Why did gay books disappear from Amazon?

Outrage ensues after several LGBT titles mysteriously lose their site rankings. The company blames a "glitch," but not everyone's buying it.

Published April 13, 2009 8:41AM (EDT)

While the much of the country spent Easter Sunday gorging on marshmallow peeps and pictures of the president's new dog, your trusty local blogosphere fired up a four-alarm scandal over goings-on at Amazon, which had mysteriously stripped the sales rankings of hundreds (thousands?) of books, many of them with LGBT subjects, and reclassified them as "adult" content. The move prevents those books from showing up on the site's Best Seller list and can seriously screw up search results, pretty much rendering some titles invisible.

Writer Mark Probst noticed the change late last week, after the ranking on his own book "The Filly" disappeared. He wrote to Amazon and received the following explanation:

"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."

So what constitutes "adult" material? What were these terrifying, racy tomes from which the public needed to be protected? Well, as the LA Times blog reported, they include Augusten Burroughs' "Running With Scissors," Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" and the National Book Award winner, "Becoming a Man" by Paul Monette. Oh, and Ellen Degeneres' autobiography. Of course. So many books had been wiped out of the search terms that, on Sunday night, a book search for the term "homosexuality" turned up this: "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality." (Screenshot here.)

The whole thing stunk of hypocrisy and censorship, and the outrage flowed like champagne. Twitter was not going to take it: "#Amazonfail" quickly became the number one topic on the microblogging service. Online Petitions went up. Facebook protests formed. In short? People were pissed.

"I am tired of being the low-hanging fruit that cretins pluck when they need to pander to Moral America," fumed Lamba Literary Award-winning novelist Nicola Griffith. "This time, I hope some people choke on their soft fruit."

Following the story as it unfolded on Sunday afternoon was like trying to watch a tennis match in which 100 balls were lobbed at once. Jezebel kept an updating list of books stripped of their rankings (and not stripped of their rankings), which was a case study in double standard. "The Complete A**hole's Guide to Handling Chicks?" Fine. "Heather Has Two Mommies"? Not fine. Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer"? Fine. Anais Nin's "Delta of Venus"? Not fine. And then there was the downright baffling addition of such books as Jessica Valenti's "Full Frontal Feminism" and Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl." 

By early Sunday evening, in a post on Publisher's Weekly, Amazon blamed the whole debacle on a glitch and told the Associate Press it was being fixed. It's certainly possible. The changes were so outrageous, so sloppily applied -- by a company with a pretty decent track record, by the way -- that it's hard to believe anyone who wasn't smoking the world's biggest bong would have OK'd it, far less OK'd it without letting anyone know.

But if it was all one big whoops, then why did Probst receive that explanatory email? And author Craig Seymour says he noticed the changes back in February, when sales rankings vanished from his own memoir, "All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C."

And so the intrigue continues. We'll bring you more as the story develops further. For now, at least one group isn't buying Amazon's excuse. And you can follow those reports on Twitter, at #glitch my ass.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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Amazon.com Broadsheet Lgbt