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Emergency Soapbox: Anne Brooke on the Amazon Ranking Controversy

the-worlds-too-smallWith the internet all a-Twitter with the recent controversy over the mysterious disappearance of Amazon sales rankings on various works of Gay and Lesbian literature (directly affecting visibility, what comes up first on searches, what appears in bestseller lists and general ability to search for these titles ) we asked regular guest-writer, Anne Brooke, whose own rankings apparently vanished into thin air, to report for Vulpes Libris.

Amazon Shenanigans by Anne Brooke

It started off simply enough. Being an obsessive writer (aren’t we all?), I check on my Amazon US and Amazon UK ratings for my books on an almost daily basis. Good job really. A day or so before Easter, I realised that I could no longer find my gay crime novel, Maloney’s Law on Amazon if I typed in my usual search words of “Maloney’s Law Brooke”. Curious, I thought. Must be a glitch or something. Typical Amazon – they’ll get it sorted soon enough. I just have to be patient. Mind you, from past personal experience there’s not a lot else you can do with Amazon apart from be patient – as you don’t get an effective response to any queries anyway.

The next day, the situation remained the same. But I decided to delve a little deeper and finally found my novel by a series of trial and error searches. It was then that I realised that my Amazon ranking had been removed. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought. Not that my ranking is any great shakes at all, but it’s nice to have it there and, on the odd occasion that people do buy Maloney’s Law from Amazon, I occasionally make it into the top 100 gay fiction books, which means that potential buyers are more likely to come across it. For a hand-to-mouth author or a small publisher, every little makes a difference. In short, we depend on the sales rankings to get noticed at all. This is particularly important as, without a ranking, a book is that much harder to search for and won’t appear in certain lists (or will appear way down at the bottom of other lists). Whether we like it or not, Amazon rank in itself can be a key factor in generating more sales.

Over Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday (a timing issue on Amazon’s part that raises its own interesting questions – did they think we wouldn’t notice??), other gay fiction/non-fiction authors began to query what was happening, and to contact their publishers and fellow authors to try to understand what was going on.

First off, Mark Probst, author of the gay Young Adult book, The Filly, queried his disappearing rankings directly with Amazon and received the following not entirely helpful reply:

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 D
Member Services 
Amazon.com Advantage (Quoted from Mark Probst’s Blog)

Bearing in mind that The Filly is a Young Adult novel and does not contain any “adult” material, the fact that it has been included in Amazon’s apparent new strategy is a mystery. Beyond that, however, the exclusion of adult-themed books from the Amazon charts smacks of censorship, and the kind that the modern reader does not wish to see. After all, this isn’t porn that we’re talking about here, but novels that include sex scenes. Moreover, it appears that books with heterosexual adult content have not had their Amazon ranking removed, but that those with GLBT content (whether or not that includes sex of any kind) have.

From that point, the GLBT online literary world began, quite rightly, to take matters into its own hands. A list of books affected began to be compiled here. Books now without rankings included Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, some editions of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (interestingly the edition that survives is the one that doesn’t mention the word Lesbian in the “similar items” search field), EM Forster’s Maurice, Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, and a host of other previously high-charting modern gay fiction books such as Erastes’ Transgressions, and Alex Beecroft’s False Colors. Beecroft’s book was previously in the top ten of historical novels (gay or otherwise) but has no ranking any more and, although its Kindle version (an Amazon product of course …) still has a very good ranking, its “m/m romance” label has been stripped.

Neither has non-fiction remained untouched. The behind-the-scenes book on Queer as Folk no longer has a ranking, and neither does the hardcover edition of John Barrowman’s Anything Goes or Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde.

It seems therefore that having a gay-themed book that sells well, or at all, on Amazon is something that we are no longer allowed to know about.

At this point, the director of the Erotic Authors’ Association, a female writer of gay fiction who goes by the name of Erastes, stepped in and a petition protesting against Amazon’s actions was set up. This can be found here: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/in-protest-at-amazons-new-adult-policy. The petition went live on the afternoon of Easter Sunday and by 11am UK time Easter Monday had gathered nearly 9,500 signatures.

Alongside this, a major Twitter campaign commenced using tag “#Amazonfail” and the online world soon became aware of what had been happening. From there, it wasn’t long before the press got wind of it. The Los Angeles Times ran an article on the issue which can be found here: , and which includes the following statement:

“But as troubling as the unevenness of the policy of un-ranking and de-searching certain titles might be, it’s a bit beside the point. It’s the action itself that is troubling: making books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can’t be a good idea.”

Indeed so.

And, late afternoon Easter Sunday, Publishers’ Weekly, in their article here, managed somehow to contact an Amazon spokesman who said that the loss of rankings was simply a glitch and was not a new policy at all. It is apparently in the process of being fixed. This seems to clash with the previous announcement from Amazon in direct response to Mark Probst’s query (see above), however, and I, for one, am not entirely convinced.

To add to this conundrum, there appears to be an historical element to the disappearing GLBT rankings that I hadn’t been aware of before. According to an Associated Press report , Amazon carried out a similar exercise in February this year which confused Craig Seymour, the author of the gay memoir All I Could Bare. He wrote in his blog that his sales rank was dropped in February, then restored nearly four weeks later, after he was told by Amazon that his book had been “classified as an Adult product.”

It seems reasonable then to wonder what Amazon will do about this injustice now – if indeed they intend to fix it at all – and, more worryingly, when they will do it again.

Meanwhile, as Amazon presumably ponder their next move, the publishing world continues to comment on this and a list of links can be found at Erastes’ Livejournal site here.

For now, we in the GLBT literary world wait for the rankings and proper search facilities on our books to be restored, and remain concerned about future Amazon strategies …

——–

Anne Brooke’s novels include A Dangerous Man, Thorn in the Flesh and Maloney’s Law. For more information on Anne and her books check out her website or visit her blog here.

Photo courtesy of dabboj on Flickr, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

26 comments on “Emergency Soapbox: Anne Brooke on the Amazon Ranking Controversy

  1. Nik Perring
    April 13, 2009

    If what it looks like is happening is happening then it’s simply unacceptable.

    Nik

  2. rosyb
    April 13, 2009

    I’ve been trying to read around about this a bit and don’t understand what is going on. Or, more importantly, why. Or if there is a policy. Or what it is. I will keep eyes and ears peeled and if anyone has anything further on this – let us know in the comments.

    I wanted to thank Anne for putting together this great report and overview so quickly for VL.

  3. Hilary
    April 13, 2009

    Hear, hear – so very grateful for this account from the front line. It is so helpful to read a piece that pulls all the strands of this issue together, and gives a timeline as well.

    There are some wonderful conspiracy theories brewing, from people who are trying to second guess what Amazon’s algorithms contain, and how they can be subverted by a concerted band of trolls. My money is on a human decision, possibly one with unintended consequences – I certainly hope so! The Guardian has a piece ( http://bit.ly/3v8q4k ) that has in its headline that Amazon are aiming at more ‘Family-friendly charts’ – well, not friendly to this family, given that my latest purchase from Amazon was Simon Raven’s ‘The Feathers of Death’. republished by the Gay Men’s Press (yes, I’ve checked, and no, it no longer has a sales ranking). The piece adds some more authors to the list of those caught by this – Gore Vidal, Alan Hollinghurst (‘The Line of Beauty’ has lost its ranking), Stephen Fry – as you can see, definitely walkers on the wild side … or possibly not.

    Surely, surely – this cannot have been what they intended. WAS that a troll I just saw, lurking in the shadows? S/he/it must have severe RSI by now ….

  4. Crystal Jigsaw
    April 13, 2009

    Directed here from another blogger. Agree. Hoping to get my childrens book listed on Amazon very soon. Then my paranormal novel which does actually contain a little sex.

    Thanks for the info.
    CJ xx

  5. Pingback: Amazon anti-GLBT shenanigans « Anne Brooke’s Weblog

  6. bookchildworld
    April 13, 2009

    Thanks for this, Anne. A good over-view. I hope it is just human error on Amazon’s part, because the alternative is horrific.

  7. Christine
    April 13, 2009

    I’m a heavy enough user of Amazon that I subscribe to their prime service. I think I have some cause to end that service if this is not resolved in a manner that provides real access. Please provide updates!

  8. Caroline Rance
    April 13, 2009

    Thanks for bringing together all that has happened so far, Anne, as I am finding this whole thing very confusing. Surely, surely, it will turn out to be a software blip or human error or even a disgruntled staff member doing it as a hoax, because if this is a real policy then it’s terrifying.

  9. Moira
    April 13, 2009

    Yes, thank you for a very rational explanation of what’s happened so far. If it was me, I’d have been spitting neutrons about it.

    Like everyone else, I really hope this was just a piece of ill-thought-out klutziness and not anything more sinister.

  10. nmj
    April 13, 2009

    If there is some kind of ‘policy’ for gay and lesbian books, this is incomprehensible & downright scary… however I feel I should add that my own (heterosexual) novel disappears periodically from the Amazon ranking for days at a time, but it always comes back, I reckoned it was just a glitch…now I am wondering! There are some sex scenes, but it is all pretty tame.

  11. annebrooke
    April 13, 2009

    It’s all a bit of a mystery for sure, and thanks for showcasing our concern, Rosy – much appreciated. As of now, it appears (I’d put that in italics if I could but I don’t know how on WordPress!) that GLBT book rankings are slowly coming back, but not all of them (that we know of) yet for sure – and we’re certainly keeping a close eye on it.

    Love & hugs

    Axxx

  12. Jackie
    April 13, 2009

    You know, if this was really about graphic sex, they’d have done the same to authors writing steamy straight scenes, such as Nora Roberts. I don’t buy that “family friendly” label. It’s censorship, pure and simple, from amazon. I thought these were more enlightened times. Apparently not.
    Thanks Anne for putting all the different facets of this situation together in such a cohesive & clear way.

  13. Alex Beecroft
    April 14, 2009

    Thanks for the post, Anne! They’re now saying that it was a mistake

    http://blog.seattlepi.com/amazon/archives/166329.asp

    to which I cynically say ‘yes, it was a very big mistake, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also deliberate. They stripped the sales ranking from gblt positive *theology* like John J O’Neill’s ‘The Church and the Homosexual’ – as if it was ‘adult’ while leaving books about the ex-gay movement and the evil gay agenda to become bestsellers. No way is that just a glitch. That’s an agenda.

  14. CarolineG
    April 14, 2009

    Thanks for explaining this so well, Anne. I came back from a weekend away to find emails from friends about this and couldn;t make any sense of it in my tired state. Have now signed the petition.

  15. megan
    April 14, 2009

    Thank you Anne – adeptly explained. This kind of censorship is outrageous

  16. Marion
    April 14, 2009

    While reading your post, I ran a amazon.de (German amazon) search for “Maloney’s law brooke” out of curiosity and I was actually still able to find your book.
    Doing the same on amazon.com, it didn’t lead to any results. Seems like amazon still didn’t fix the “glitch” on its English-language platforms.
    It’s really ridiculous. Hope they’ll see their error.

  17. annebrooke
    April 14, 2009

    How bizarre, Marion – must be very dodgy as I found it plus its ranking on Amazon.com about an hour or so ago – it was only on Amazon.co.uk that I found problems! Nice to know I’m there in Germany though.

    🙂

    Axxx

  18. James Bennett
    April 16, 2009

    Thanks for the info Anne. My ranking is still there. Unrequited is tagged as ‘gay romance’, not sure what difference that makes, but all the same, the actions of Amazon are reprehensible, discriminatory and should be repealed at once.

    JB

  19. annebrooke
    April 16, 2009

    Yes, I think they’ve mostly come back now, James, so if you looked today it was probably there and you may not have known it had vanished?!?

    :))

    Axxx

  20. Catherine
    April 17, 2009

    Amusingly, here’s one of the books that has received some unexpected publicity as a result of the debacle:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Parents-Guide-Preventing-Homosexuality/dp/0830823794

    The second customer review is particularly good.

  21. annebrooke
    April 17, 2009

    Scary indeed!!!

    ==:O

    Axxx

  22. Lisa
    April 22, 2009

    Thanks so much for writing this excellent piece, Anne. Have there been any new developments? Anything more from Amazon in terms of explanations?

  23. annebrooke
    April 23, 2009

    Not really, Lisa – I gather some people are still having problems with it, but 99% are back as we should be. Mind you, it’s certainly given a big boost to some people’s sales, but sadly not mine!

    🙂

    Axxx

  24. Lisa
    April 23, 2009

    Ah, perhaps I might subtly drop a link in here to VL’s review of the very fabulous A Dangerous Man, by Anne Brooke:

    https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2007/11/29/a-dangerous-man-by-anne-brooke/

    🙂 🙂

  25. annebrooke
    April 23, 2009

    What a kind-hearted woman you are! Thank you muchly. Weirdly though, ADM clung onto its ratings all the way through the Amazon Affair (as it were!), probably as it doesn’t appear on Amazon.com … That’s the only explanation I can think of anyway!

    🙂

    Axxx

  26. Pingback: Crazy Like a Fox. « Vulpes Libris

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