Amazon, where being gay makes you invisible

What's being called a "glitch" on Amazon.com has exclusively affected books dealing with gay and lesbian themes.

On one side, Amazon's Kindle 2 is the central element in the civil rights conflict between authors and those with reading disabilities. On the other side, Amazon.com is now accused of de-ranking and re-classifying content as "adult literature" simply because it contains homosexual themes or characters. Specifically, the complaint is that listings for some books with homosexual content are not displaying comparative sales rankings.

Amazon's Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith issued a statement yesterday that said, "There was a glitch in our systems and it's being fixed. We're working to correct the problem as quickly as possible."

Calling it a "glitch" caused immediate fallout, as bloggers discovered that titles that were removed from sales rankings did not include actual adult literature, and instead affected books with central themes of coming to terms with one's sexuality like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and Paul Monette's Becoming a Man. Even titles such as Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which is a satire of gender roles in Victorian literature, and the biography of comedienne and talk show host Ellen Degeneres were included.

In Betanews tests this afternoon, we checked a handful of books with very mature themes, including the classic Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. Its listing contained a sales ranking. We also checked some titles which clearly passed the Justice Potter Stewart test for pornography (no, we won't provide links). Those too contained sales rankings. (Next time our spouses come near our computers, we'll have an excuse..."It's a Betanews test, dear.")

But several very legitimate, non-pornographic works of fiction with gay and lesbian themes had omitted their sales rankings. And searches of author names typed into the Search field also failed to turn up listings for non-pornographic lesbian-themed material, even though that material actually does exist in the catalog. However, when that material is located in the catalog by other means, clicking on the author's name does turn up a list of all available works from that author.

The specificity of this "glitch" has caused many to suspect it was an act of homophobic censorship.

Of course, this suspicion is not helped by the the fact that the first titles returned by a query of "homosexuality" on Amazon include A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality, and 101 Frequently Asked Questions about Homosexuality, in which a "former homosexual" uses biblical scripture to answer those questions.

While no unified action against Amazon has taken place yet, individual protests to the glitch have been wide and diverse. A petition objecting to Amazon's treatment of the situation has gained more than 13,600 signatures, with a goal of 100,000, and a number of Twitter groups such as #amazonfail, and #glitchmyass have popped up.

The nation's largest independent book retailer Powells.com reacted to the news yesterday via Twitter, saying, "That certainly is disturbing. Fortunately, Powell's will never censor this material." Similarly, leading booksellers BN.com and Borders.com have not de-ranked the titles that were affected in the Amazon glitch.

Author Craig Seymour says he has been dealing with this issue since February, when his Amazon Sales Rank disappeared, so that when a user would search for his book by name, nothing would come up. He then received a notification that said, "The sales rank was not displayed for the following reasons: The ISBN #1416542051 was classified as an Adult product." Seymour says that his book was effectively "coded out of circulation."


Update banner (stretched)

7:45 pm EDT April 13, 2008 - In a statement to the Seattle P-I this afternoon, Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener acknowledged the cataloging error once again, but added that it was inaccurate to characterize the problem as being limited to gay and lesbian titles. "In fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica," Herdener wrote.

We happened to test a few book titles in some of those other categories (again, with apologies to our respective spouses), and did not notice search rankings being omitted from the non-pornographic, heterosexually themed titles we chose.

[Scott M. Fulton, III contributed some testing to this article.]

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