“Why Don’t They Just Burn The Books?”: AmazonFail Ramps Up


The AmazonFail drama continues, with the beleaguered company now claiming that “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error” was what lead tens of thousands of books to disappear in searches and, by all accounts worse, lose their sales rankings. Books in particular that trended towards gay and lesbian lit, although Amazon has now helpfully expanded that category to “health and erotica” as well, in an a clarification that almost assuredly won’t help them. (Goes one entertaining NY Times graf: “The titles that lost their sales rankings during the weekend included James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” the gay romance novel “Transgressions” and “Unfriendly Fire,” a recently published book about the government’s policies on gays in the military.”)

Former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash weighs in:

    Not so long ago, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer/questioning individuals had bookstores that functioned effectively as community centers–providing books, videos, bulletin boards, safe spaces, workshops, to the community. However, of the course of the past twenty years “mainstream,” heteronormative capitalism made social contracts with GLBTQ persons. We’ll sell you all that stuff, and we’ll give you discounts, and it’ll be even more convenient, and customer service will be more predictable. We’ll have shelves just for you, we’ll have categories and tags that will allow you to find all the stuff you need. (No, no one signed this contract–like the social contract that made democracy, it’s one you go along with, it’s not handed to you at birth, or on reaching the age of majority.)

Amazon breached that social contract. The breach was no less problematic if it wasn’t entirely intentional, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s excellent post makes clear (and boy does he has a great commentariat…). Because in a world where whiteness and straightness are “norms” and males benefit from our patriarchial history, it is always the GLBTQ books, the queer books, the non-normative books that get caught in the glitches, the ham-fisted errors.

A point echoed by Daniel Mendelsohn the Times:

    “There are mistakes and there are mistakes,” said Daniel Mendelsohn, an author whose memoir “The Elusive Embrace” lost its sales ranking over the weekend. “At some point in this process, which I don’t understand because I’m not a computer genius, the words gay and lesbian were clearly flagged, as well as some kind of porno tag. I say, do I want my book in anyone’s mind to be equivalent to a porno? And the answer is no.”

Mr. Mendelsohn pointed out that books like “American Psycho,” a novel with sexually and violently explicit content, did not lose its sales rank. He teamed up with others affected by the problem, including the playwright and author Larry Kramer, to start a petition to boycott Amazon. As of Monday afternoon it had attracted more than 18,000 names.

Which petition they’re temporary retiring, as Amazon is acting conciliatory, if not particularly coherently, in terms of its response to the problem. Nash’s point–that mistakes have an unfortunate way of being exercised on certain groups way more than on other certain groups, whether by design or otherwise–is probably the salient one. Amazon promises “to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.” Meanwhile, quoth Gore Vidal: “What kind of a childish game is this? Why don’t they just burn the books? They’d be better off and it’s very visual on television.”

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