It was still morning the first time someone said to me, 'did you hear about Amazon?', and I wasn't quite up to dealing with complete sentences yet. The rest of yesterday was spent watching #amazonfail spread across Twitter like a highly contagious rash.
It was authors who noticed it first. Mark Probst is the author of The Filly, a young adult novel featuring a gay teenage romance. His blog was the starting point of what has become, for Amazon, a Perfect Shitstorm:
On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: "Transgressions" by Erastes and "False Colors" by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book "The Filly."
Losing the sales ranking is important – books with higher sales rankings are more visible on the site and easier to find. Books were also not turning up in searches. Best sellers suddenly disappeared from the Best Sellers list. Why? Probst wrote to Amazon and asked.
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.
Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.
Fair enough, perhaps. But The Filly isn’t adult material. Even more strangely, there was still plenty of adult material on Amazon with its rankings intact. Ron Jeremy's The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz retained its ranking. Stephen Fry's Moab is My Washpot did not. Of these two titles:
How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale – Jenna Jameson
and Anything Goes – John Barrowman
one lost its ranking and the other one didn't. Care to guess? Children's books were affected, as well as literary classics, but there was one thing almost all of them had in common.
So 'adult' doesn’t appear to be sufficient explanation. Last night, Amazon's story changed.
Amazon Director of Corporate Communications Patty Smith e-mailed Jacket Copy. "There was a glitch with our sales rank feature that is in the process of being fixed," she wrote. "We're working to correct the problem as quickly as possible."
That's a relief. It's just a glitch. A sexuality-sensitive glitch. They probably hadn't realised there was a glitch when they emailed Mark Probst. Or when they emailed author Craig Seymour over a similar issue. In February.
Here's my story: I'm the author of a memoir, All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. (Atria/Simon & Schuster), which is about my journey from grad student to stripper to entertainment journalist to college professor. … imagine my shock, back in early February when the "Amazon.com Sales Rank" completely disappeared from the Product Details of my book. The book also disappeared from the search listings, so that if a customer looked up "All I Could Bare by Craig Seymour" on the Amazon home page, nothing came up.
Craig has a timeline of the run-around Amazon gave him over this issue, including their eventual admission that his book had been de-ranked because it was classified as Adult.
#amazonfail was joined by #glitchmyass.
As Jezebel points out, the effect of de-ranking all the GLBT titles is pretty chilling.
due to the removal of sales rankings, the first title that pops up when one searches "homosexuality" on Amazon is the aforementioned A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. Also in the top 10 when one searches for "homosexuality:" Coming Out Of Sexuality: New Freedom For Men And Women, Can Homosexuality Be Healed?, and When Homosexuality Hits Home: What To Do When A Loved One Says They're Gay
Clearly, the glitch isn't attached to the 'gay' tag, because it's only affecting pro-gay titles. Clever glitch.
You can see a partial list of affected titles here, which with any luck will be of archival value after Amazon fixes the glitch. Note that in most cases, the love that dare not speak its name is unaffected in the Kindle version. Or you could check Amazon for the tag amazonfail, which was bringing up nearly a thousand titles the last time I checked.
This may not be as simple as it seems, however. There's a pretty compelling theory emerging from someone who worked for SixApart during Livejournal's strike-through controversy. He thinks they've been trolled: someone is tagging LGBT titles as adult, over and over again or in a small-but-troubled wingnut group, until Amazon's automated filter de-ranks them.
this troll was perpetrated on a weekend AND a holiday, when Amazon's customer service would be operating on a skeleton crew and most of those who would be able to fix the problem would be at home and possibly unavailable or on vacation. Also, like Nipplegate and Strikethrough, this troll pits a marginalized and activist community against a big company, with the Internet and all its various discussion media (in this case, blogs and Twitter) as the facilitator.
The slight problem with this theory is that I checked a number of those titles, and they weren't tagged as adult, or with any other 'rude sexy' tag, just GLBT tags.
This morning, a hacker (warning: offensively stupid) stood up and said, hey, it was me, isn't it hilarious? He explained how he'd done it in enough detail for someone else to suggest that he was talking crap.
I emailed Amazon last night, and expected to wake up to at least an Amazon press release. The closest they've come is this email response, which contains neither an explanation of what happened, nor the word 'sorry'.
If they have a trigger that delists a book on the basis of user input, then they're relying on the Wisdom of Crowds. Pity that sometimes that wisdom is indistinguishable from the stupidity of the lynch mob. It's a system hanging out to be gamed.
Some variant of the trolling explanation does seem likely, but that doesn't let Amazon off the hook. If this is what happened then it was Amazon's attempt to censor adult material that allowed it to. Censorship is a tool superbly fitted to the hand of the bigot.