Amazon Says It Will Correct Its Search Function

Amazon.com has generated a dustup over the way it filters adult books. Books with any gay content at all — racy or not — no longer have a sales ranking. That makes those titles more difficult to find using Amazon's search function. Amazon says it is fixing the problem.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Amazon.com came under fire. That's after it implemented a new system that put all books tagged as lesbian or gay into the adult category. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, that designation then blocked the books from regular searches and rankings, making them tough for customers to find.

LAURA SYDELL: One of hundreds of books caught up in this is "Leaving India." It's a book about family history and the journey that brought the author to the United States. It came out last month, and writer Minal Hajratwala says she occasionally checked Amazon to see how it ranked in sales. But when she looked this weekend, something odd had happened.

Ms. MINAL HAJRATWALA (Author, "Leaving India): And I looked for my name or I looked for "Leaving India." My book didn't come up. And two or three people told me later in the day that they had also looked for my book and tried to buy it and hadn't found it.

SYDELL: Hajratwala couldn't figure out what was going on. But she also happens to be a lesbian and in part of the book, she discusses coming to terms with her sexuality. So fans tagged it lesbian. As it turns out, Amazon was putting all books with this tag into its adult category. That means that her book, along with all erotica, didn't come up in regular searches.

Ms. HAJRATWALA: So someone looking for a book about India or Indian history or Asian-American history would not come up with my book.

SYDELL: Hajratwala went online and discovered that she wasn't the only lesbian and gay author to have this experience. It was even affecting classics by James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf. But Hajratwala was one of many authors who wrote about it on Facebook and this weekend, it was all over Twitter. The reaction has been something of a testament to Internet activism, says Christopher Rice, the board chair of the Lambda Literary Foundation.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER RICE (Board Chair, Lambda Literary Foundation): This has mobilized a huge amount of people in a very short time. And my phone's been ringing off the hook.

SYDELL: Customers called Amazon to complain. Amazon told NPR that it was an embarrasing and ham-fisted catalog error. There were soon changes. Hajratwala's book "Leaving India" began showing up in searches, but it still wasn't ranked.

What troubles Rice of the Lambda Literary Foundation is the growing power of Amazon. As bookstores close around the country, it's becoming the only source for books.

Mr. RICE: This is a sweeping sort of glitch, if it is a glitch, with wide repercussions for a lot of writers. And there could not be a worse time in publishing for something like this to be happening.

SYDELL: Rice thinks that with the economy in bad shape and book publishers suffering, Amazon shouldn't be keeping its customers from searching for any book, adult or otherwise.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.