Amazon Reclassifies LGBT Books as Adult; Sex Toys Are Not

Jim Burroway

April 12th, 2009

Amazon has reclassified LGBT themed books as “Adult” books, which also removes them from Amazon’s all-important sales ranking. The LA Times blog notes the capriciousness of this act:

“American Psycho” is Bret Easton Ellis’ story of a sadistic murderer. “Unfriendly Fire” is a well-reviewed empirical analysis of military policy. But it’s “Unfriendly Fire” that does not have a sales rank — which means it would not show up in Amazon’s bestseller lists, even if it sold more copies than the Twilight series. In some cases, being de-ranked also means being removed from Amazon’s search results.

De-ranking can have a devastating affect on customers ability to find books.The Amazon Gay and Lesbian best seller’s list has been decimated, with only Kindle titles showing up right now. Apparently, Amazon’s Kindle offerings haven’t been affected yet.

Craig Seymour began blogging about this in February, but it is just now getting widespread notice. He has some more examples of Amazon’s arbitrariness in reclassifying LGBT themed books while leaving comparable hetero books alone:

Memoirs by gay porn stars Blue Blake (Out of the Blue: Confessions of an Unlikely Porn Star) and Bobby Blake (My Life in Porn: The Bobby Blake Story) didn’t have a sales ranking, but memoirs by straight porn stars Ron Jeremy (Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz) and Jenna Jameson (How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale) did. Clearly, there seemed to be a double-standard.

Mark Probst is a publisher with Amazon, and that gave him special access to Amazon to ask what’s up. This is the reply he got:

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.

Best regards,
Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

But here’s the really crazy thing. This very adult material (NSFW) retains its sales ranking. As do these (NSFW), this (NSFW), and this clever thing (NSFW). In other words, sex toys aren’t “adult” according to Amazon, but a rational discussion of the policy implications of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is.

Among the books now considered “Adult” include the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies. All of Michelangelo Signorile’s books have been de-ranked as well, and none of them contain any eroticism whatsoever. Says Signorile, “In my case it is a clear suppression of political speech. It’s that simple.” Andrew Sullivan also notice that his books have been de-listed and he’s similarly puzzled:

“Virtually Normal” and “Love Undetectable” have been de-listed and stripped of customer sales rankings. Jackie Collins’ “Married Lovers” hasn’t. My books contain discussions of Aquinas and Freud and Foucault and Burke. I’m puzzled as to why those authors are more “adult” than Collins’ adulterous couplings.

Update: Publisher’s Weekly has another statement from Amazon. They’re calling it “a glitch”:

On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new adult policy.

Algy

April 12th, 2009

Personally,I suspect that Amazon is trying to force the Kindle on the gay community. Apparently they think we’re the only ones with enough disposable income to buy a $350 book reader.

I’ll be writing them tonight.

David C.

April 12th, 2009

It probably really was a glitch.

Having been a software engineer for decades and worked on many commercial systems, I can see how it was quite possible for there to be a problem like this. Amazon has some of the most sophisticated sales and marketing software on the net, so it’s quite likely that somebody changed something innocuous and broke a bunch of other stuff that depended on behavior in a way somebody else did not foresee. This happens too frequently in commercial systems and keeps people like me up nights and weekends trying to patch it up.

I’d imagine their IT department (or some contractor) is getting a lot of heat over this, which leads me to believe this will be straightened out pretty soon and probably with little fanfare.

Richard W. Fitch

April 12th, 2009

I find this very disturbing. Having been in IT myself, I will hope that David C. is correct. However, if not, then there should be a response to Amazon. Even if I had the money to buy Kindle items, I much prefer curling up with a real book than gazing at another LCD screen. Please keep updating as new info is available.

Not that David

April 12th, 2009

It could have been a case of employee sabotage – some homophobic staff person making a change to a query in the databases or other code, or manually changing data for GLBTQ material, quietly getting away with it until now.

Employee sabotage is pretty common, and there’s no shortage of evidence of people with a particularly conservative viewpoint editing and changing data to suit their goals, like the various incidents involving wikipedia entries.

Kindle, as a newish product, would have been tested and checked recently, so a smart saboteur would leave those entries and code alone.

It will be interesting to see what the official, final response from Amazon is, understanding that if it is a case of an employee acting independently and against company policy, Amazon may be unable to disclose details.

Jason D

April 13th, 2009

Richard, just to clarify, Kindle doesn’t have an LCD screen. Instead, it has an electronic paper screen, which can be viewed in broad daylight because it reflects light the same way normal paper does. But I get that you prefer a normal bound book all the same.

So, I just did a search in amazon for two things: “Unfriendly Fire” and “Out of the Blue: Confessions of an Unlikely Porn Star“. Unfriendly Fire was pretty easy to find, came up in search results, but wasn’t the top search result unless I put the title in quotes. I see nothing in the “Unfriendly Fire” product page that marks it as adult, and it currently has an
“Amazon.com Sales Rank: #11,853 in Books”

For “Out of the Blue: Confessions of an Unlikely Porn Star” there was a trick to it.
When searching under “All Departments” for the exact words “Out of the Blue: Confessions of an Unlikely Porn Star” (with or without quotes), it didn’t find it, but found products that had some of the words in the title. However when I changed the search criteria from “All Departments” to “Books”, (with or without quotes) it finds the book immediately. It also has nothing to denote it being adult material on the product page and has an “Amazon.com Sales Rank: #63,164 in Books”
Using an “All Departments” search with no quotations around the title – Ron Jeremy’s book came up as first on the list in a title search, and Jenna Jameson’s book was 3rd in a title search.

Now, it’s possible since Amazon’s cookie logged me in (it says “Hello Jason!” at the top) it knows that I’m over 18 and thus didn’t do any filtering, if Amazon does filter for non-signed in customers and or minors.

I then signed out and just looked for Blue Blake’s book, and had the same trouble as when Amazon recognized me, didn’t show up in “All Departments”, but did show up in “Books”, nothing on the page to suggest/state that it’s classified as adult by Amazon, but it did now have an “Amazon.com Sales Rank: #75,552 in books” which is a larger number. Somehow I doubt that $12,388 copies were sold in the 5 minutes it took me to do my little experiment.

Seems like something is wacky at Amazon, but I’m not sure it’s cause for alarm. It’s also entirely possible that I don’t fully understand the situation.

Timothy Kincaid

April 13th, 2009

Currently a hacker/prankster is taking credit and explaining how he did it. If true, it had something to do with automating complaints about adult content for all books with meta-tags “gay” which then triggered their classification as “adult”

Or something like that.

David C.

April 13th, 2009

It could have been a case of employee sabotage – some homophobic staff person making a change to a query in the databases or other code, or manually changing data for GLBTQ material, quietly getting away with it until now. —Not that David

Yeah, but take the conspirator(s) out of this, and what’s left behind is a very likely scenario: somebody created a query that was just a little too broad and updated all the results with some new classification. What might thus possibly have been updated correctly were the query correct must now be undone by a painful manual process or special application that must be written, tested, and run precisely once to fix the data (quite possibly affecting millions of rows in a database), all on a 7/24/365 system. The fix could become much more complex if all the sales and ranking data had to be repaired, too.

I’m glad I don’t have to fix something that follows this outline under the glare of management, customer, and stock-holder attention.

Remember that we are all still just speculating here. Conspiracy theories aside, I’ll ascribe this to a code maintenance or process error.

John B.

April 13th, 2009

Someone has taken credit for this, though I’m reserving judgment. Sounds like Amazon’s got a whopper of an XSS/XSF vulnerability.

tehdely breaks it down, and also explains Bantown – a process by which two groups are brought into opposition by a third party.
http://tehdely.livejournal.com/88823.html

buster

April 13th, 2009

The fact that it may have been a glitch or sabotage does not excuse or even explain the initial response, “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material,” by Ashlyn D., unless that response, too, was part of the glitch.

David C.

April 13th, 2009

The fact that it may have been a glitch or sabotage does not excuse or even explain the initial response, “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material,” by Ashlyn D., unless that response, too, was part of the glitch. —buster

I charged that to misunderstanding the question, which was just as likely. A more nuanced response was probably missed because a standard response was given to what was perceived as a question about the handling of material classified as “adult” Vs. material that mentions LGBT interests or literature that is otherwise not of an “Adult” nature. Very likely another case of an automated (or semi-automated) response based on key-words, or simple mindedness, or plain haste on the part of a support person in a high-volume production environment.

It’s not unlikely that this has been a known problem for a while and everybody in the food-chain at Amazon is just waiting for IT to fix the problem (or close whatever vulnerability might exist) and clean up the mess.

Devlin Bach

April 13th, 2009

Unfriendly Fire Brokeback Mountain and Blue Blake just came up under All Departments at Amazon with no glitch. The previous glitch seems to be repaire.

David C.

April 13th, 2009

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection. …it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories…. …and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.—Drew Herdener, Amazon spokesperson

Classic, just classic. How many times have I heard the Business uttering such innuendos. Dollars to doughnuts they approved the change before they actually thought through the consequences.

Ok, Ok, I know, the cynic IT type in me. But you have to wonder how 57,310 rows (or their interpretations) got messed up without the Business making some kind of request they signed off on. A single naïve user trusting a system to protect him or her from themselves? I could believe that.

Can you say “process error”?

I knew you could.

CCSea

April 13th, 2009

The sales rank issue is not the only anti-gay part of Amazon. Their “search suggestions” feature is completely disabled for searches using “gay” or “lesbian” as their first word!

Normally Amazon shows you suggestions as you type characters in the search box. For example if you type “Christian m” you will see a list of suggestions including “Christian marriage”. You don’t have to type the full search, just select from the suggestions.

If you try this same search by typing “gay m” you get nothing. Unlike the term “Christian”, the word “gay” just shuts off the search suggestions feature completely. Same for “lesbian.”

I wonder what kind of “glitch” this can be attributed to.

sex toys toronto

August 10th, 2010

That’s really unfair that great books get removed from the best seller list just because they contain some mature content. They should just make a different list that contains all the adult type books and that would most likely solve the problem.

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