Amazons epic failure

I never thought I’d see the day when the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies was considered more “adult” than Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds, but thanks to Amazon.com I have.

In what the company has called a glitch, over 57,000 books have been reclassified as adult material. This classification removes the titles from the site’s main search and takes sales rankings off their detail pages. While some of the books are erotica and sexual instruction, the majority of them have fallen foul of Amazon’s censors by being “gay-themed.” Classics by Gore Vidal, EM Forster, and William S. Burroughs, among others, are now considered too dangerous to be included in a search.

Like many others who shop for books online, I’ve generally regarded Amazon.com as the only site I need to visit. For years, the site has been my source for books, both pleasure reading and academic texts, computer equipment, housewares, clothing, music and movies. If you’d asked me a week ago, I’d have said Amazon was living up to its vision: “to be earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” Now, though, I’m not so sure.

With so many titles being tucked away in Amazon’s version of a seedy adult bookshop, the site is hardly building a place where customers can discover anything they might want to buy online. Sure, the books are still there for purchase, but they become almost impossible to locate. While this is a big problem for potential buyers, it’s even more of a problem for the authors involved.

Craig Seymour’s memoir, “All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C.,” was stripped of its rankings back in February. He pointed out in a recent blog entry that Amazon had “coded” his book out of circulation. While he had a mainstream publisher to help in his fight to get the title reinstated, many other authors don’t have that privilege. The end result of this is that writers are losing their income.

An even more insidious element of this “glitch” is that Amazon is systematically blacklisting titles based on the categories that they had already given the books. Stephen Fry’s memoir, “Moab is My Washpot,” has lost its ranking as a paperback (which was categorized as “gay”) but retained it in hardback (categorized as “memoir”). And Heather Has Two Mommies, Leslea Newman and Diana Souza’s frequently banned children’s book, which aims to teach acceptance of gay and lesbian families, has been turned into a text too dangerous to rank because it, too, had been classed as “gay.”

As of this week, Amazon is scurrying to reinstate rankings on many of the books, starting with those that have gotten the most attention. This leaves thousands of books adrift in a sea of “adult material.” Glitch or not, this whole debacle shows the potential censorship that can be affected by one retailer, but it also shows the power of people’s response. Over the Easter weekend, the term “Amazonfail” became the top trending topic on social networking and microblogging site Twitter. News spread quickly among the net-savvy users, with authors and buyers sharing information. The pressure mounted and the situation was given a much larger public profile. As a result, Amazon is now making moves to correct this problem, and far more swiftly than when only a few authors were lodging complaints in February.

While there are mixed feelings over whether a boycott of Amazon should be called, I know that I’ll tread a bit more carefully with my support of the site. It remains, in many cases, the only online outlet for purchasing some books. In cases where it isn’t, this has given us all one more reason to support independent booksellers.

Jennifer Barnett is a writer and graduate student based in Bristol, UK.