secretidentityWhile offline (randomly) for two days, we missed the biggest story ever on Twitter, #amazonfail, which is, depending on who you listen to, a technical “glitch” or a incredibly clumsy attempt on Amazon’s part to remove potentially “offensive” material, which ended up being mostly gay-themed literature.

As covered by every media outlet in existence, the problems began Sunday when people noticed that Amazon had removed the sales rankings from gay- and lesbian-themed books. Since the sales rankings are the method by which books go into the search function, this meant that tons of books — from prize-winning classics by James Baldwin, to Heather has Two Mommies — were suddenly unavailable on Amazon. The NY Times has a detailed report on the whole story, and Amazon’s new explanation that it was “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error” that had caused 50,00 books — not just GLBT books, to be removed.

Jezebel has a more pointed report reacted with the requisite outrage as events unfolded.

Especially when you consider the fact that Amazon has vibrators, clitoral stimulators and anal plugs available in their search system with sales ranks attached. One wonders why these items are allowed to remain in the system with sales ranks while books including gay and lesbian content, themes, and even, as a commenter points out, autobiographies of gay and lesbian authors such as Stephen Fry, are deemed too “adult” for such things.

Neil Gaiman wrote about the rather astonishing internet rollout and how calls for justice can be swift — if non-implementable.

Soon wonderful things like this were appearing, and I was retweeting them. People within and without the GLBT communities saw the utter stupidity of this (along with the dangers of a more or less monopolistic retailer that was used as much for information as it was for sales deciding that only information it approved of could go out there). Several hours later people were asking me about why I wasn’t boycotting Amazon because Amazon hadn’t fixed it yet, and I found myself pointing out that it was Easter Sunday, and honestly, you were going to have to give them a chance to fix it…

While the simple fact that for a little while the only gay-themed books available from Amazon were “How to cure homosexuality” type books is outrageous enough in its own right, according to an email from Abram ComicArts editor Charles Kochman there was plenty of collateral damage. Craig Yoe’s adult-themed Secret Identity got a great write up in USA Today on Monday morning, but due to the new Amazon policy/glitch, you couldn’t find the book on Amazon, whether you typed in “shuster”, “yoe”, or the title. As of today, order is restored, but given all the publicity, a crucial chunk of internet sales was probably lost.

Outrage and conspiracy theories galore are still roiling over the Internet, as well they should, but this post from the Vroman’s bloghas much food for thought. Granted Vroman’s is a bookseller and a competitor of Amazon, but when any one entity is given too much power, this is often what happens:

This is more important than that, and now is the perfect time to think about whether you want to trust one company to dominate the book market, or any market, for that matter. The benefit of having a rich, diverse ecosystem of vendors and suppliers has never been more obvious: many sources of information equals choice, and choice equals freedom. It’s actually your freedom that’s at stake here, and putting things back the way they were, fixing the notorious “glitch,” won’t change that. Because your freedom was at stake long before this recent de-listing experiment. Anytime you limit yourself to fewer suppliers, especially of something as vital as information (and if you purchase a Kindle, you’re effectively doing just that, limiting yourself to a single information provider), you’re putting yourself at the mercy of that provider.


  1. Heidi, that “bowl of BS” quote from Jezebel is based on the initial response by an individual customer service rep, not the final announcement by the company, which was obviously not BS at all.

  2. Books weren’t removed from Amazon, just the sales ranking system. I was able to find plenty of scary gay books via browsing on Sunday.

    Still a stupid move, whether intentional or not.

  3. No, not just the sales ranking position was dropped! There was an article on the front page of USA Today on my book “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster” yesterday. But the reporter there tipped me off to the fact that his readers were emailing him upset. When they went to the Amazon home page and typed in the title of the book only the written title came up. The cover visual had been dropped and there was a message that the book was unavailable!

    How many sales do you think “Secret Identity: the Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster” do you think were lost as a result? Part of the theme of my book is censorship since Joe Shuster’s work that i show and talk about in the book was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The printer was arrested. The publisher eventually went to jail for 3 years for his activities. Joe was never caught. The Supreme Court decision against joe’s work was a sad day for freedom of the press! The crack down on Joe’s work was
    instrumental in the adopting of the Comics Code. Sadly ironic for me that over 50 years later there was some kind of censorship-py weirdness happening again to this material. As I conclude in the book, our freedoms today are very fragile. Beware.

    Someone just posted on the book blog comments section at that they are GLAD amazon did this to Secret Identity!

    Thanks Heidi for bring this to people’s attention!

  4. “Glitch” is the new weasel word of the week, also used recently by TicketCombine to paper over hustling tickets to their scalper sites in re Springsteen and others.

    Printing, publishing and bookselling are politically sensitive businesses on the micro (horsewhipping your favorite smalltown newspaper publisher) and macro (the king used to be in charge of each and every publication) level. Amazon is very much into the anonymous product; they seem to think books are hunks of processed paper (which they’d just as soon not stock or ship, re: Kindle). If that’s your attitude you’re likely to be continually bludgeoned by this or that “ham hand” inside or outside your organization. Only sensible response to censorship is “No.” Every employee should know this from day one.