Amazon vs Queers

Update: A disgruntled gay man is taking responsibility for the disappearance of the books from amazon.com’s ranking system. He says he was mad about being censored on craigslist and the “hypocrisy” of the mainstream queer community. So he originally flagged a bunch of books and then actually wrote code to flag them. However the code he provided does not work, and while he says that is b/c amazon.com has fixed the problem, there is no proof behind his story as a result. Nor does it explain the various responses from Amazon.com, none of which included reference to a hack. end update.

Ok that was a particularly salacious title that will no doubt get me in trouble with someone somewhere, but I couldn’t help it, I have a sick, dry, sense of humor.

What I am not laughing at is the information that circulated the last day of the conference about Amazon.com labeling all queer literature “adult material” on their website.

One author, Mark Probst wrote on his livejournal that he had contacted customer service about the rankings on his own books and been told all “adult material” was being removed from the rankings.  His objections to his own romance novels and works like Giovanni’s Room being classified as “adult material” was met with an explanation that amazon.com was “taking its entire customer base” into consideration. In other words, at least one employee in customer service at amazon.com claimed that GLBTQI literature is somehow “other” to the majority of the customer base.

At least one academic author from Rutgers also spoke to amazon.com after seeing his forthcoming book removed from the search engine, except under his name, and also from the rankings. He was told by a customer service rep that it was “a computer glitch” that resulted in the netting of all kinds of literature in the “explicit” category that should not be there and not a policy decision. However, the only literature anyone has noticed being effected has been GLBTQI lit. (update: and disability lit. end update)

Twitter turned the first encounter with amazon.com customer service into a feeding frenzy and a petition has been circulating. My original intention in writing this post was to ignore how often both livejournal and twitter get it wrong, and the speed at which they can create drama, and circulate the petition. To me this issue was too important not to circulate the petition and the concerns until there was concrete proof one way or the other. My own research shows that most of the queer titles I searched were nearly impossible to find through search and all of them were without ranking.  However, I did not search Kindle.

Another queer academic who has published on queer issues says Kindle’s database has remained exactly the same. He points out that if the decision to further otherize and hide queer lit were policy and not a glitch, Kindle would have been equally impacted. While I agree that the Kindle rankings being intact is a good sign, I’m not sure that Kindle is proof print books weren’t targeted. In other words, they may have started with print holdings and had no one said anything, then moved on to electronic ones.

Still later, typing in the word “lesbian” and then clicking literature and fiction got me an array of erotica and erotic images instead of novels and short stories, implying the amazon.com “fix” is working against them no matter what the thinking was originally. Either they intentionally blocked all material and have now started adding it back in such a way as to highlight erotica or they blocked literature and cultural studies while letting erotica slip right through (pun intended).

For me this situation has two lessons:

  • large social networks are like telephone and you should always do your research instead of straining to listen
  • filtering software is a product of dominant cultural norms and therefore has a marginalizing impact regardless of intent

I think it is important to think about what amazon.com’s decision to use a filtering system means for youth, writers, and intellectuals whether it was intentional or not.

Amazon.com’s potentially intentional decision is both an ideological and an economic fight. Ideologically, amazon.com is sending the message that homosexuality and gender transgression are inappropriate subjects for youth. This is the same argument that allowed the passage of prop 8 and part of a new national campaign that is mobilized to “go to press” in any state considering similar equality in marriage for the queer community.

Like the “poor MA parents”, amazon.com appears to be working hard to protect you from those “scary gays out to recruit your kids” through . . . LITERATURE.

This ideological battle has important ramifications for the psycho-social well being of queer youth, who sometimes only have the books and movies they can order online to remind them that they are neither freaks nor alone. For them, places like amazon.com stand in for the absent luxury of a queer youth center, feminist bookstore, or alternative video store, and the freedom to discuss who they are within the conservative communities they inhabit. Amazon.com’s decision to classify all queer literature as adult material means that they will have trouble using the search engine to find material (some academic authors of queer research have found the new system has almost completely deleted them from the catalogue forcing people to use their full names to find their books, even book title searches are not working for some books). Instead of using the amazon recommendation and book list services like one might use the aisles of a non-conservative library, these youth will have to know exactly what they are looking for ahead of time, down to the author’s full publishing name and the complete title of the book. Who will tell them that? (And for those saying “that is what glbtq websites are for,” let me just remind you that in conservative communities such sites are likely blocked and that in some communities the stigma for visiting them is much larger than accessing amazon.com)

Even if it is a glitch, the problem now remains that any book caught in the initial sweep and not corrected will remain permanently obscured. And what about those sex positive materials that will remain classified as “adult material”? I am thinking of books like the lesbian guide to sex (or whatever it’s called) that covers both health and sexual information with explicitly defined and drawn material to help people make sure they are having safe sex. I’m sure that will remain in the adult specific material even after this fix and I wonder how many sexually active young people will not have access to this information as a result. This also impacts heterosexual readers who may be looking at health and healthy sexuality books that are sexually inclusive or gender inclusive, thus censoring materials for everyone while potentially targeting the queer community. Even if all the queer books are put back in the system, there is still the issue of sex positive books being misclassified as “adult material” that will still impact all of these books. (I own at least two novels about same sex battering that have sexually explicit content that I doubt will make it past the censor even if the issue is a glitch and the glitch is appropriately fixed.)

Amazon.com’s potentially intentional decision is also reinforcing the idea of homosexuality as “perverted,” or at least othered sexual practices, by likening all work about the community to that of Pornographic magazines and Erotica. Sex positivity aside for a moment, the problem with likening a study of death and dying in aging gay communities to a copy of Hustler should be fairly clear. The two things are not the same and the only thing that can link them is homophobia (and sex negativity).

(notice the racial difference in these two videos and what the queer community

still needs to work on here; however that is a different post)

While these ideological battles both predate amazon.com’s potentially intentional decision and will continue with or without amazon.com, amazon.com has an important impact on the selling of books and ranking of authors. By removing the material from their ranking system, they impact the perception of the author’s saleability to publishers who pay increasing attention to book rankings on large public booksellers sites. And all though we can and should rally against why rankings which many people to do not participate in matters so much, but the inability to search for books, be recommended similar books, or to access booklists by amazon.com users that recommend queer books, cannot be ignored. The actual sales of these books is being negatively impacted. Sales and ranking are important factors in the generation of “bestsellers lists” as well as publishing contracts. The former helps insure repeat publishing as well as alternative venues for alerting potential readers to the existence of the text. So that the loss is equal to:

  • lost sales
  • lost circulation
  • lost speaking fees
  • lost second and third contracts
  • lost opportunities for everyone

In a time when academics and academic presses are struggling, amazon.com’s decision also negatively impacts research and publishing of an academic nature. While the multitude of anti-intellectuals on the internet may be sighing with relief, the reality is that academics publish important research about our communities that would otherwise never be circulated amongst those people who have been taught to hate us or who have been so isolated that they do not recognize their own. Since tenure is tied to publishing, things that cannot be published get relegated to “side projects” or “pet projects” while “real research” often gets defined as what is fundable and publishable. In the worst case scenarios, the narrowing of ranking = narrowing of publishing = narrowing of research. More than that, we can only teach books that are in print and the cumbersome nature of trying to put an entire book on e-reserve or on library hold has virtually eliminated this as an option. This means that narrowing ranking=narrowing publishing=narrowing teaching and learning.

Academic research also reminds us about the multiple identities that make up the falsely totalizing “community.” In other words, it reminds us of the people with whom we do not interact, do not imagine, and often blame, erase, or leave behind. Look at those videos again. Despite all the creative and intellectual writing by queers of color, they are still missing from both the conservative and the queer versions of outreach, so are elders, the differently-abled, and transgendered people.  Books help remind us those communities are part of “the community” as much as other books and other publishers help erase them. And one thing I have learned from walking through many independent and feminist bookstores is that I still have to order or ask to get books outside of the dominant vision of “the community.” Amazon.com does not generally pose this problem which means that I can either order directly from them or go into the alternative bookstores and ask that they order the books based on a search of amazon.co. Others without this luxury, can still get the books from amazon.com. (And yes, this is a larger discussion about why independent bookstores have become less diverse and what kind of accountability issues are in play as well.)

So whether you are lucky enough to live somewhere where you can get GLBTQI books at an independent bookstore or live in a one mall town where you do all your shopping at the Barnes and Noble that doesn’t actually stock 98% of queer literature is irrelevant, you are just as impacted by the amazon.com website changes as the people who have access to neither of these options. As one of the largest booksellers in the U.S., amazon.com’s current erasure of queer books from the rankings and almost completely from the search engine will radically impact who and what gets published. If there are no studies of Asian-American lesbians or poetry about young Xueers in LA to buy, you won’t get them at your independent bookstore either. If you don’t know they exist and won’t see them combing the aisles, you won’t know to buy them if places like amazon.com start erasing them.

Ultimately, amazon.com fixing the issue should not let anybody forget how easy it is to mistakenly or otherwise radically impact the publishing potential and the imaginary of already marginalized groups. The massive response to the issue has already got amazon.com to begin fixing the problem as I type (tho, like I said, you now get erotica for most generic searches before you get academic or literary materials) but I hope I’ve shown that is not the end of the issue.

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