April 14, 2009, 12:00 AM

Amazon takes heat for dropping rankings of many gay-themed books

The e-retailer stopped showing the sales rank of many gay-themed works, which meant they didn’t show up in search results. Word spread fast via Twitter. Amazon.com says the problem was caused by a cataloging error and was not limited to gay-themed books.

Has Amazon.com Inc. been listing gay-themed books differently than other titles, making them harder to locate, or did the e-retailer just make a programming error? That’s the question many online shoppers and gay rights activists are trying to figure out after a furor that broke out this weekend.

Word spread through online communities, especially Twitter, that sales rankings for many gay-themed books were removed. Sales rankings enable books to be listed in Amazon.com’s best-seller lists and contribute to how books are listed in search results. Reports said E.M. Forster’s literary classic “Maurice,” about a homosexual relationship in the early 20th Century, was not included over the weekend in search results for the highly regarded and prolific author. A search today listed the novel in the third position.

An Amazon.com statement issued yesterday says “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error” resulted in the site no longer ranking 57,310 books, including many titles that did not have gay themes.

“It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian,” the statement says. “In fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. 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.”

Mark Probst, author of “The Filly,” a gay-themed novel for young adults, discovered the problem and noted it in an April 12 post on his blog.

“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,” Probst wrote. “The very next day hundreds of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book ‘The Filly.’ Many [fellow authors] decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening.”

As a publisher with an Amazon Advantage account, Probst was able to contact Amazon.com. In response to his questions, he received the following message from the e-retailer: “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.”

Users of Twitter who read Probst’s post spread the word quickly. Thousands included “#amazonfail” in their messages. The tagging tactic, which alerts Twitter’s internal systems that produce trend reports on topics, pushed the Amazon.com issue to the top trends section of Twitter, where many users go to see hot issues being discussed on the social network. Gay rights activists, including well-known author Larry Kramer, added their voices in high-profile press reports.

Things quieted down a bit after Amazon.com, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, released its statement yesterday. However, the issue remains among the top subjects in the Trends section of Twitter-second only to Easter. And some gay rights activists remain skeptical of Amazon.com’s explanation, saying they now will closely monitor the e-retailer’s handling of gay-themed books.

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