We've been tracking this issue for a few days now and have been trying to be fair, wondering about mistakes and glitches and computer hiccups. Erastes's Transgressions and Alex Beecroft's False Colors have been doing very well on Amazon for the last ten days or so, had been ranking in the top five for GLBT pretty consistently and often went one-two. False Colors had been selling well enough that it was close to hitting the bestseller list in "Romance" rather than just "GLBT Romance," which would've been a wonderful coup for Alex as well as her publisher.
Apparently someone objected to that, though, so the sales ranking data was stripped from both books, as well as quite a few others. Without that ranking data, a book won't show up on any bestseller list. God forbid that NICE people who are just searching for a good, wholesome romance have their eyes burned out by being forced to view the cover and title of False Colors. (Which, BTW, is a historical whose cover art has two guys fully clothed in historic Naval uniforms on it, nothing nasty or smutty or naked, unlike so many of the het romance covers which are apparently considered clean and pure and worthy of being displayed in the more general searches.)
If you're not sure what sales-ranking data has to do with searches or anything else, this is briefly how it works: When you do a search on, say, ROMANCE on Amazon, it gives you a list of all products which fit that term, listed in order of popularity, determined by how many copies have sold. Those sold copies contribute to the item's sales ranking; an item which ranks 3,820 on the ROMANCE bestseller list isn't as popular as one which ranks 249. Everyone wants a rank of 1. If a product doesn't have a sales ranking attached to it, it'll never appear anywhere on those search lists, since they're ordered by sales ranking and the list won't find a product without one.
The books are still listed on Amazon, are still available for purchase, and can still be found if you go specifically to the Books section (as opposed to using the search box on the front page) and enter the author's name or the title, but a customer who's just browsing a section rather than looking for a specific book or author will never see it. Stripping the sales ranking from a book doesn't make it completely unavailable, but it does cut down significantly on the number of people who'll see it, which cuts into the author's sales.
Mark Probst, whose book The Filly had its ranking stripped (despite being a historical YA with gay characters but no sexual content) wrote to Amazon to ask what was up. This is what they said:
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.
So no, it's not any kind of glitch or error or oversight. The Filly and Transgressions and False Colors, along with Heather has Two Mommies and John Barrowman's autobiography and Stephen Fry's autobiography and Nathaniel Frank's Unfriendly Fire (which is a non-fiction examination of military policy) and hundreds of other books, some with sexual content and many without, have been deliberately targetted as "adult" material. Umm, right. Heather has Two Mommies is a children's book, and only the most narrow-minded of homophobic bigots would consider it to be "adult" material.
Oh, and in case you thought Amazon was stripping books with any mention of homosexuality, A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality is still ranked and shows up on search lists. So no, this isn't a case of some clumsy tech setting up too wide a target in the database and stripping the ranking from all books which mention GLBT topics or keywords; this is a very specific and targetted attack on books with friendly or positive treatments of GLBT subjects, plus whatever het erotica the censors think is ewwy enough to be swept up in the same net.
Unless of course it impacts the sales and promotion of Amazon's own Kindle and Kindle-proprietary e-books. Alex noted yesterday that Kindle versions of False Colors and Transgressions had become available as Kindle e-books, complete with rankings which will let the Kindle versions show up in searches and bestseller lists, but the paperback editions still have no sales rankings. I guess Amazon's concern for the children and the more narrow-minded of their customers only extends so far as other publishers' books; for their own pet project, they're willing to ignore morals and decency and do whatever it takes to make money. Wow, at least they're consistent. [/sarcasm]
This is being discussed all over so most of you have probably heard about it already in one form or another. Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books are two of the larger sites discussing the story. It's worth reading the comments; there are many good comments and more details about what is and isn't being rank-stripped, as well as trackbacks to other discussions. Also note how many people are saying they're ready to stop shopping at Amazon over this, and how many writers have already stripped the Amazon buy-links from their blogs and web sites.
Smart Bitches also set up a Google Bomb to redefine "Amazon Rank" thusly:
Inflected Form(s): amazon ranked
1. To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies).
2. To make changes based on inconsistent applications of standards, logic and common sense.
Etymology: from 12 April 2009 removal of sales rank figures from books on Amazon.com containing sexual, erotic, romantic, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or queer content, rendering them impossible to find through basic search functions at the top of Amazon.com's website. Titles stripped of their sales rankings include "Bastard Out of Carolina," "Lady Chatterly's Lover," prominent romance novels, GLBTQ fiction novels, YA books, and narratives about gay people.
Example of usage: "I tried to do a report on Lady Chatterly's Lover for English Lit, but my teacher amazon ranked me and I got an F on grounds that it was obscene."
Alternate usage: "My girlfriend wanted to preserve her virginity, and I was happy to respect that, then she amazon ranked and decided anal sex was okay."
If you post about this issue, and I encourage you to do so, please include a link to that definition page. It's already the first entry shown whenever someone Googles "Amazon rank," but more is always better and will make it harder for Amazon or any publicity-doctor firm they hire to bury it.
The LA Times Blog has posted on the subject. At the time their article was written, Amazon had "not responded to the LA Times request for clarification." I'm sure that's because of the holiday, and the fact that no one's in the office or at all contactable, and not because Amazon's upper management is locked in a frantic meeting trying to figure out how the hell they're going to pull themselves out of this publicity disaster they've created.
Some people around the blogosphere are questioning why GLBT and erotica books are being censored while most het erotica and sexy romance books are not. Also mentioned are other possibly objectionable books which are still sales-ranked on Amazon. To me, the clear discrimination makes this even more of an outrage, yes, but saying, "Why strip this and not that?!" makes it sound like stripping the sales rankings off all these other books would make this okay.
This isn't quite censorship but it's close, and as such it's a despicable thing no matter what is or isn't included. I don't want more het-oriented books stripped of their rankings to make this somehow more "fair." I want the sales rankings restored to all the books, so that I and every other customer can search for the kinds of books we want and know that we'll be shown all the relevant books, not just the ones that aren't too gay, or the ones that haven't been stripped yet, or the ones available in Kindle editions. I'm an adult, I don't need a nanny to "protect" me from making bad book choices, and I'm grossly offended that the views of a few narrow-minded people who apparently can't bear to even see the title and cover of a book they don't care to read are being given preference over the views of the rational and mature majority.
If Amazon doesn't fix this soon, I'll definitely be shopping elsewhere from now on.