Amazon criticized for deranking 'adult' books

Recent move to delist from its sales ranking system gay and lesbian titles it deemed "adult" raises the ire of some who characterize the move as online censorship.

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Updated at 7:15 p.m. PDT with comment from Amazon.com.

Amazon.com recently delisted from its sales ranking system gay and lesbian book titles that it deemed "adult," raising the ire of some who characterize the move as online censorship.

Author Mark R. Probst wrote on his blog Sunday that he noticed the change a few days ago:

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?

Probst, the author of a novel with gay characters in the Old West, said he was perplexed by the move and used his status as a publisher to contact Amazon for an explanation. He said he received the following response from an Amazon Advantage service representative:

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.

Of course, being delisted from the rankings doesn't mean that the book giant has stopped selling the title; it just means that the title won't show up with a public sales ranking or in the best-seller lists--often a factor in how shoppers make their purchases.

An Amazon representative characterized the move as a mistake but declined to elaborate.

"Essentially, there's a glitch in our system and it's being fixed," Amazon spokesperson Patty Smith told CNET News.

Certainly, one could make an argument that deranking titles with "adult" themes would make a reasonable policy for a site that attracts a wide range of the Internet population. But as demonstrated by an online petition that has already attracted more than 4,000 signatures, the policy appears to be biased against books with gay, lesbian, and transgendered characters.

Here's a sampling of books titles that the petition's backers noted are still ranked in the listing system (all notes and descriptions on the titles are supplied by the petition supporters):

• "Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds" by Chronicle Books (pictures of over 600 naked women)
• Rosemary Rogers' "Sweet Savage Love" (explicit heterosexual romance)
• Kathleen Woodiwiss' "The Wolf and the Dove" (explicit heterosexual romance)
• Bertrice Smal's "Skye o'Malley," (which are all explicit heterosexual romances)
• Alan Moore's "Lost Girls" (which is a very explicit sexual graphic novel)

The petition supporters note that the following titles with gay and lesbian themes are no longer ranked on Amazon:

• Radclyffe Hill's classic novel about lesbians in Victorian times, The Well of Loneliness, and which contains not one sentence of sexual description;
• Mark R. Probst's YA novel "The Filly" about a young man in the wild West discovering that he's gay (gay romance, no sex);
• Charlie Cochrane's "Lessons in Love" (gay romance with no sex)
• "The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience," edited by Louis-George Tin (non-fiction, history and social issues)
• "Homophobia: A History" by Bryan Fone (nonfiction, focus on history and the forms prejudice against homosexuality has taken over the years)

The move has raised the ire of heterosexuals, including Kassia Krozser, who wrote an open letter to the online retailer:

Somehow, the brain trust of your company has decided to protect the "entire" Amazon customer base by restricting access to content that someone (who?) decided was offensive. In your zeal to protect me from myself, of course, you managed to leave content that I find singularly repulsive online (really, exploring the human condition is bad, but Mein Kampf is just fine?).

As a heterosexual, happily married adult female, I am deeply offended by this decision. As a customer, I am angered enough to take my business elsewhere, and I'd like a refund on my Kindle since, despite reports that your database sweep was not complete, you have decided to limit my ability to purchase books -- from literary classics like Lady Chatterley's Lover to newesque titles like Tipping The Velvet and Running With Scissors.

It's unclear what--if any--impact this backlash will have on Amazon, but certainly many are troubled (and should be) that the bookseller is apparently trying to make certain books harder to find.