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Amazon de-ranks so-called adult books, including National Book Award winner

adult materialAmazonPaul Monette


One of these books has been removed from Amazon's sales rankings because of "adult" content; the other has not.

"American Psycho" is Bret Easton Ellis' story of a sadistic murderer. "Unfriendly Fire" is a well-reviewed empirical analysis of military policy. But it's "Unfriendly Fire" that does not have a sales rank -- which means it would not show up in Amazon's bestseller lists, even if it sold more copies than the "Twilight" series. In some cases, being de-ranked also means being removed from Amazon's search results.

Amazon's policy of removing "adult" content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon's customer service explained:

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.

Probst wrote a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the L.A. Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: "Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs, "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, "The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1" by Michel Foucault, "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), "Little Birds: Erotica" by Anais Nin, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and "Becoming a Man" by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Books that remain ranked include: "Naked" by David Sedaris, "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller, "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis, "Wifey" by Judy Blume, "The Kiss" by Kathryn Harrison, the photobooks "Playboy: Helmut Newton" and "Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds," "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs, "Incest: From 'A Journal of Love'" by Anais Nin, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (2007 Vintage International edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 Penguin Classics edition).

Certainly many of the books that are no longer ranked are no more "adult" than many of those that are -- as the list above shows, the same book, by different publishers, might meet either fate. And Kindle editions of some books remain ranked. "Unfriendly Fire," for example, is #1 in Gay and Lesbian Nonfiction on the Kindle -- even as the hardcover of the book, which was released on March 3, does not show up at all when searched for.

When book critic Bethanne Patrick came across the news, she posted in on Twitter, where it circulated rapidly. Sunday afternoon it took just an hour for the hashtag #amazonfail to become the top trending topic on the site. An online petition was created. A site run by romance writers started an effort to redefine the phrase "Amazon rank" as "To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies)."

But as troubling as the unevenness of the policy of un-ranking and de-searching certain titles might be, it's a bit beside the point. It's the action itself that is troubling: making books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can't be a good idea.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Comments () | Archives (91)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Thank you. Other people following this story have noticed that books on preventing suicide in gay teens (Dead Boys Can't Dance: Sexual Orientation, Masculinity, and Suicide) were de-ranked, while "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality" and "Does God Love Michael's Two Daddies?" sail through just fine.

I gave their customer service line a call at 800-201-7575.

I think you made a typo. You have the Forester book and the Bauby book on both lists.

Amazon will not get a single penny more from me until they change this policy.

Because the titles don't show up in the search engines, now if you type "homosexuality" into the Amazon.com search engine the first book that comes up is A PARENT'S GUIDE TO PREVENTING HOMOSEXUALITY.

I agree with Joe. I sent them an e-mail a short time ago and let them know that, although I've spent over $5K at Amazon in the past 5 years, I will not be spending another cent until they stop this ridiculous practice and explain what was behind it.

Clearly Amazon does not understand the degree to which a free and open book business is vital to maintaining free and open expression in society.

It looks like James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" lost its sales ranking, while "Go Tell It To The Mountain" was not.

Is there any evidence, other than the single quote from the unnamed customer service rep, that this is the result of a new policy and not a glitch? This is not the first time that the book rankings have gone wonky on Amazon. There is every indication for anyone who takes the trouble to look that this is not a new policy, and simply a database error. One can't expect the frothing masses on twitter to think before making these claims, but one would expect a purported journalist (even a lowly blogger) to try and get some facts before confirming the wild conjecture.

As a long-time Amazon customer, I registered my complaint with them and won't be purchasing anything until this homophobic policy is changed.

Actually, Rhonda, those books do appear on both lists -- in each case, one edition has lost its ranking, while another has not.

I've just emailed them requesting the deletion of my account.

I also called the customer service line and registered my complaint. I recently bought a Kindle, but after learning of this practice, will no longer purchase content from amazon. I'm also a frequent purchaser of their Video On Demand service, but will undergo a complete boycott until this practice is changed.

@Rhonda - it's not a typo, it's pointing out different editions of books are, puzzlingly, receiving inconsistent treatment.

To Jack Gordon:

http://markprobst.livejournal.com/15293.html has a named csr who states it is their policy.

Jack, thanks for your comment. You'll be interested to read Craig Seymour's documentation of his troubled with Amazon de-listing his book for "adult" content (see the link above). Craig is a journalist who has a PhD; his book is "All I Could Bare: My Life in the Gay Strip Clubs of Washington, DC." On his blog, he writes: "the only books I could find without a 'sales rank' had gay content like mine. For instance, my gay stripper memoir had no sales ranking, but Diablo Cody's stripper memoir, 'Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper,' did."

report of "adult" content being de-ranked and removed from search engines has been documented, as

@ Jack: An Amazon glitch that deranks only GLBT books and none other? Seriously? This wasn't a random deranking of a few titles, it was specifically targeted at an entire genre. Did YOU do any research before you posted?

Wow, this is more than troubling. It looks as if I will be spending more time at Barnes and Noble which has no such policy. Unfortunately, I already have a Kindle...this sort of censorship will likely derail the Kindle's expansion. People won't invest in the device if they can't trust that Amazon is trying to make everything available.

Seriously, if they remove the books from the search, they are essentially not selling them anymore.

Here are two LA-centric titles of note that have been de-ranked:
Gay LA by Lillian Faderman
City of Night by John Rechy

Give them a call or sent an email and let them know how you feel about this...




The children's book "Heather Has Two Mommies" has also been de-ranked. The product information still says Reading level: Ages 4-8. Adult content? Really? FAIL.

My book about my family and the Indian diaspora was de-ranked, even though it -- like many others tagged "Gay & Lesbian" -- has zero explicit sexual content.

It's not just the rankings but the loss of categories, which means that you can no longer get to my book from another, similar book. If you’re looking at, say, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and you click on > History > Asia > India to find similar books, you won’t find mine... it's been disappeared. Gayness, it seems, trumps all other categories.

I've listed things people can do to protest here:

This is outrageous to me, why dont they de-rank some books on evolution too.

Thank you for blogging this! I'm an author of erotic romance novels and this has also effected me as well as many of my friends. I've also signed the petition.


What needs to happen is for the authors to be informed and then have their publishers get involved.

I don't understand how on earth amazon can justify this!

Won't use them in the future even if they have a change of heart about this policy, the damage has been done.

Its funny they still rank books that teach you how to set up a profitable dog fighting business. amazing.

It's not just adult books. Heather Has Two Mommies has no ranking.

As a reader, writer, and thinking adult, I'm furious. Sign the petition, and stop by my blog for more ways you can help and a contest to thank everyone for pushing back against this outrageous behavior!


Good! Now once they quit selling all f thses books perhaos the churches will resume buying from Amazon agan. There are many more who are boycotting over these books than buy them.

I guess Oprah's depressiing book club dreck is more interesting!!!

Rakings BTW are based on how many sold not on anything else.

All but 2 of the 64 titles published by MLR Press have been de-ranked. We do publish gay erotic romances but a number of our books are detective mysteries with no 'adult' content whatsoever unless you count them being well-written, complex stories 'adult'.

Yeah, our nation is really at risk due to young people masturbating to literature.

I think that, just in case, we should close the art museums, too.

You didn't mention "Heather Has Two Mommies." Yep, TOTALLY adult material, that one.

As of this writing, I am no longer ordering from Amazon, I thought we as a nation gone beyond this, but seems we have not. Glad this has been brought to my attention and will be bringing it to the attention of my fellow students.
- V. Henry

I sent an email to customer service asking for an explanation of this policy. I would stop patronizing Amazon if these claims are true.

Looks like I'll be registering a complaint too.

What next - banning Harry Potter because it uses (gasp) WITCHCRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAFFTTTTT?????!!!!!

The fact that this seems to have been enacted in large scale over a holiday weekend strikes me as... interesting.

Just goes to prove, the internet never really sleeps and as for "lowly boggers," lately, they've been the more reliable, not to mention, rapid sources for news than actual news outlets.

End result is, this is a big fail on amazon's part. As an author, I'm going to be asking my web host to take down the purchase buttons from my site and as a reader/consumer, they don't get a cent from me until this is resolved.

I would like to welcome all indie Amazon ebook authors and publishers affected by this perplexing policy to list with Smashwords instead. We don't discriminate against any content and we pay 2X Amazon. We allow the author/publisher to voluntarily tag their content as adult content, and if a reader is under 18, we warn them. And IMHO, a book with GLBT characters but lacking explicit sexual content like @minal's above SHOULD NOT be listed as adult content. Silly silly. What century do we live in, anyway?

I'd also speculate that such homophobic censorship already happens to a great degree in commercial publishing, but it's made under the guise of a book's limited "commercial appeal."

Mark Coker

My book, "Vodou Love Magic" has been de-ranked -- presumably because it includes a "Coming Out of the Closet" spell and includes information on polyamory. My other two books have not.

So: not only do they try to strongarm publishers; not only do they offer a substandard e-reading device and try to force everyone in publishing to play along or go pound sand; not only do they use similar strongarming against independent bookstores - now they also discriminate against gays and lesbians?

Amazon has been a fail for quite a while now.

American Psycho has a passage in the book where the main character shoves a hamster tube inside a woman's vagina and then inserts a starved rat, which "burrows" into her body through her stretched out vagina - WHILE SHE IS STILL ALIVE. Now as blatant as my explanation was, the book was WAY more graphic. Now tell me that Amazon censoring gay-themed books but allowing depictions of rats eating women's vagina, cervix and uterus is worthy of NOT being censored, and doesn't have anything to do with homophobia.

I've e-mailed customer service and let them know my money goes every place but Amazon until the policy is reversed.

cccc: As a Christian who actually reads the Bible, I'm happy to tell you that I will be boycotting Amazon until they sort this out. A good Christian shall not tolerate discrimination towards anyone, but remember that Jesus did not tolerate it, spoke against the bigots and the ones who saw themselves as "holier than thou".

I did a little bit of my own research...only one of Randy Shilts three books has been reclassified. Only "Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military" has been reclassified while "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk" and "And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic" have been left untouched. No doubt those two books have been left alone because of the popularity of Milk, the movie and the fact that "And the Band Played On" is the #1 seller in the HIV/AIDS book section. So while Amazon may be run by gutless, homophobic trolls -- they are selective and greedy gutless, homophobic trolls.

Incidentally, I've read all three of Shilts books many times and I can tell you that Conduct Unbecoming is by far the tamest of the three -- And the Band Played On is very graphic in parts.

This isn't a glitch, this is purposeful. I'm sure they'll write it off to some innocent mistake eventually -- I won't buy it, or anything else from them ever again.

@cccc : Do you have links to boycotting movements against these books?

In any case, if there has been more boycotting due to the books being sold than due to this policy, I assure you, that's about to change. This is absurd, homophobic, and insulting to the publishing industry and the entire reading public. The Color Purple won a Pulitzer prize, yet the book is hard to find in searches that are indirect, like a search for Alice Walker.

Just horrible.

Even regardless of the reprehensible nature of the new policy, couldn't they be sued for unfair business practices? In the case of Unfriendly Fire, it only appears as a Kindle version whereas the HC version is nowhere to be found.

Thank you for this blog post. AMERICAN PSYCHO and Playboy are okay for innocent American readers, but HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES is not? They'd better start delisting John Updike and Saul Bellow. This is definitely NOT a glitch. I'm the author of a literary erotic novel, AMOROUS WOMAN, that, incidentally is heterosexual in theme. I have a Ph.D. in Japanese literature and the bookis based on a Japanese erotic classic. Of course, that book was banned by the Japanese government in the 1930s, you know, the fascist one, for its adult content. Nice to know Amazon is taking notes from the guys who planned Pearl Harbor. But they should probably do a little history homework to make sure we're safe from ALL dirty books. And yes, I've joined the boycott. I hope the Internet, which made Amazon what it is, can bring it down for doing this.

Amazon just made a big marketing mistake, as they will soon find out.

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