Years ago, in the city where I lived then, there was a gay bookshop. This wasn’t usual by any means in most UK cities, but my city had one. And then Waterstones came to the city. And they had the money to stock lots of lesbian and gay books – detective fiction, science-fiction, erotica, teenage fiction, humour – and they did. Instead of heading out of the way to a small bookshop that had a limited kind of stock, LGBT people could stop off at a mainstream bookshop and browse their way round a vast stock.
So when the gay bookshop went out of business, which it did, it didn’t seem to matter so much (well, lots of us were sad and angry, of course …. Waterstones wasn’t the only reason: but it was certainly a strong contributing factor: the main culprit was, as is usual with UK gay bookshops, HM Customs and Excise) …except that as soon as the gay bookshop had gone bust, Waterstones stopped stocking lesbian and gay books, and moved them. Instead of shelves out front for anyone to find, and a vast range of titles and genres – within a year, all the lesbian and gay books that Waterstones stocked were fitted into one shelving unit, in the basement, next to the heterosexual erotica shelving unit. I’m not joking. That’s exactly what happened. I may even have exaggerated how long it took.
Waterstones needed to stock these books when it was competing with a gay bookshop: when it was no longer competing, when we didn’t have a choice about where we shopped, or what books we could buy, Waterstones knew they could serve up crap. And they did. That’s the free market in action to diminish choices.
Amazon is most LGBT people’s gay bookshop of choice. Or rather non-choice: these days, unless you live in London, the odds are there is no where else you can buy gay books. There may be a shelving unit in Waterstones, somewhere at the back out of the way, or there may not.
And now Amazon have decided they want to do the online equivalent of pushing their gay stock to the back of the bookshop.
Mark R. Probst, author of The Filly, noticed something rather odd on April 10th:
On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.” There was buzz, What’s going on? Does Amazon have some sort of campaign to suppress the visibility of gay books? Is it just a major glitch in the system? Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening.
And this is the answer he got, from Ashlyn D, at Member Services for Amazon.com Advantage:
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.
“Adult” materials, eh? Well: that apparently doesn’t include this:
With the first Centerfold, who just happened to be the radiant Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner masterminded a cultural icon: Playboy’s Playmate of the Month. Now, for the first time ever, Playboy has gathered together every Centerfold from every issue into one luxurious collector’s edition. That’s over 600 beauties. We’ve reproduced these Centerfolds exactly as they appeared in the magazine to create a full-size, deluxe volume. Paging through this colossal, chronological collection provides a breathtaking view of our evolving appreciation of the female form: from the fifties fantasy of voluptuous blondes to the tawny beach girls of the seventies to the groomed and toned women of today.
But perhaps Amazon think people only buy Playboy Centrefolds for the articles.
I’ve never read these novels – so I checked out the Amazon pages for a few I do know. The Fires of Bride, by Ellen Galford, a beautifully funny novel about a lesbian artist who goes to live on a Hebridean island. No graphic sex whatsoever. No pics of naked women. No sales rank on Amazon, either. But it’s out of print, so perhaps that isn’t surprising.
How about Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule? Even less sex than The Fires of Bride, and it’s in print. But it has no sales rank. How odd. What about Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson? Well, well: that has a sales rank on Amazon.co.uk, but not on Amazon.com. (Perhaps the .co.uk webmaster went on strike when instructed to consider Winterson, who is quite famous as a literary writer in Britain, a “lesbian writer” all of whose books are “adult” material to be pushed to the back of the shop out of sight?) Of course this is disgusting that Amazon should be doing this to any writer, any novel, simply because the subject matter is LGBT. It wouldn’t surprise me if, next week, Amazon.com reverses its decision over many novels with famous writers or with pro-active publishers: but the less-known novels, the small-scale publishers (and most LGBT books are published by small-scale publishing houses and are less-known novels) will find themselves still relegated to the shelving unit, in the basement, tucked away out of sight where the decent men who buy Playboy Centerfold won’t be disturbed by them.
Please note that just before this, Erastes’ Transgressions and Alex’s False Colours were topping out the rankings. Also note that The Filly is a YA Books, and therefore I would suggest one of the more important books to have out there for kids questioning their identity, and Transgressions and False Colours are being shelved with the Romance section of Barnes and Noble. Though as Mark points out, that is of no fucking importance because this is homophobic bias pure and simple.
I have no idea what to do about this except spread the message. If anyone has any ideas on what to do, tell me. Because I am not letting this lie. As vashtan said, they are happy to take the money, but not happy to give these books the recognition they rightly deserve.
I don’t know what to do either, beyond publicise Amazon being homophobic gits.
Update: Nicola Griffiths speaks out:
Amazon’s policy is idiocy of the highest order. Some thoughtless manager OK’d the low-hanging-fruit approach. (“Hey, if you want to protect Moral Americans from na-s-s-s-ty sexual content, then deleting all queer books from the rankings—and therefore the bestseller and some search listings—will get lots of ’em at once! Woo hoo, straight Christians will be safe!”) That manager should be fired.
And then I want a public apology from Jeff Bezos.
This is important. A quick and quiet revocation of the policy is not enough. I want a public acknowledgement and a pledge to never again try to shove queers under the carpet. It’s the only way to counter the perception queer readers and queer writers don’t count.
Being invisible is dangerous. It ruins careers and it puts young readers at risk.
Nicola Griffiths is the award-winning writer of Ammonite and Slow River and other books with many lesbian characters. As far as I can see, all her novels had their sales ranks removed in the Easter wipeout, and though Amazon is restoring some of the high-profile books, they’re evidently not in a hurry to do that for all of the titles blocked from sales ranking.
I agree with Nicola Griffiths, wholeheartedly: the least that should happen is that the “glitch” is fixed, and fast, and then Jeff Bezos should publicly apologize for wiping so many LGBT books off the listings at Amazon.
Below the fold: Screenshots of the page for Playboy Centerfolds on Amazon.com (which is evidently not “adult” material, as it has a sales rank) and the page for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, on Amazon.com, with sales rank suppressed on account of it being “adult” material. Also compared: Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, by Nathaniel Frank, with Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk. One’s about DADT, one’s about young straight men beating each other to a pulp; guess which one is considered “adult”?
Update: Amazon Rank Open letter on Booksquare Amazonfail on Twitter.