04.13.09

Is Amazon Really Anti-Gay?

Whether it was a “glitch” that de-listed gay-themed books from the rankings or the work of a hacker, Sara Nelson thinks Amazon has every right to decide what it wants to sell and how.

Call me crazy, or at least politically incorrect, but I think all this flap over Amazon’s removal of certain gay-themed titles from contention for its bestseller lists is more than a little overblown, not to mention naïve.

For those who abandoned BookLand over the holiday weekend, allow me to recap. On Saturday, a publisher named Mark Probst posted an item on his blog about how Amazon.com had stopped supplying sales rankings for a novel he’d published called The Filly. That the Internet retailer might have messed up is hardly news—Amazon regularly has glitches: A few years ago, Amazon Canada inadvertently revealed the names and email addresses of its anonymous reviewers; at regular old American Amazon.com, the site often loses track of editorial reviews it has licensed, and they don’t make it onto the site.

Still, something was funny about the de-listing of The Filly, a novel with gay themes: It came two days after the sales ranking disappeared from two more high-profile gay-romance books: Transgressions and False Colors. By Sunday, according to Probst, hundreds of similar books had lost their rankings. So Probst braved the Kremlin that is Amazon and eventually got a response from one Ashlyn D, a Member Services representative (publishers are considered “members” and get different customer service than consumers): “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and bestseller lists,” Probst claims she wrote. “Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.”

Moving certain books out of contention for bestseller lists doesn’t seem a whole lot different from moving them out of the display window or even, leaving them in cartons in the stockroom.

Well, the blogosphere went wild. Users tagged #amazonfail began Twittering, reporters began reporting, and early Sunday evening, Amazon reversed itself.This de-ranking was simply a glitch in the sales-ranking feature, another Amazon spokesperson person told several journalists; there is no new adult policy. Unsurprisingly, the blogger mob wasn’t buying it: “Glitch, my ass,” was one of the kinder remarks.

Clearly, this was no glitch—as Carolyn Kellogg on the L.A. Times blog Jacket Copy, among many others, noted. Since when does a glitch only affect one kind of book? (A more likely conspiracy theory claims the de-ranking was the work of a hacker.) And if I were Ashlyn D, I’d be waking up this morning worrying whether I still had a job. But the outrage, on Twitter, on blogs like Jacket Copy and Publishersweekly.com, seems disingenuous: as though people are actually shocked that something funny might have gone on.

Amazon, after all, is the retailer many in BookLand love to hate. While it only represents about 10 percent of the business (Barnes & Noble controls more than 35 percent), Amazon has consumer “mind share,” economies of scale, and some nerve: The online retailer provides enormous discounts to consumers, argues publisher discounts in its own favor, and now, with the Kindle, seems to have a stranglehold on the dissemination of e-books, as well. And there’s something about Amazon that isn’t exactly “nice.” For one thing, executives seem to work on the Beg Forgiveness, Don’t Ask Permission business model; when it launched the Kindle2 earlier this year, executives must have known there’d be an outcry among agents and publishers about “audio rights.” But they launched it anyway—and the minute BookLand squawked, Amazon reneged and offered an audio opt-out clause.

But Amazon’s biggest crime, at least for some consumers, is that it is helping to put the sentimental favorite—the independent bookseller—out of the race. (I can’t help seeing something biblical about Amazon’s rise; just a decade ago, it was Barnes & Noble that was the Evil Empire, crowding out the beloved indies; today it’s Amazon, which doth smite B&N as B&N once smote the little guy.) That book lovers seized on this recent de-listing scandal as a vehicle through which to vent their frustration and rage at big bad Amazon makes perfect sense; to have a politically correct hook on which to hang one’s argument makes whatever revenge one might wreak all the sweeter.

Now, I’m hardly in favor of censorship, and I do appreciate the irony that, for example, a serious book like Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal got de-listed, while Bret Easton Ellis’s sexually violent novel  American Psycho did not. (Maybe this is what happens when you use a complicated algorithm, instead of basic humans, to search for so-called offensive words and themes.) And there’s no question that Amazon behaved ridiculously. But I suggest that the retailer’s biggest mistake was, as is usually the case in politically sensitive matters, in the flip-flopping.They’re a retailer, after all, and while many in BookLand would think it pretty to be otherwise, a retailer is under no obligation to sell every book that is published, or to arrange its bestseller lists in categories to suit the industry, or, for that matter, to give equal air time to every book. In fact, just as publishers are allowed to— supposed to—exert judgment over what they publish, so too are booksellers. One group edits what gets printed, the other edits what gets sold.

Yes, taking gay books—or any books—off the rankings list seriously limits how many will sell, but isn’t it up to the bookseller to decide what the market wants, what it will sell and how it will sell it? Moving certain books out of contention for bestseller lists doesn’t seem a whole lot different from moving them out of the display window or even, leaving them in cartons in the stockroom—all of which are legitimate sales techniques, assuming a bookseller hasn’t taken co-op dollars from a publisher and promised certain placement. After all, that’s just what B&N and some other stores said they’d do with O.J. Simpson’s “confession” a few years back; they agreed to make the book available to customers, but they wouldn’t shove it down their throats. Why is that OK—and why was it OK, even right, for some booksellers to balk at my suggestion, years ago, that they not stock Ann Coulter’s liberal-bashing books? Because booksellers are in a business, not a public-works project, and like all businesses, bookselling succeeds or fails on how well it gives the customers what they want.

Before Saturday, did the majority of bookbuying customers care whether gay-themed books were part of the general-book mix on Amazon.com? My guess is no—and that most Amazon shoppers had never even noticed if they were. But they know now, and, more important, they have now heard of books like The Filly and Transgressions and False Colors, books they might never have noticed on the rankings list. I don’t doubt that Mark Probst’s original post was full of genuine concern and outrage—but today he’s got something better: free publicity. Luckily, we can study the Amazon rankings to see just how well that publicity will pay off.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Sara Nelson is the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly and the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.