Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gay and Lesbian Authors Battle Amazon for Equal Rights

The weekend of April 11th and 12th, a nationwide human rights battle took place between and the authors who write glbt-themed books that are listed on Amazon’s site. And if you are not a published glbt author or don’t use Twitter, you probably never heard a word about it.

It all started when, without notice, the sales ranking numbers that Amazon assigns to every book disappeared for most, if not all, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender themed titles. Authors affected ranged from James Baldwin and E.M. Forster to Rick Reed and Victor Banis. My Hawaiian romance novel, Island Song, was no exception. Even though my book is rather tame, focusing on romance rather than erotica, it also lost its ranking.

Most readers browsing Amazon for reading material never pay much attention to these ranking numbers, and I suspect many Amazon customers are not even aware these ranking numbers exist. How many people really care if a book by their favorite author is ranked 330,000 rather than 22,000? So did it mean so much that glbt titles lost their ranking numbers?

YES! These numbers are not merely numbers to stroke author’s egos and establish a pecking order and bragging rights among writers, Amazon uses these sales ranking numbers to establish their bestseller lists, and also to arrange the output of any search performed by a customer. If a book has no ranking number, it does not show up in the bestseller lists or in customer searches. By taking away the rankings, Amazon essentially made glbt books invisible to searches. It was quite akin to shoving glbt authors in a literary closet and would certainly have a dramatic effect on their future book sales.

It was no surprise that the glbt writing community’s first reaction to this perceived anti-gay policy was blatant anger. Within hours, online writing groups, yahoo discussion lists, gay blogs, Facebook and twitter were all flaming Amazon. Thousands of authors took to the net.

Several published authors who inquired to Amazon management by email received the following explanation:
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.
Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.
Best regards,
Ashlyn DMember Advantage

This response infuriated the authors even more since most heterosexual novels with explicit sexual scenes, such as Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers and Lost Girls by Alan Moore managed to keep their rankings. Even Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds by Chronicle Books, with pictures of over 600 naked women, kept its ranking. Frankly, most people realized that Amazon’s explanation didn’t hold water.

So the question I saw Twittered about was: What to do? When the British government decided to put a tax on salt, Gandhi led a march to the sea to make his own. It became a much larger movement than the British government expected or wanted. Just so, within hours, authors of glbt-themed books created a petition directed at Amazon to reverse its policy, and by Monday over 800 signatures were gathered and it was rapidly growing by the hour. A nationwide boycott of Amazon was being discussed on every part of the net. The story even trickled onto the mainstream media, with mentions in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and CNN. In one day a grassroots movement was on the march and people were taking notice.

By Monday afternoon Neil G. Giuliano, President of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, approached Amazon, and the bookseller reversed its stance, indicating that a “cataloging error” had occurred, and that they were feverishly working to correct the error. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Giuliano said:
"GLAAD has reached out to and they indicate this was an error, so we expect to start seeing evidence of its correction immediately, and any loss of visibility of gay-themed books as a result of this error will be made right by Amazon," Giuliano said. "When people learn about the lives of gay and transgender people and the common ground we share, the culture changes and advances. It is so important that stories about the lives of our community are available, and that companies like Amazon promote these titles in an equal fashion."

Nobody that I’ve talked to in the glbt writing community is buying the “cataloging error” explanation, but everyone is relieved that all the rankings were back in place by Tuesday. So the storm is over, the good guys won.

As I look back over the events of the weekend, I’m amazed and very pleased. I’m not amazed that Amazon backed down, I assumed they would eventually, but rather that in a matter of hours a grassroots protest was launched over the net involving thousands of people, and within a day, petitions were organized and signed, the mainstream news media was alerted, and people acted. In one day a battle for equality was launched, fought and won. I’ve heard many people call Facebook and Twitter useless online tools for people with nothing better to do than describe their mundane lives minute by minute. But these online tools have proved to be a serious form of communication that can almost instantly gather thousands, perhaps million around a cause. Yes, I’m very impressed.


Eric Arvin said...

Good write, Alan!

NL Gassert said...

Thanks for the recap, Alan. Let's make sure this isn't swept under the carpet too quickly.