Monday, April 13, 2009

A Whiff of Kerosene

Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is required reading for my honors class. The premise of his novel is that books will not die with a bang, but with a whimper. People will quit reading, quit caring, and quit thinking, and very few will take note when the firemen show up to burn down their book-hoarding neighbor's house.

The firemen showed up this week in an unlikely place...retail book giant, Amazon. For those of you who haven't followed the controversy, a brief explanation is in order. Amazon assigns sales rankings to everything it sells. These sales ranking not only identify top-sellers on the site, but also provide the algorithm to conduct searches on Amazon. When an item on Amazon is stripped of its sales ranking, then it becomes invisible in Amazon's search engine unless you are specifically searching by author or title. On Sunday, the Internet exploded at the discovery of an insidious new policy at Amazon. The retail behemoth has stripped the sales ranking of anything that it deems "adult content." So unless you specifically search DH Lawrence or Lady Chatterly's Lover, you won't find it on Amazon.

Romance novels, books that provide help to rape victims, and most notably, almost everything with a gay or lesbian theme (including an analysis of the impact of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" on the military) have been stripped of their sales ranking. Still maintaining a sales ranking...A history of Playboy Centerfolds, the memoirs of several straight porn stars, and a wide variety of sex toys. Somehow the first group is considered "adult content" and the second group isn't.

Hello Firemen. Hello Censorship.

Initially, Amazon explained the policy as an attempt to keep offensive content from popping up in a search by an unsuspecting patron. You can almost smell the kerosene...hear Captain Beatty's voice. Amazon is saving us from ourselves. Later, after the great Easter Twitter/Blog explosion, Amazon backpedaled and called it a "glitch". As of this writing, there has been no apology. On Monday afternoon Amazon called the incident a "hamfisted cataloguing error" and began to reinstate the sales-ranking of some of the 57,000 titles affected.

The positive aspect to this story is the outcry from bookish people everywhere. We're not willing to watch the firemen burn, shrug, and go on about our business. Social media gives individuals a collective voice that is loud and far-reaching. And maybe the whole story isn't as sinister as I'm making it sound. Some have suggested this is not an intentional ploy to censor gay/lesbian content, but evidence that in a giant corporation, the left hand is often unaware of what the right hand is doing.

Either way, the power Amazon wields in publishing by virtue of its size is frightening. Stripping authors of their sales rankings cost them sales when potential readers didn't find them in a search. Even worse, readers' choices have been arbitrarily limited. And that is the very definition of censorship.

My Twitter friend Criss, has an extensive collection of links on her blog. So in the interest of not reinventing the wheel, here is the link to her blog.


  1. Er, I didn't see any books burn. These books could all still be purchased. They were still there. They just search rankings, which is a gimmick to help them show up higher in search, and which is manipulated in all kinds of ways, as we've come to see from this saga.

    To me, the real spirit of book burning was in the mob rage incited on Twitter against over what was *not* a deliberate and conscious anti-gay policy. That's very troublesome, that people can fly into spasms of outrage on the strength of a troll engineering their response, according to one explanation, or errors in tagging according to another. Whatever the actual reason, what you cannot claim is that sat down and said "How can we remove from top view all the GLBT books?" They didn't do that, and saying they did is like book burning, a violation of the truth.

  2. I acknowledged that the "embarrasing and ham-fisted error" (Amazon's words, not mine) may have been unintentional. The bottom line is that Amazon's power to make books readily available or not is significant. At the root of Fahrenheit 451 is the idea that people allowed books to be taken away through inaction and inattention. I think what happened on Twitter is evidence that the individual still has a voice and when used with others can challenge the powers that be.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. I find any sort of censorship scary. Thanks for the post.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton