Amazon denies it censored rankings
Citing an "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error," Amazon.com sought to answer critics Monday about why thousands of books ...
Seattle Times business reporter
Citing an "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error," Amazon.com sought to answer critics Monday about why thousands of books — including many gay- and lesbian-themed titles — were removed from its sale rankings this past weekend.
Books without sale rankings were still available on the Web site but no longer eligible for its best-seller lists, sparking intense debate about whether Amazon was engaged in homophobic censorship. Some called for a boycott of the Seattle-based Internet giant.
There was also the suggestion, raised on Gawker's Valleywag, a popular tech blog, that a hacker devised the whole thing to exploit a supposed vulnerability in Amazon's product-rating tools.
"This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection," spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement, noting that the problem affected 57,310 books in such categories as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine and Erotica.
"Many books have now been fixed, and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible," he said. "We intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future."
It all started Friday when Mark Probst, a 45-year-old writer from Camas, Clark County, noticed that a couple of popular gay romance novels had lost their sale ranks and were no longer on their genre's best-seller list. Saturday, Probst noticed that his own gay romance, "The Filly," as well as hundreds of other gay titles, also had lost their sale ranks, so he wrote to Amazon's customer-service department.
A representative replied that Amazon excludes "adult" material from some product searches and best-seller lists. Probst then blogged about it, and others linked to his post on the instant-messaging service Twitter, deriding Amazon with the tags "#amazonfail" and "#glitchmyass," a reference to a previous statement in which the company blamed "a glitch in our systems."
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in New York became involved.
"GLAAD has reached out to Amazon.com and they indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately," the group's president, Neil Giuliano, said in a statement Monday. "It is so important that stories about the lives of our community are available, and that companies like Amazon promote these titles in equal fashion."
Steven Petrow, the North Carolina-based author of "The Essential Book of Gay Manners & Etiquette," said there's talk in the gay community about a boycott of Amazon and believes the company has yet to "come clean."
"It seems that somebody decided to flag predominantly gay and lesbian content because it might be offensive to more mainstream, or heterosexual, readers," he said. "That's scary."
As for Probst, who describes his novel as "not at all sexually explicit," he takes the view that Amazon "just made a mistake. No hard feelings."
In fact, the uproar has helped push "The Filly" — its sale rank now restored — to No. 2 on Amazon's best-seller list for gay romance novels.
"I've had nearly 400 comments on my blog since this began," he said. "I've never had more than 10 before."
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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