellers because they are lazy, but honestly I think it’s more because of customer service. I’ve just personally found that customer service in a lot of independent bookstores is extremely poor, even just at the basic level of employees treating customers with courtesy, and I’m not going to pay a mark-up on my books in order to deal with that.

    As to the Amazon “glitch,” it reminds me of the saying, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I tend to find that useful to remember in many situations. ;) Given that several months ago Google blocked nearly every website I might visit from my computer because they were marked as being potentially dangerous, for about an hour or so, I don’t find it too hard to imagine that these sorts of programming/cataloging errors occur. It wasn’t intentional, and it’s been fixed, and I just don’t think there’s any reason to assume bad intent.

    Corporations are not our friends, no matter how friendly they might seem: it’s an important thing to remember, and if this reminds people of it, that’s good. But, they’re also not all engaged in some sort of right-wing ideological war against progressives of all stripes, and I think that needs to be remembered, too. I think there are ethical reasons to not shop from Amazon, but I don’t think this particular incident is one of them; it’s just an error.

  29. I used to buy from Amazon A LOT. Not anymore. Whether it was a glitch or not, they fact is they have yet to issue an apology, have yet to make ANY amends to the consumers, and they will NOT be getting any more of my hard-earned money.

  30. I’m just so frustrated that the majority of people that I know are not even aware that this is going on, because it wasn’t on the news yesterday.

  31. Kate – My independent film is for sale via Amazon, as is the edited collection I have an essay in. You can be damn sure I went and looked for them both to find out if they were affected by the glitch. I understand what’s at stake, and yes, an apology would be nice, but again, people were freaking out that Amazon hadn’t put out a complete statement first thing Monday morning, before they could even be sure what the hell had happened. Also it wasn’t done on purpose. Of course they should apologize to everyone, sellers and consumers alike, but I’m just put off by the mob mentality that was going on. Everyone is screaming “evil conspiracy” without acknowledging the possibility it was a genuine mistake (which, it seems, it was. Amazon wasn’t fucking with anyone’s livelihoods on purpose).


  32. The thing is, DRST, individuals were complaining, gently, politely, to Amazon as early as February.

    And yet, nothing was investigated or fixed until there was a mob screaming on the internet.

    Personally, I’m guessing it’s a combination of bad QA and bad customer service (which explains the number of “it is our policy to delist adult books” responses to people inquiring about books that have no explicit sexual content) – I’ve worked in several big companies that experienced “programming errors” and the programming doesn’t get fixed or not fixed based on how difficult it is – it gets fixed if the company thinks it’s important. If not, not.

    It doesn’t have to be an evil conspiracy to have a bad effect – neglecting to fix errors that aren’t perceived as important can have the exact same effect.

  33. DRST, I’m with Kate here in that I don’t care what happened or why, I care that Amazon don’t care enough about LGBTQI and disabled authors or customers (or people!) to have immediately issued an apology that for however many hours we were removed from their search rankings as if we didn’t (shouldn’t) exist. It doesn’t matter if it was by mistake rather than design; either they give a shit that they’ve offended traditionally discriminated-against groups of people or they don’t, and clearly they don’t. And I’ve read in quite a few places now (including The Guardian) about LGBTQI authors having their search rankings removed starting a few months ago due to being classed as “adult” (regardless of explicit content), so I’m currently not buying the “one guy in France” explanation either.

    Henceforth I will be moving my online book-buying to Borders. Who, in delightful contrast, had an instore display coming up to Valentine’s Day called “All Kinds of Love” that featured (among Pride and Prejudice, rom-coms, etc) the Sugar Rush boxsets. That made me happier than I can tell you. Borders = win. Amazon = no thank you. If they don’t care whether they have my custom, fine, they don’t.

  34. Also, from Kate’s Broadsheet piece:

    Not to mention LGBT allies and anyone else who feels oogy about buying products from a company that’s OK with letting “You don’t have to be gay!” manuals show up as the top results for a search on “homosexuality” –

    I just went and checked Amazon.co.uk and they still fucking are! On Wednesday morning! Whatever, Amazon.

  35. Caitlin, I thought the comment Kate posted from her Amazon employee friend was very interesting as far as how long it takes to turn a ship that big around. I agree that the lack of apology is a problem. The slowness in fixing it might just be built into the system.

  36. I hear that, FJ, and I was reading elsewhere that it’s probable that say 5,000 books with the “adult” tag were meant to be filtered, and whatever happened added the other 52,000 books with that tag to the filter list. So they can’t unfilter the 52,000 automatically without also unfiltering the 5,000 they still don’t want coming up. I can understand that if that’s the case. I just continue to have huge, huge problems with what apparently gets a book an “adult”/filtered tag in the first place (based on the emails LGBT authors were getting in February saying their books had been delinked as “adult”, there is a policy of discrimination, even if Amazon aren’t acknowledging it now). Apparently the gays are inherently unsuitable for minors. WATCH OUT, I MAY EAT A CHILD AT ANY MOMENT.

    Also, having done some more research, apparently Borders donate a lot to the Republican Party. GOD WHY? I’m going to fashion my own books from glue and coloured paper, that’s what I’m going to do.

  37. I have a question for those who plan to avoid Amazon, at least for a while. I think either Borders or Barnes and Noble are associated with Amazon.com, but I can’t tell which of the two is. I think Borders used to be through Amazon but parted ways a few years ago, but I’m not sure. The problem is, if you go to either site, it’s not exactly advertising Amazon ties if they are there (gee, I wonder why…). So, anyone know for certain whick of the two is the safe one? (I can buy books from many sources, but when it comes to DVDs, I use Amazon)

  38. abebooks.com is owned by Amazon, cowsharky, which might be what you’re thinking of? I know I was surprised about that,

  39. …since it seems to sell itself as a more “independent” option, was the end of that.

    Powell’s are an independent gone nationwide, I believe.

  40. For non-amazon options, try Powells or Indiebound, which is a fantastic organization and website, which allows you to search local, independent bookstores online, or gives you links to websites of brick-and-mortar stores in your area that are not corporately owned. Your local bookstore also probably has a website where you can buy books through them or through the publisher, many local bookstores that dont’ do online orders will do special orders from the local distributer.

    @Lori, I dunno, it depends. The YA books getting deranked are pretty arbitrary, and though gay-themed YA does still come up many popular books have been de-listed. Notably Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez.

    @people who think that this was a hack or someone doing it “for the lulz”, there have been reports circulating on author/publishing industry/librarian blogs that authors were getting notifications re: being classified as “adult” as far back as February, and were told that they do not have any recourse to get their book un-listed.

    About Kate’s friends statement” good people can work for companies that do bad things sometimes. And this is the sort of decision that would have come down more-or-less from the top. I’m not inclined towards conspiracy thinking, but based on my understanding of the impact of amazons policies it would not surprise me in the least to learn that this was deliberate and intentional. When people hack amazon they make all the electronics $1, etc. They don’t suddenly hide all the books that have obvious, labled, gay content.

    And recommending amazon because of its ubiquity is part of why it has become the behemoth that it is today. Amazon is a huge corporation because people hear about it and do not consider investigating alternatives. Back in the bad old days the government would consider busting up monopolies like amazon that are “fully integrated” (and an earlier poster put it) into “every aspect” of peoples lives.

    I’m sorry if this comes off as too vitriolic. I have spent years trying to discourage people from using amazon, and this is the first time they’ve done something to really gain the attention of a wide swath of (potentially receptive) people. My entire family (more or less) is involved with independent books in some way and the actions that amazon has taken in the last ten years seem to have affected pretty much every level of the industry.

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