- 13 Apr 09, 08:22 GMT
Over the holiday weekend, messages suddenly started arriving thick and fast urging me to boycott Amazon. The reason? Apparently the online retailer had suddenly decided to block "adult" books and DVDs from searches and best-seller lists.
What caused the outrage was the way that "adult" appeared to mean books or DVDs with gay or lesbian themes. That meant that they would no longer turn up in searches, or, when found, would no longer include their Amazon "sales rankings", the one number that every modern author really cares about, and checks, ooh, at least a couple of times a day.
The result - at least according to lots of American bloggers - was that all sorts of works, from "Maurice" by EM Forster [pictured, right] to Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" virtually disappeared from view. As far as I could see, the "deranking" didn't affect books on the amazon.co.uk site, though some British authors say that their US editions were affected. Attempts to contact Amazon by authors who'd seen their works lose their rankings yielded little in the way of hard information.
Then an author called Mark Probst, who is also a publisher and therefore has what he calls a "special way" of contacting the retailer, got this reply when he asked why his novel had been sent into the wilderness:
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.
Within hours, an internet firestorm was spreading, with Facebook groups formed to decry the apparent censorship, online petitions gathering thousands of signatures and "#amazonfail" becoming a trending topic on Twitter.
Of course, you might think that it's perfectly sensible for Amazon to decide to filter its content, making "adult" content less accessible, and so protecting younger users from seeing unsuitable material. I put that point to Zoe Margolis, whose own book "Diary of a Sex Fiend", had its ranking removed. "Amazon's argument doesn't stand up," she told me, "you have to be over 18 to purchase from the site." And, she wanted to know, who defines adult? "As we've seen lesbian and gay fiction - featuring NO erotic content whatsoever - has been deemed 'adult'. One has to wonder if someone at Amazon is pandering to a right-wing contingent, who want to restrict access to non-conservative authors/topics."
But then the plot thickened. Amazon appeared to change tack, insisting that the apparent censorship was instead "a glitch in our system which is being fixed."
That of course did not quieten things down. New conspiracy theories started to circulate - that Amazon really was intent on quietly making its service more "family friendly", that Christian fundamentalists were behind the whole thing, or that someone had somehow managed to manipulate the system by which Amazon responds to complaints from users about books. And then a a blogger came forward and claimed that this indeed was the explanation for the whole affair - he wrote that had "gamed" the system, extracting a list of every gay and lesbian book on the site, and sending thousands of complaints by an automated process.
Finally, on Tuesday morning at around 0630, I got a more complete statement from Amazon, which described the incident as "an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection."
The statement went on:
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.
So was it a glitch, a bizarre cyber-conspiracy, or a ham-fisted cataloguing error? I'm not really any clearer - but I think that there are some lessons to be learned.
First of all, that it's a bit of a nightmare being an online retailer. If WH Smith or Waterstone's decided to put gay literature on more obscure shelves (remember - the books weren't banned, just made harder to find) would anyone have made a fuss - or even noticed?
Secondly, that in the days of "real-time" social networking, a PR storm can break over your head within hours, even over a holiday weekend, and you need to be ready to respond rather more quickly and coherently than Amazon managed.
But thirdly, that the culture wars that have been fought bitterly on dozens of blogs, with small but passionate audiences, are now spreading to mainstream sites like Amazon. You may think you just popped in to the online store to buy a book - but prepare to duck as lobby groups, libertarians, religious groups and mischievous hackers lob brickbats at each other.
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