Amazon.com, including its Canadian version Amazon.ca, is the world’s largest book retailer and may now be among the world’s least trusted.
The site has a huge world-wide audience. According to Compete.com, Amazon attracted more than 615 million visitors in 2008. Web tracker Alexa.com reports that about two percent of web users worldwide visit Amazon at least once a week. Alexa consistently rates the site among the top 30 most visited by Canadian users. That massive audience gives the retailer huge clout in the book business and, by extension, the dissemination of ideas and expression.
On the Easter long weekend visitors to Amazon discovered that thousands of queer titles were no longer listed in search results or customer recommendations, effectively censoring the material from the eyes of millions of prospective buyers.
“When you checked my name on Amazon.com nothing came up,” says London, Ontario-based author Joseph Couture.
Works by Gore Vidal, Annie Proulx and EM Forster also dropped from the rankings.
US author Mark Probst wrote on his blog that the listing for his gay-teen novel had vanished from the site. He quoted Amazon’s response to his subsequent complaint.
“In consideration of our entire customer base we exclude adult material from appearing in some searches and bestseller lists,” wrote the retailer.
Toronto author Michael Rowe, whose gay fiction anthologies were among the missing titles, is appalled by Amazon’s statement.
“Why didn’t the heterosexually themed books on sexualized subjects also lose their rankings?” he asks.
Within a day of the scandal dozens of blogs featured further examples of gay and lesbian books censored by Amazon. Facebook teemed with various conspiracy theories and a new term, “AmazonFail,” was the top subject on Twitter.com.
Then on Apr 13 an Amazon spokesperson dismissed the fiasco as “a glitch” writing that user access would be restored. She wrote to CNET News that a French computer programmer’s “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error,” was to blame. She wrote that the technician misplaced the words “sexuality,” “erotica” and “adult” in tagging functions, affecting more than 57,000 titles worldwide.
“I’ve never encountered a homophobic glitch,” says Couture.
“It’s very odd [that] a computer glitch had such sophisticated literary sensibility,” says Rowe.
“This was the 21st-century equivalent of a massive book-burning,” says Couture. “We don’t have to destroy books anymore, we can simply delete them.”
Even if it was an honest mistake, says Rowe, it reflects an ongoing issue that Amazon hasn’t resolved. Whatever flaws may exist in its database programming, the real problem is the underlying heterosexual bias. It’s what he calls, “the pernicious, fascist nature of the ‘family-friendly’ policy.”
“Aside from the fact that it insults LGBT people by assuming we don’t have — or are not part of — families, it forces even sophisticated adults to shop at the level of unsupervised 10-year-olds,” he says.
“Queer and gay themes are not exclusively adult,” insists Gary Sealey, president of the Lambda Foundation, a charity that grants Canadian scholarships in gay and lesbian studies. He bristles at Amazon’s attempt to protect readers from ideas.
“To take a broad-brush approach like that is terrifying,” he says.
The bigger lesson from this, warns Sealey, is the retail giant’s massive clout.
“Corporate concentration of book sales makes all of us vulnerable,” he says. “Corporations are not community-based. The independent bookstores — the women’s bookstores, the gay bookstores — provide real voices, real stories.”
There are, he notes, only three main queer bookstores left in all Canada: Glad Day, After Stonewall and Little Sister’s. So “the opportunity to choose among voices is reduced.”
“This is a wakeup call to us, to protect our history so we can defend our future,” says Couture. “Our literature is key to that.”
As Xtra goes to press the missing titles appear to be have been restored to Amazon’s rankings. Xtra was not able to confirm independently that all 57,000 titles were restored and the company didn’t respond to Xtra’s repeated interview requests.
“I find it stunningly tactless that Amazon didn’t issue an apology specifically to LGBT readers and authors,” says Rowe.
“The fact that they have a warning system at all is enough to make me uncomfortable,” says San Francisco author Michael Thomas Ford. “Having to warn readers about content that might offend them sort of defeats the entire point of writing and reading books.”