Friend or foe? An author caught in Amazon's gay-books scandal isn't sure

On Sunday evening, the blogosphere swirled with rumors that had dumped all books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender content from its ranking system, rendering thousands of books nearly impossible to find. However, Nathaniel Frank just chuckled. Maybe that was an odd reaction for the author of a new book that was itself caught in the scandal's net, Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. But at least now he knew it wasn't his iPhone's fault.

Amazon fixed its "glitch" on Monday, calling it an "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error." Meanwhile, for Frank, a history professor at New York University and the University of California–Santa Barbara, coverage of the incident may have raised his book's profile. In effect, Amazon's "glitch" became an unplanned cog in the book's publicity machine -- just as visible as the book's review in The New York Times and the author's guest slot on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

As he explains in this DF interview, Frank (who, in full disclosure, is a college acquaintance) may never learn for sure whether, or how, the "glitch" affected the sales of Unfriendly Fire. It can be fun guessing, though.

Congratulations, I just checked and Unfriendly Fire is all the way up to 10,111 on Amazon. It's notoriously difficult to track your sales based on Amazon's rankings. Publishers' sales estimates are just a gauge -- they don't actually count books sold through the warehouse -- and Amazon rankings are even less of a gauge. All they do is show your sales rank every hour. So, yes, at this hour, my book is the 10,111th-most sold book on Amazon.

Do you check your ranking every hour? There were times when that was the case, but I've eased up a bit.

How did you figure out something was amiss with the rankings? I got a writeup in Newsweek from Anna Quindlen a week ago, and Amazon was the easiest way to see if her article was affecting the book's sales. So I tried to check the ranking, but I was unable to find it directly. When I typed in the book name, it took me to the Kindle version instead of the hardcover.

That didn't worry you? My initial reaction was not to be concerned about sales. I'd assumed this was my own glitch. But then on Sunday night, I started to see news that my book, among other books with gay content, had been de-ranked. And if you can't find the book, you can't buy the book.

But if something is so blatantly wrong -- like, if GLBT books are explicitly being targeted -- then my expectation is that that will be corrected. I also tried not to jump to conclusions that a big book company based in Seattle would purposely target gay books, even though that's what all the reports were saying.

Amazon hasn't done a very good job of dispelling rumors that there's something nefarious behind this. It's interesting to watch how people watch this story, with regard to gay rights: in one sense, how far we've come that there was enough of a public outcry to correct the issue, and in another sense, how far there is to go.

Your book was published in early March, so you're still in the thick of promotion. The first month is likely to get the biggest sales pop. My review in The New York Times, which was favorable, briefly brought rankings from the thousands to the hundreds. Barring an appearance on Oprah, the other thing that could rejigger interest in the book is breaking news on the issue of gays in the military.

How about breaking news on the issue of Amazon de-ranking its gay titles? Today, I was mentioned in The New York Times on the front page of the business section because of the scandal. But it's hard to see a one-to-one ratio of a sales pop based on the book's being in the news.

So you didn't see this incident as a crisis? I didn't, though maybe I should've. But when these reports emerged, I saw this as an opportunity for added visibility that might outweigh whatever poor visibility the book had suffered over the previous week.

Searchability is everything on Amazon, and if the book was unfindable for a week, then that would affect sales, and that would be very frustrating. But if a week's sales of, say, 200 copies went down to 100 copies last week, I'm not going to lose sleep over it.

Do you think conservative groups might be angered that gay books are now getting Amazon's special attention? I don't envy Amazon for that reason. I assume you'll hear people trying to take advantage of the situation to forward a very narrow sectarian idea of what should be acceptable content on the internet. But for Amazon to make any books unfindable doesn't make much business sense, let alone ideological sense -- to be willing to profit from selling books, but being unwilling to make that easy for customers.

Okay, quick. What's your Amazon sales rank now?Heh. I have asked my editor for any sales figures they get, and I'll see if I can see any changes between last week and this week, but I fear the numbers aren't high enough to show clearly that anything happened. But one possible effect is that, now that there's some anger toward Amazon, people might buy it due to visibility but not buy it on Amazon. So now I can't rely on the Amazon ranking even as a rough measurement anymore.

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