For those of you who spent Easter Sunday with your families instead of the Internet (and what is wrong with you?), the scandal began to break when writer Mark Probst posted that he found that his book The Filly, a teen gay romance, had been stripped of its sales rank by Amazon. This de-ranking can have serious effects for a book and its author — some de-ranked books don't even show up in searches. An Amazon customer service rep explained that "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." Users then began to hunt for books that Amazon considered "adult," and came up with some pretty weird results, including Heather Has Two Mommies, Ellen DeGeneres: A Biography, and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. Now, according to Publisher's Weekly, Amazon claims the de-ranking does not represent new policy and is in fact a mistake they're working to fix. Oopsie!
Not buying this explanation is, oh, the whole Internet. Salon's Broadsheet asks why Probst got the "adult material" explanation if this was just a mistake, and why another author, Craig Seymour, noticed that his book was de-ranked back in February. Dear Author notices that all the de-ranked books have certain category tags in common (like "gay," "lesbian," or "sex"), and wonders if either a hacker or a clumsily-implemented Amazon filter simply stripped rank based on the tags. Livejournal blogger tehdely speculates that a group of vigilante users may have gotten a number of books tagged as adult simply by repeatedly complaining about them, in a grassroots effort he dubs "Bantown." This is certainly possible — we wouldn't put it past an Amazon customer service rep to glance at a book's category and dash off an email calling it "adult," without checking how it got that way.
In fact, someone calling himself "brutal honesty" is now claiming that he used a relatively simple hack, and a team of helpers, to mass-report gay and lesbian books as "inappropriate," all because he was mad that Craigslist wouldn't let him advertise for "chicks to do heroin with." Once the books in question received enough complaints, Amazon would de-rank them. His tactics sound plausible, but his anonymous claim could well be a hoax (and at least one livejournal user says it is). And of course, Amazon would still have to cooperate by stripping sales rankings from "inappropriate" books, so even a brutal-honesty hack wouldn't leave them blameless.
So is Amazon really fixing the problem? Sort of. Take that notorious "adult" title Heather Has Two Mommies. Last night, when I typed the search term "two mommies" (at 11:14 PM Central Time, according to my chat history), I got (and here I quote myself) "random stuff, including a different book about lesbian moms." Searching for "heather has two mommies" got me some out-of-print and/or unavailable versions of the book — it looked like Amazon just didn't carry it. This morning, Heather is back, along with its sales rank. Still unranked, as of 10:10 AM Central Time, are Ellen Degeneres: A Biography, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Full Frontal Feminism, and Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl.
Many of these books, it's worth noting, still don't show up in a front-page search (a front-page search for Ellen's book at 10:16 AM, for instance, yielded this as its first hit, as opposed to the standard edition of the book) — for the less-committed Amazon customer, it's like they don't exist. Whether or not Amazon intended to keep us from buying evil gay propaganda, the debacle does reveal something disturbing about our reliance on online bookstores. At least in books-and-mortar stores you have to actually burn the books to keep them away from people — on Amazon, you can just make them invisible.
On the flipside, though, the interwebs give defenders of literature and gay rights new tools, like, say, Amazon user tags. Firedoglake's La Figa reports that Amazon visitors are fighting back, adding user-generated tags like "bdsm" and "big homo propaganda" to "non-adult" books like A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. And when I visited the page for Ellen Degeneres: A Biography at 10:26 AM, it had just one user-generated tag: "amazonfail."
Amazon Says Glitch to Blame for "New" Adult Policy [Publisher's Weekly]
Amazon Follies [Mark R. Probst]
Why did gay books disappear from Amazon? [Broadsheet]
On Amazon Failure, Meta-Trolls, and Bantown [tehdely]
This Is Not A Glitch, #amazonfail [Lilith Saintcrow]
Amazon Using Category MetaData to Filter Rankings [Dear Author]
Cheney and Lesbians!?: Tag Teaming Amazon in Response to Sales Ranking Censorship [La Figa]