A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
With 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.
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.”
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 …
Photo courtesy of dabboj on Flickr, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.