Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2009 Issue

Amazon All Atwitter - Not So Gay Times for the Bookseller

Amazontwitter

Amazon was all atwitter from negative social networking posts.


By Michael Stillman

Amazon.com found itself in the midst of a terrible imbroglio recently, one that must have covered just about every nightmarish subject for the traditional book lover. Subjects that managed to wind their way into this controversy included online selling, censorship, pornography, bestseller lists, website hacking, gay rights, the power of huge retailers to influence book sales, and the counterbalancing effect of huge social networking sites. Gutenberg would either be horrified or totally confused.

The problem began when some large number of books began disappearing from Amazon's rankings, becoming either invisible, or less visible, to Amazon customers. Exactly what the parameters were that delisted books is not clear, but there was a heavy concentration of those with gay and lesbian themes. Some observers claimed that delistings were more concentrated in books that treated homosexual themes sympathetically, while those with negative portrayals fared better, though this is not certain. What is known is that social networkers, particularly those on Twitter, became aware of the issue, believed it was targeting gays and lesbians, and began an explosive circulation of negative comments aimed at Amazon.

There must be something terribly ironic about issues regarding books being instigated on Twitter, the network which limits messages to 140 characters. Can you imagine Tolstoy or Proust trying to write for Twitter? Though brief, the noise of countless Tweets forced Amazon to circle the wagons. Properly humbled, they replied.

Actually, before they officially replied, Mark Probst, author of a couple of gay-themed books that disappeared from Amazon's rankings, wrote to the site asking if they were trying to suppress the visibility of gay books. He posted a service person's response on his blog: "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." This could explain why these books disappeared, but did little to appease those who were most upset, because most of what was removed appeared to be gay-oriented "adult" material, while straight "adult" material more readily escaped the censors.

So why was this material being removed? Amazon followed this with a serious mea culpa, but didn't really answer the question of why, or whether the move was even intentional. After first describing the problem as a "glitch," a more detailed statement from spokesman Drew Herdener explained, "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."

This really doesn't tell us anything about the how or why for this "cataloging error" other than that it was "ham-fisted" and affected books with non-gay themes as well. Was Amazon deliberately trying to deemphasize titles with heavy sexual content? Did someone at Amazon decide that gay-oriented sexual content was more objectionable than straight-oriented sexual content? Was there any truth to the claims of a hacker that he had caused the delistings by flooding the site with objectionable ratings for books containing certain keywords? We do not have answers to these questions. However, for those who are book traditionalists, and generally don't give a damn about hackers, Twitter, and all of those things that would leave Gutenberg aghast, there is one positive to be drawn from this incident - the size of the controversy, and the large number of objections flowing across the digital social networking sites, indicates that many people do still care about that oldest and most primitive form of communications, the printed book. Who would have thought it?

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts, February 14th, 2016.</b>
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 9. HIERONYMUS. C.340-420. <i>Epistolae. WITH: Lupus de Oliveto. Regula Monachorum ...</i> US$ 20,000-30,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 47. FROST, A.B. 1858-1921. Shooting Pictures. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.<br>US$ 10,000-15,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 53. PICASSO, PABLO, RAOUL HAUSMANN, et al. ILIAZD, ed. Poesie de mots inconnus. 1949. US$ 8,000-12,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 64. BRIGGS, HENRY. 1561-1630. <i>The North Part of America</i>. [London: 1625]. Engraved by R. Elstracke. US$ 8,000-12,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 79. COPERNICUS, NICOLAUS. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. 1566. US$ 80,000-120,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 80. DARWIN, CHARLES. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of ... US$ 70,000-90,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 87. NEWTON, ISAAC, SIR. Autograph Manuscript in Latin and English [n.p., early 1670s}. US$ 100,000-150,000
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 93. Dr. Kary Mullis' 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to him for the invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction. US$ 450,000-550,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 96.<br>CLEMENS, SAMUEL. Autograph Manuscript, nearly complete chapter 30 of <i>A Tramp Abroad</i>, c.1879.<br>US$ 20,000-30,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 105. GOLF. [MATHISON, THOMAS. d.1754.]<br><i>The Goff</i>. An Heroi-Comical Poem.<br>US$ 40,000-60,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 113. JOYCE, JAMES. 1882-1941. <i>Ulysses</i>. First Edition, Presentation Copy, Signed and Inscribed by Joyce on the half-title. US$ 40,000-60,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 120. LONDON, JACK. Autograph Manuscript of the short story "Flush of Gold". US$ 40,000-60,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 135. STEINBECK, JOHN. Autograph Manuscript of an unpublished short story. US$ 35,000-45,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 149. GERONIMO. BARRETT, S.M., ed. Geronimo's Story of His Life. 1906. US$ 12,000-18,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 165.<br>ENOLA GAY. LEWIS, ROBERT A. An official pilot's log, 1942 to 1946.<br>US$ 50,000-80,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b><br>Lot 14. Blaeu,<i>Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula</i>, 1635. Est. $14000-$16000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b><br>Lot 305. Arrowsmith, <i>Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of the Republic of Texas</i>, 1841. Est. $18000-$20000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b><br>Lot 256. Thackara, <i>Plan of the City<br>of Washington in the Territory of Columbia</i>, 1792. Est. $13000-$16000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 188. Browne/Senex, A New<br>Map of Virginia Mary-land, 1719. <br>Est. $5500-$6500
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 47. Cellarius, <i>Scenographia Systematis Copernicani</i>, 1708.<br>Est. $2400-$3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 6. Ortelius, <i>Typus Orbis Terrarum</i>, 1571. Est. $7000-$8500
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 413. De Medina, <i>Mundo Novo,</i> 1554. Est. $7000-$9000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 37. Jansson, <i>Histoire des Grands Chemins de l'Empire Romain</i>, 1736. Est. $3000-$3750
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 798. Le Rouge, <i>Atlas Nouveau Portatif a l'Usage des Militaires</i>, 1748. Est. $2400-$3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 60. Munster, <i>Tabula Novarum Insularum</i>, 1559. Est. $5500-$7000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 122. Morden, <i>A New Map of the English Empire in America</i>, 1695. <br>Est. $14000-$16000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 291. J.J. Stoner, Niagara-Falls, <br>N.Y., 1882. Est. $1600-$1900
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 797. Sanson, <i>Die Gantze Erd-Kugel</i> ... Europa, Asia, Africa und America, 1679. Est. $8000-$10000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 799. Lotter/Lobeck, Atlas Geographicus Portatilis, 1760.<br>Est. $1600-$1900
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 808. Railroad Companies, [<i>Manuscript Railroad Atlas</i>], 1890.<br>Est. $1000-$1500
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 800. Pinkerton, <i>A Modern Atlas</i>, 1815. Est. $8000-$10000
  • <b>19th Century Shop.</b> LINCOLN, ABRAHAM. <i>A superb collection of manuscripts signed by Lincoln and relics related to Lincoln’s death</i>. Washington, 1864-1865
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> Rare Relic of the Underground Railroad (1857). <i>$500 Reward Ran away ...</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> CARTER, SUSANNAH. <i>The Frugal Housewife,</i> (1772) the second American cookbook, plates by Paul Revere.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> SCHIRRA, WALTER M.. Icon of the American Space Program. <i>A Complete Set of Schirra’s Flight Log Books (1947-69).</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> A fine pair of daguerreotypes, one a black nurse holding a white baby, the other the white parents. Maryland, c. 1853.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> The Internet. (COMPUTERS.) CERF, VINTON & KAHN, ROBERT. <i>"A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication" in IEEE Transactions on Communications.</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:<br>Art & Storytelling: Photographs<br>& Photobooks</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Marcus A. Root, "<i>General Tom Thumb</i>" with parents, daguerreotype, circa 1846. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> William Saunders, <i>Sketches of Chinese Life and Character</i>, album with 50 hand-colored photographs, 1871-72. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Wilson A. Bentley, album of 25 microphotographs from glass<br>plate negatives, 1888-1927.<br>$20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:<br>Art & Storytelling: Photographs<br>& Photobooks</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Hilla & Bernhard Becher, <i>Anonyme Skulpturen, Eine Typologie technischer Bauten</i>, first edition inscribed, Düsseldorf, 1970. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Edward Ruscha, four seminal artist's books in original dust jackets.<br>$1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Typological set of more than 100 photographs of WWII fighter planes, 1942-45. $400 to $600.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b><br>Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, <i>The Sweet Flypaper of Life</i>, first edition signed by authors, New York, 1955. $500 to $750.

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