Amazon and Invisibility


Sign the protest petition:

Call Amazon customer service: 1-866-216-1072.
Call Amazon executive customer service: 1-800-201-7575.

Complain via an email form:
Complain via email to Amazon’s “executive customer service”: .

Twitter using the #amazonfail hashtag.

If you belong to a group that cares about books or rights, encourage your organization to make a public statement.



Or, How Amazon Disappeared Me (Us)

As a new author, I try to keep tabs on how my book is doing. I’m not obsessive about it (really! I swear!), but I did notice the other day that my Amazon sales ranking — that little number that says my book is the 15,000th bestselling book of the moment, or whatever — had disappeared. I thought maybe I hadn’t logged in properly, or it was a temporary glitch, and figured I’d try again later.

Now, thanks to blogger and publisher Mark Probst, I know why:

Amazon had stripped all books labeled “Gay & Lesbian” of their rankings, categories, and searchability. That meant the main entry for my book — which was listed under “Gay & Lesbian” as well as “Nonfiction,” “Biographies & Memoirs,” “History,” etc. — no longer showed up under an Amazon search for either “Leaving India” or my name.


Probst broke the story early Sunday morning in his livejournal blog after receiving a response from customer service saying that Amazon was instituting a policy to prevent “adult” content from showing up in searches. He figured out that Amazon was excluding all titles labeled “Gay & Lesbian” from searches, when one of his young adult titles was de-ranked.

Suddenly, anything gay was rated X.  

As a means of protecting customers who might not want to see explicit material, the policy was wildly inconsistent:

Straight romances were ranked, gay romances were de-ranked. Among the classics, D.H. Lawrence’s scandalously heterosexual novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was visible, while James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” wasn’t. The DVD “Tristan’s Taormino’s Expert Guide to Anal Sex” showed up  in a search for her name, but the current edition of her book “The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women” didn’t; if you looked for the book, you would only see an out-of-print listing.

And my book, which has zero explicit sexual content and approximately one kiss (no tongue), wasn’t showing up on a search, while a similar (straight) book that’s packaged with mine was.  Gayness trumped all other categories.  A little bit of gay was enough to disappear a book.

It’s unclear what criteria Amazon was using besides the “Gay & Lesbian” label, but an awful lot of titles were suddenly rendered invisible.

I called customer service and politely asked the nice representative to please register that I object to the new policy that makes it impossible to find gay, lesbian, and adult titles through a search. (Phone: 1-866-216-1072. Email form:

Then I started digging.

Until now, “Gay & Lesbian” on was a content label similar to “Home & Garden,” “Mysteries & Thrillers,” etc. It was a marketing label designed to make it easier for customers to find books that were of interest to them. Amazon was now using the label as a way to exclude rather than include books. But its menu still listed “Gay & Lesbian” books — 22,381 of them — so I clicked on a random selection.

I found that, without exception, all of the titles were de-ranked — meaning that the main entries for these books would not show up in searches.

This included titles that have a long and valiant history of being censored, as well as others that make you go “hmmm”:

aaaaaklgbniaaaaaac4wcg• Orlando by Virginia Woolf
• Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity by Chandra Mohanty
• A Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde
• Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
• A History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault
• The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts
• Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts (note to self: gotta check that one out for racy content!)
• Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
• Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
• Prayers for Bobby: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son by Leroy Aarons (a late friend, founder of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association)
• Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
• Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
• Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
• Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
• Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology by Estelle Disch
• The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper
• The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman
• The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir by Staceyann Chin
• Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin

As I pulled out titles I recognized from the thousands on the Amazon gay=bad list, I first felt proud to be in such good company.

But scrolling through page after page of de-ranked titles, I felt profoundly sad that all of this amazing work — the genius of our community, heartfelt stories of true experience, our deepest intellectual and emotional grapplings — had been deemed, not to mince words, obscene.  Inappropriate. Wrong. Bad. Needing to be zapped out of existence.

And then, as I kept going, I noticed that the policy had… changed!

Suddenly, the books started showing up in searches again.  Including mine.

But as of right now, the sales rankings are still missing.  This means that titles tarred with the “Gay & Lesbian” brush can never show up in, for example, bestseller lists on Amazon — since bestsellers are defined by rankings. On a personal level it also means that a week ago, for example, I could see that my book was #22 of Biographies & Memoirs –> Ethnic, and #18 of Gay & Lesbian –> Biographies & Memoirs, and so on. Now, that information is simply gone.  To me this was a narcissistic exercise; to a prospective book-buyer, the sales rankings might range from totally uninteresting to mildly influential.

In addition, the loss of categories means that you can’t get to my book from another book. If you’re looking at 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.  Gayness, it seems, trumps all other categories; if you do manage to get to the page for my book, you won’t see any categories describing its content.

Bottom line: Gay books now have second-class citizen status on Amazon.  

I’m grateful for the grassroots power of the Internet that caused Amazon to rescind the most punitive aspect of its new policy, less than twelve hours after Probst posted his blog entry.

I’m shocked by the fact that, in 2009, the mere presence of “Gay & Lesbian” content can deem a book inappropriate — not by some hick rightwing school board in Texas, but by the largest bookseller in the United States.

I’m saddened and angered by the continuing differential treatment. 

And I’m firmer than ever in my support of independent bookstores, where books aren’t sold by algorithm but out of love and an unwavering commitment to authors, stories, and freedom of speech.

14 thoughts on “Amazon and Invisibility

  1. Stunned. Outraged. First I’ve heard of this in the UK. Will spread the word. Boycott the buggers I say – Amazon that is 😉

  2. Pingback: Minal Hajratwala » Blog Archive » Amazon Update

  3. This “policy” enrages me. But I take issue with your own disclaimer that there’s nothing graphic in your novel. Who cares? Imagine if there were lesbian sex. Would this be a reason to censor it? Absolutely not. Thanks very much for alerting and providing the link. I hope this turns around soon.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this information. I am enraged. I am a writer also, and I find this unbelievable! Some of the best books ever written are now on this discrimination list, how tragic. But, money talks and Amazon will pay for this big time. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever shop there again. Even when they are forced to change their policy back. Anyone know of a another good online bookstore? By the way, I am straight, a Christian, and a mother. If they think they are going to just exclude a few customers, they’re very wrong.

  5. Dear Minal,
    This is so ridiculous. I’m sure the response to this Amazon’s policies will continue to be tremendous. Have you contacted any Gay and Lesbian groups about this?

  6. Pingback: In Progress » Amazon Disappears Gays and Lesbians

  7. Minal I was just rejoicing over the lovely coverage of your book on NPR, and now this silliness. Sympathies and I will be adding to the people complaining to Amazon.

  8. HI I know you through Facebook and I ordered your book through Amazon having no clue it has g-l content–which is a PLUS for me. When I started reading your entry, I was all set to boycott Amazon which I use for its convenience. I was glad to see that it ended better than it started but typically with a stupid compromise. I don’t boycott often because for everything I might boycott I am paying for 10 other ways to oppress people in some insidious way. But if I were to get hot new books like yours from elsewhere, have you got any suggestions?

  9. Minal,
    Thank you for blogging about this and helping to spread the word about this silly policy Amazon has decided to embrace. Since I broke blogged about the response Amazon sent me, I’ve been overwhelmed with comments on my blog! It appears people are linking to it all over the Internet. Happy Easter!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *