On Easter Sunday, weird things happened at uberbookseller Amazon.
Inexplicably, the site suddenly reclassified certain titles as containing “adult” content, meaning they lost their sales ranking and became much harder to find. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of books became, without warning, well-nigh invisible.
Even curiouser, this outbreak of Grundyism seemed to impact most on titles with gay and lesbian themes. The author Mark R. Probst contacted Amazon querying why his book The Filly (a gay cowboy romance) had lost its ranking. He received the following response:
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.
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Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.
As Probst — and then just about everyone else — apoplectically noted, great swathes of heterosexual material still turned up. But suddenly, Amazon wouldn’t list Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle or EM Forster’s Maurice or Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness (with its famous s-x scene lasting a whole seven words: “and that night, they were not divided”).
Rather than pointing you to, say, Heather Has Two Mommies or Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, an Amazon search for ‘homos-xuality’ brought up A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homos-xuality, followed by You Don’t Have to Be Gay: Hope and Freedom for Males Struggling With Homos-xuality or for Those Who Know of Someone Who Is and then, in third place, For the Bible Tells Me So.
Great news if you wanted to read Christian fundamentalists explaining how, by playing the piano and spending too much time with his mother, eight-year-old Jimmy “was […] already showing many signs of pre-homos-xual behavior”; not so great if you weren’t a complete lunatic.
The episode did, however, allow Twitter to demonstrate that, contrary to all previous evidence, microblogging does actually serve some purpose. Quickly #amazonfail became the number one tag, as users shared news about the latest title to vanish. Gore Vidal had gone. So too a biography of Ellen DeGeneres. You could no longer find The Essential Book of Gay Manners & Etiquette. And so on.
When Amazon eventually issued a statement, it blamed the kerfuffle on a software glitch. But the company’s oddly hesitant response only added to the speculation. A hacker has since claimed responsibility, on the rather deranged basis that he wanted to “cause a few hundred thousand queers some outrage” because the personal ads he placed searching for girls to take heroin with kept getting rejected (uh huh). Elsewhere, Feministing.com posted correspondence from an unidentified Amazon rep admitting that the bookseller was, in fact, trying to protect conservative buyers from ‘offensive’ titles.
Meanwhile, most, though not all, of the delisted books seem to have regained their rankings.
Even if #amazonfail turns out to be a storm in an i-Phone, it should draw attention to the huge monopolies now dominating the book business. Amazon is currently spending zillions developing its Kindle e-reader, an application intended to do for books what MP3 players did for music. Although e-books still remain fairly marginal, Amazon’s prepared to subsidise the Kindle on the basis that, when digital book publishing eventually takes off (as it surely will), ownership of the default e-application amounts to a licence to print money.
But do we want Amazon as the Microsoft of publishing? To use an old school analogy, monopoly control of the standard format for e-books equates to a single publishing house owning all the paper stocks. If nothing else, events this Easter hint at why that might not be such a great idea.