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

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