Amazon sends mixed messages with adult book policy

The Twitter hashtag buzzing this weekend -- a common word with a #, hashtag, sign in front signifying "file this under" -- was a devastating one for Amazon, long the darling of the social media crowd: #AmazonFail. At the heart of the failure was a sudden "delisting" of the vast majority of books categorized as gay, lesbian, or with adult content by Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN)'s ranking system. The sales rankings on the books' pages had disappeared overnight, keeping them out of searches and bestseller lists.

One author who self-publishes his books, Mark Probst, wrote Amazon's Advantage program for clarification. He published the response on his blog; a company representative wrote, "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." Other books excluded, according to shocked fans of adult literature: gay-themed classics like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and Little Birds: Erotica by Anais Nin, as well as Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence. So that sucks for authors of gay and lesbian-themed adult books, right? But here's the real #fail: Amazon denied the system change had been intentional in a statement to Publisher's Weekly, calling it a "glitch."Update: At the end of the day on the West Coast, an Amazon spokesperson called this an "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error" that "impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica," but did not apologize.

If it weren't for Mark Probst and his rather damning email, there would be the story of Craig Seymour, whose book All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. was removed from Amazon's sales rankings in February. He wrote in his blog that "I'm glad the issue is FINALLY getting attention (see links below), because I have been complaining about it since February... Like many authors, I frequently check my sales status on Amazon, so imagine my shock, back in early February when the " Sales Rank" completely disappeared from the Product Details of my book. The book also disappeared from the search listings, so that if a customer looked up "All I Could Bare by Craig Seymour" on the Amazon home page, nothing came up."

Seymour, who is now a college professor, also received an email from Amazon letting him know he'd been removed due to the "adult" nature of his book. He spent time comparing the pages of many adult books, discovering that gay and lesbian titles had been classified as "adult," whereas heterosexual ones had not.

PR pundits, authors and readers are up in arms, many demanding and apology and deleting their accounts from A petition protesting the policy (to which Amazon still won't admit, despite the emails from its customer service reps and many exclamation points on Twitter updates) had nearly 14,000 signatures as of early this afternoon. Influential author Neil Gaiman (who wrote the book Coraline) wrote a post recommending strongly that Amazon issue an apology.

Most confusing is Amazon's behavior in the face of what is obviously a PR debacle. Why deny the policy when evidence to the contrary had already been communicated, to the authors, no less? Why single out gay and lesbian books when plenty of truly disturbing heterosexual adult books weren't excluded? Why ignore the whole mess on Twitter when your very livelihood, after all, depends on the quality and engagement of the conversation on the internet?

Amazon was silent, except to respond to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation that the company was reversing the "error." In fact, at this writing, many of the books in question had their sales rankings restored.

The open question is, of course, will scandalized customers' trust in the company be restored? Unless Amazon owns up to its doublespeak, I sincerely doubt it.

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