Posts Tagged amazon

The AmazonFail Backlash is an LGBTD Issue

–I was born in a system
That doesn’t give a fuck
About you nor me.

Zomby, “The Lie” (sampled from Sizzla, “Born in a System,” via Ricky L, “Born Again”)

The story of #amazonfail that’s being told:

Over a holiday weekend, somebody in France who works on Amazon’s internal database made one simple mistake. As a result, thousands of books were incorrectly flagged as adult, removed from the Sales Rank list, which made it difficult to find these books using Amazon’s Search function, which uses the Sales Rank figures to weight its results. A few authors found out about this, and, through the power of Twitter, a huge outpour of rage and anger sprang up on Easter Sunday. By Monday, after some frantic work during a holiday a weekend, Amazon issued an apology and fixed the glitch. End of story.

But the story hasn’t ended, even though the above explanation has been adopted by the general public, and perhaps the majority of the LGBT community, as well as some of those who had been most active on #amazonfail. I think we’re actually at the beginning of our fight to get to the bottom of this. First of all, this didn’t start over the weekend. As was fairly widely reported on Sunday, Craig Seymour, author of a memoir of his years as a gay stripper in D.C., experienced similar problems in February. He’s recently reconstructed a timeline of his struggle to get Amazon to take any notice. (For the record, Craig Seymour adheres in large part to the above story.)

Amazon’s fail did not begin over the weekend, or even in February, but in the summer of 2008. On July 13, 2008, a Kindle reader asked in an Amazon forum,

I’m just wondering why more lesbian ficiton writers haven’t made their work available on Kindle? Is there some drawback that is alluding me? Most books are available as e-books, why not Kindle?

Author Francine Saint Marie replied, two days later,

Hello there,

Almost all of my titles are published on Kindle and they’re selling, but Amazon refuses to post sales rankings for them. Without a sales rank, a title can’t make the “popular category” lists, and that makes it difficult for the target audience to find it. I have tried to resolve this issue, but Amazon won’t budge on it. My own research indicates that there are other titles in this genre also not ranked, but which, like mine, are definitely selling. Thus, I would have to conclude, based upon my own experience, that the Amazon/Kindle is simply not a very lesbian-friendly marketplace…

You can find both my paperback and Kindle titles by clicking on my name. Still others can be found by searching for FSM in the Kindle store. (On each of my product pages you will find an “also bought” list; those usually will be my other Kindle titles, too.)

Good luck on your quest and very best regards to you–

Saint Marie has posted her story on AfterEllen, and thankfully, it seems to be disseminating somewhat. I explained in my last post why the so-called “apology” is anything but.

It’s what’s happening now that’s really frightening me. The shitstorm on Twitter, people are now saying, was totally uncalled for, and those who participated in it should be ashamed of themselves. In particular, it’s an excellent case study of how homos (or “liberals” in general) are hypersensitive pansies who will irrationally support any random cause that comes along and sounds sufficiently scandalous. 

I’m a Victorianist, which means that instead of wasting all my time puzzling over this #amazonfail bullshit, I’m supposed to read nineteenth-century British novels. In Victorian novels, if women acted in a manner that might put patriarchal authority into question, they could be labeled “mad,” and put into an asylum against their will. Towards the end of the century, it was more likely to be the specific diagnosis of hysteria than the catch-all accusation of  madness–and this could lead to a “rest cure,” such as that depicted in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the twentieth century, this pathologizing of any form of resistance towards the status quo was more likely to find its target in gays and lesbians. In the twenty-first century, this pathologization continues. Women were liable to be dismissed as acting from irrational hysteria in the nineteenth century, and queers, in this beautiful twenty-first century of ours, face the same charge. We don’t need to give a fuck about what queers have to say, because they’re probably getting their panties in a knot over nothing.

Or: if gay and lesbian were unfairly classified as adult, then that’s just because gays and lesbians are more likely to seek “adult” content; they’re more likely to go for porn than normal people. This is how somebody responded (in part) to one of my comments on Mary Hodder’s guest blog on TechCrunch:

The least persuasive argument here is that “anti-gay books weren’t flagged”. But that’s because they aren’t sexually explicit. Let’s ask this question: does an anti-gay screed get a title GLBT in the first place? I doubt it, because what member of the GLBT constituency, going to that section of the bookstore to find their tribe and buy books, is going to want to have a nasty anti-gay book staring at them? The prudent bookstore would put that back in some other category like “sociology” or “health” or something.

It seems to me that those concerned about trying to screen out adult explicit content either consciously, with eyeballs, or automatically, with a set of tags like “GLBT” and “erotica” simply identified GLBT as a high-probability category for very explicit sexual material.

And in fact their action was legitimate because it *is* a category with a very high probability for sexually explicit material! There’s *nothing wrong* with that. It’s a free country. You can’t ban porn books anymore. You can’t ban even books with some graphic scenes in them. But if they re all in a group to in fact help customers find them better as a sales tactic and as a nod to identity, you can’t then later scream that they were “targeted” in a snafu like this.

I was born in a system that doesn’t give a fuck about you or me.* It doesn’t need to give a fuck about you or me because we’re just hysterical, oversensitive, irrational sub-people who make a huge kerfuffle over nothing. It doesn’t need to give a fuck about me or you because all we want is sex, anyways. I mean who could deny that? And we’re completely irrational when people flag gay and lesbian books as adult that are completely unerotic, because, let’s face it, there are very few books about gays and lesbians which aren’t pornography.

This mess tagged #amazonfail indicated a wound, and now that wound is suppurating. Over the weekend, we found out that gay and lesbian books could be disappeared, and nobody would care unless we raised a shitstorm. But now, the aftermath is all about reinforcing the most damaging stereotypes of queers. This isn’t a fight over censorship, it’s the fucking culture wars all over again. Instead of rendering visible the negative, dismissive stereotypes sexual minorities face, Amazon’s epic fail has resulted in the confirmation of those stereotypes.

Some commentators have noted that this outrage was connected in some way to the battle over same-sex marriage, especially due to the recent legalizations in Iowa and Vermont. For me, it was connected–but I don’t give a fuck about gay marriage, really, speaking for myself. I’ll fight (not to the death, I’m no fucking pseudo-Voltaire) for anybody to marry whoever the fuck they want, but I would never in a million years want to be married to anyone, even if unicorns turned out to be real and marriageable. But this whole equation of LGBT activism, at the present moment,  with gay marriage has not made me a happy dyke. I want to give a fuck about something that has to do with life and living rather than being normal. And the reason  why I jumped on the #amazonfail bandwagon was because it was completely different from the fight for gay marriage.** This wasn’t about being able to be normal, but being able to be. Which is still a major fucking issue. The system doesn’t want to give a fuck about you or me, as the aftermath of amazonfail has shown.

*I realize it’s heavily ironic that I start this post with an epigraph from the words of somebody who only gives a fuck about queers because he wants them to be killed. But that Zomby track is fucking killer, and don’t you dare torrent that shit, because I fucking give a fuck about brilliant underground dubstep producers.

**My other complaint about considering gay marriage as the LGBT issue is that it has resulted in the continued marginalization of transgender folk and transsexuals, discriminated against not just by the straight majority, but, all too often, by cisgendered gays and lesbians themselves. And what about people with disabilities? Are they also hypersensitive, or obsessed aboout sex? Or do they not merit mentioning at all, as is the case in the vast majority of accounts of #amazonfail?


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Why I’m putting on pants and boycotting Amazon

As many people have noted, the statement widely reported as Amazon’s apology for their “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error” does not contain the words “sorry” or “apologize.” In fact, the phrase quoted above is the only part of the brief statement which remotely resembles an apology:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

The continuation of the opening sentence might seem like they’re embarrassed in particular since they “pride themselves on offering complete selection,” but it seems to me, and I don’t think I’m merely being paranoid, that there’s an undertone of “We have so much stuff in our databases, so give us a break.” The next paragraph begins with an accusation: the twitterers, the bloggers, the journalists, have all been “misreporting” the issue. In other words, we may have done something “embarrassing and ham-fisted,” but so did you, so give us a break. The explanation which follows has numerous holes in it, which have been excellently discussed by Pandagon here. At the end is a golden opportunity to say something like “We sincerely apologize to all of our readers and merchants offended [understandably offended would have been nice] by this unfortunate accident, and especially to the authors adversely affected.” But no: it’s just some vague statement that they’ll work on the problem, with no specification as to how they’ll work on the problem.

Let’s say a wife cheats on her wife, and when she’s found out, says, “I’m so ashamed of myself, I made a mistake, it won’t happen in the future.” Her partner would be absolutely justified in assuming that the cheater’s clearly got narcissistic avoidance issues, and Amazon’s statement displays the same psychology. Or, more bluntly: it’s not me, it’s you.

Of course, as in a relationship, sometimes it’s not helpful to overanalyze the things people say, especially if they’re said in the heat of the moment–but, given the long time (by internet standards, and, last I heard, Amazon was an internet company) it took for this brief not-even-official statement to be released, I believe it was carefully worded, and thoroughly debated. The insulting arrogance I’m attributing to Amazon in their statement may be an overreading on my part, but it’s difficult for me to imagine that the absence of the words “sorry,” “apology,” even “mistake” could have been anything but deliberate. If Amazon’s PR department had anybody on Twitter (and it would be positively frightening if they didn’t), they would have known that people really wanted Amazon to apologize instead of blaming it on some “glitch.” The people who tagged their tweets #glitchmyass weren’t just people who claimed that Amazon actually was intentionally censoring books–the majority, I’d say, were people who thought that the “glitch” explanation wasn’t enough, and they wanted a more satisfactory explanation along with an apology. We did give Amazon the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know about any of you, but I was expecting a press conference kicked off by a real phony apology–or better yet, a press conference conducted through Twitter.

Why was it decided not to say the magic word? The only reason I can come up with was that they were afraid to be perceived as catering or capitulating to an LGBT audience, which might have a negative impact on another sector of their demographic. They decided that it would not be worth it to risk the ire of the fundies and the homophobes. As I reread the statement, it seems more and more clear to me that it’s calculated to have nothing in it that the religious right could use to call a boycott on Amazon. On a generous reading, you might say that they are apologizing for a fuckup that affected the homos, but there’s no way that you could say that they’re apologizing to the homos. It’s a crucial distinction, I think, one governed by fear of the “Real Americans.”  That market share, it seems, is more important to them than  lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transfolk, and people with disabilities.

Does that make Amazon evil? Maybe they’re being wisely pragmatic: maybe the religious right does give them more revenue than us book-loving queers and other minorities and our allies. That’s their decision to make, which they’re entitled to. But we’re entitled to make ours.

I boycott a bunch of companies. After all, I’m somebody white people should like. But really, it doesn’t come into play in my day-to-day life. I boycott McDonald’s because they lied about the beef tallow in their fries. I’m a vegan, though, so it’s really not that hard. I boycott Exxon because they’re totally evil about climate change, but I don’t drive. But Amazon? I’m a grad student. Our institution, which only has grad students, is not large enough to support a profitable inhouse bookstore. Thus, during my years here, I have spent a lot of money on Amazon. Well, relative to what I make. So this is a boycott that’s actually meaningful for me. (And plus, as I’m sure many of you know, there are many other reasons to boycott Amazon which we’ve been reminded of over the past few days.)

On Sunday, I may have said that I would never buy from Amazon again, but I quickly changed my position to wait and see. I’ve waited and seen. Oh, and the pants thing. One of the cool things about the Great Twitter Shitstorm of 2009 was that, in addition to there being a lot of emotion and good old-fashioned righteous indignation, there were moments of unexpected humour–as happens in many good street protests. After #amazonfail and #glitchmyass came #nopants, started, I believe by Maureen Johnson, who came up with some delicious protesty rhymes, such as “Hey, hey, what do we SAY? Amazon must be more GAY! Read our TWITTERS, read our RANTS. Now we all take off our PANTS!” So I did, but now I’ve put them back on.

What if Amazon actually does apologize? It’s highly unlikely. The window of opportunity has passed, and to issue an apology right now would keep the issue alive when it seems to be fading away.

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