Flailing Snobs, Offended Racists, and Some Really Cool People Ending Hunger

A quick compilation post because I have a story due tomorrow and a few thousand more words to go on it.

Rich Snobs in New York Blocking Children’s Library Expansion

My husband sent me a link to this article in School Library Journal.

Library Director Dennis Fabiszak has said that the East Hampton Village Board of Zoning Appeals has expressed concern that an expanded children’s collection would lead to more library usage by those who live in the less affluent areas of Springs and Wainscott.

East Hampton Village is a posh area where a lot of rich people (like Martha Stewart, Katie Couric, Rudolph Giuliani) have summer homes. Certain residents are objecting to a 6800-square-foot expansion to the children’s area (which last year was ranked last in available books per child, although the article doesn’t say whether that was last in the state or the nation or what) for which private funds — four million dollars — have already been raised. The expansion will add ten thousand children’s books to the library to go with all that floor space, and most libraries would be delighted with the project.

In fact, the library is delighted with it, and wishes they could get on with the implementation.

The problem is apparently that “The library serves not only the Village of East Hampton but also the less affluent communities of Springs and Wainscott.” Ahh, there’s the rub. Some of the locals (just enough, apparently) object to the expansion because one never knows what sort of child would come in to use the library if they actually acquired a decent children’s collection.

I haven’t done any demographic research on these areas (see above for time crunch) but I doubt very strongly that the people of Springs and Wainscott are, like, horribly poor or anything. One doesn’t generally build a fashionable community for wealthy people’s second (or third or fourth) homes right next to a slum. So my guess is that Springs and Wainscott are probably middle class. If anyone knows otherwise, please drop a note and I’ll post a correction, but seriously, I doubt any of the people who live near enough to East Hampton to send their kids to its library are getting government cheese, you know?

Which means that the people objecting to the expansion are horrified at the thought of having to pass actual Middle Class People in the halls of their public library. The horrors! O_O One has to wonder, if they’ll fight this hard to keep children who aren’t actually rich out of their library, just how much empathy or compassion these people have for those who are actually poor.

Racists Criticized For Racist Remarks Cry Censorship

No, really. Jim Hines posted a thoughtful, down-to-earth entry about freedom of speech and censorship and the consequences of being a jerkwad, in response to this open letter on the Carl Brandon Society site, which went up in response to this series of posts/incidents and particularly the third one. The original incident is over and done, since someone explained to Mr. Ellison that he’d been misled and he apologized (sort of) and Ms. Bradford accepted (see the fourth link) but the basic principle being discussed applies to any discussion and Mr. Hines discussed it in a more general context. The core of his point:

* People disagreeing with you is not censorship.
* People stating that they don’t like your cover art and think its racist, sexist, or whatever, is not censorship.
* People banning you from their blogs is not censorship.
* For the writers out there, an editor rejecting your story for his/her publication is not censorship.
* People saying they don’t like something you said is not censorship.
* People telling you racial slurs are unacceptable is not censorship.
* People criticising, mocking, or insulting you for choosing to use racial slurs is not censorship.

Also this: Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.


And to wrap on a positive note:

Brazilian City of Belo Horizonte Ends Hunger with a System That’s Working

This Yes! Magazine article describes a system in which the government, the farmers and the citizens of the city all work together to end hunger, and all benefit. Usually programs to end hunger end up messing someone over. You can only live on government cheese and civil defense crackers for so long before the nutritional deficiencies become clear, and hunger programs based on government hand-outs both diminish the dignity of the beneficiaries and become an ever-greater burden on the taxpayer. Producers are often abused for the benefit of the poor, which drives the former producers into poverty themselves.

Belo Horizonte has figured out a way of making their program work for everyone, though. The poor have access to fresh produce at a reduced price, and the farmers are making more money selling their produce direct to the customers.

A farmer in a cheerful green smock, emblazoned with “Direct from the Countryside,” grinned as she told us, “I am able to support three children from my five acres now. Since I got this contract with the city, I’ve even been able to buy a truck.”

The improved prospects of these Belo farmers were remarkable considering that, as these programs were getting underway, farmers in the country as a whole saw their incomes drop by almost half.

One of the prime gauges of hunger in a population is the infant mortality statistics.

In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate—widely used as evidence of hunger—by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.

Sounds to me like it’s working. Major kudos to the people and government of Belo Horizonte.

There’s more — definitely read the article. They’ve got something here; it’d be great to see it spread to other areas.


Pirate Humor, and a Challenge

The funny first. I was checking hits on my blog and I saw that someone was querying Google for “chasing fire by angela benedetti torrent” recently. Yay, someone else looking to steal one of my stories.

Except I’ve never published a story called “Chasing Fire.” 🙂 Nor even written one. And when I checked, it doesn’t seem there’s anyone else named “Angela Benedetti” who’s written a story by that name either. (Although there are a couple others of us; one’s a meteorologist who publishes a lot of scholarly papers, and the other is a lady who works with children in Bogotá. So far as I know, neither one writes fiction.)

So it looks like this is one confused pirate. 😀 Not that I’m complaining or anything — confused pirates are the best kind. Hey, dude? If you can find a torrent copy of a story by me called “Chasing Fire,” go for it, with my blessing. [wave]

Moving on to the subject of slightly more competent pirates, someone finally did find a copy of “Learning to Love Yourself” and got it up on a torrent site back around the end of June. I sent a takedown note and, credit where it’s due, the site took it down. It was up for however many days, though, and a bunch of people got free copies.

It’s been argued at many times and in many places that piracy of this sort actually benefits the creative producer. That people who’d never have tried my work if they’d had to pay for it right off will instead download a pirated copy, and some significant number will like it and, being essentially good people, will then go and buy a legitimate copy. They might even buy more of my work, once they’ve tried my fiction and become fans. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the case with the person who made the original request for a free copy of “Learning,” judging by his/her comments in the request thread, but supposedly most of the people who use these sites are not actually selfish, entitled thieves, contrary to all appearances.

All right, fine — let’s test that.

Since the pirate copy was made available in late June, that’s too late for any Pirate Bonus Sales to show up in my upcoming royalty statement, but about three months from now I’ll be getting another one, covering sales in July through September. Surely that length of time is enough for most people to read a short story (about 3300 words), decide to buy a copy, and scrape together $1.29.

If my third quarter royalty statement shows a significant spike in purchases of “Learning to Love Yourself” — not necessarily a huge flood of sales, but a clearly noticeable increase over prior sales trends — then fine, I’ll assume that there is some significant number of ethical people who prefer to try before they buy, but who do buy, and that the net result of the torrent upload was a gain for me. “Learning” hasn’t been reviewed recently or anything like that, so there’s no obvious other source of sales stimulus right now; I’m willing to credit it to torrent people, if it occurs.

[Caveat: if “Learning” is reviewed within the next couple of months, or if irony strikes and this challenge is publicized all over the web, that would clearly taint the experiment with multiple sources of attention for the story, and it’ll be impossible to sort out what caused any given number of sales. If the situation remains as it is now, though, then I’ll assume extra sales are to people who downloaded the torrent copy.]

So there you go. To BUGCHICKLV and associates: if you’ve read a stolen copy of my story, this is your chance to prove to the world (or at least to me) that you’re not just a bunch of thieves. If I see that spike in the sales numbers, then I’ll admit that all the pirate apologists who make the “But letting people read for free results in more sales!” argument are right, and I’ll shut up about the issue. I’ll let my publisher go after pirates and torrent copies if they want, but I’ll personally leave it alone. Fair enough?

I think it’s more than fair, myself.

So, let’s see what happens. I’ll check back in on this subject when my third quarter royalty statement comes in, in late October or early November, and then we’ll find out whether piracy is actually “to the writer’s benefit” in the long run, or whether that claim is just a bunch of thieves whining and making excuses.


GLBT Bookshelf and Some Press Weirdness

The first publicity campaign is starting for the GLBT Bookshelf; we’ve got a press release out to a few sites, which is pretty cool. Hopefully the site will get a nice wave of people wandering through. (Here’s my main page for anyone who missed it the last time I posted about this. [cough])

The weirdness, though, came just a few minutes ago. Mel Keegan, whose brainchild this project is, e-mailed all of us who’ve signed up on the site about the press release, which says in part:

Frustrated by the infamous “AmazonFail” fiasco of early 2009, in which the online retail giant was suspected of attempting to deny GLBT literature the benefits of its promotional systems, Keegan conceived of an online community in which all such systems were circumvented — replaced by “community promotion” with direct links to authors’ and publishers’ pages.

There’s another mention of “AmazonFail” later on as well. But Mel mentioned that one of the sites to which the press release was submitted, PR.com, would only run the story if the mentions of “AmazonFail” were removed. o_O Umm, excuse me? None of the other sites minded the mention at all; “AmazonFail” was big news a couple of months ago and mention of it will only bring more traffic. So one has to wonder whether Amazon might not own a chunk of PR.com, and be trying to squelch mentions in the news of their more embarassing moments. Only speculation of course, but it’s definitely suspicious.


To the Person Posting as BUGCHICKLV on Demonoid

Thanks for expressing interest in my story, “Learning to Love Yourself,” as well as a number of my colleague Mike Shade’s stories. It’s great to know there are people out there who want to read my stuff.

But seriously, dude, it costs $1.29. You can buy a copy right here for, like, a quarter of what a cup of coffee costs these days.

Now I’ll admit that with the many, many stories which were passed around on that particular Demonoid thread, you ripped off saved quite a lot more money than that. I’m afraid I can’t find it in my heart to admire your frugality, however, since it comes at the expense of my own earnings and those of other writers I know.

If you’re really that strapped for cash, there are plenty of legitimately free stories around on the internet. There’s some great stuff in fanfic fandom (look for rec lists) plus a lot of published writers have free stories on their web sites. Archives like Nifty are free and specialize in gay erotica. Oh, and there are also places called libraries where you can borrow books for free — I’ll bet there’s one near you.

But you know, the pirated e-book thing? Please knock it the fuck off. Thank you.


[EDIT: Comments closed because of spam.]

Plagiarism Again — This Time by a University President

As you might have heard, it seems the doctoral dissertation of William Meehan, who was granted his Doctor of Education degree by the University of Alabama in 1999, and is currently president of Jacksonville State University, contains a significant amount of plagiarized material. Check out the graphic in Michael Leddy’s blog — the verbage copied word-for-word from the 1997 dissertation of Carl Boening, is hilighted in yellow.

Leddy’s been reporting on this for a while — also see his posts on 23 April and 9 May.

Backing up a bit, this all started when Prof. David Whetstone sued Meehan over some plant specimens which Meehan claimed belonged to the university and Whetstone claimed belonged to him. Whetstone pointed out the plagiarism in Meehan’s dissertation as a way of establishing “a pattern of behavior of him stealing others’ work.” Most people commenting on the situation seem to be more concerned with the plagiarism than the plants, which is probably understandable to everyone but Prof. Whetstone. I think we’re still grateful to him for bringing this up, though.

According to the Tuscaloosa News story linked just above, two UA administrators are fighting subpoenas to testify regarding the plagiarism of Meehan’s dissertation, on the grounds that “it will subject them to annoyance, embarrassment and undue burden.” Umm, right. The great burden of being called to testify in a matter as trivial as a plagiarized doctoral dissertation (especially when the accused is, on the strength of that dissertation, currently the president of a university) is just too onerous. Clearly someone should have sympathy for these poor people. [/sarcasm]

Sandy Gordon, a lawyer for the University of Alabama, claims that the two administrators shouldn’t be called to testify because the plagiarism issue has nothing at all to do with the dispute over the plant specimens, and besides there’s this other guy you should talk to about it ’cause he’s on our side.

That being Mike Miller, who chaired Meehan’s dissertation committee. And, interestingly enough, also chaired Boening’s dissertation committee. That makes him a not-disinterested participant, since if it’s officially decided that Meehan did plagiarize Boening’s dissertation, the obvious question will be, why didn’t Miller spot it? Or Harold Bishop, who was also on both committees?

Interestingly enough:

Miller, a former UA professor, said in an interview last week he was never contacted by anyone at the university to discuss Meehan’s dissertation, contradicting Meehan’s statement that Miller was called upon by UA to investigate the accusation two years ago.

Miller told The Tuscaloosa News that he doesn’t believe Meehan plagiarized.

So either Meehan or Miller is lying about whether anyone talked to Miller about this two years ago. And Miller’s statement to the press doesn’t carry much weight either; if he wasn’t called on to investigate the plagiarism accusation two years ago, then can we really believe he remembers enough details about two dissertations he read ten and twelve years ago to be able to say with any assurance that there was no plagiarism? If he had investigated the matter two years ago then I’d be slightly more likely to believe at least that he believes there was no wrongdoing (although I still wouldn’t take his word for it without a lot more supporting evidence than his bare assertion) but he says he did no investigation and was never asked to. One might suspect that his assertion that there was no plagiarism rests more on the fact that his own academic reputation is on the line here, than on the likelihood of him remembering specifics of two papers he read a decade or more ago.

Patty Hobbs, PR Director at Jacksonville State (where Meehan is president) said in a press release [link to PDF] on 23 April that:

Litigation is currently pending in a lawsuit filed by a JSU professor against the University claiming the professor owns plant specimens located in the JSU herbarium. Unrelated to this case, attorneys for the professor have leveled unfounded plagiarism claims against the university president. These claims have been investigated not only by the university, but by third parties and the university is completely satisfied that there is no substance to the allegations. President Meehan has been clear from the beginning that he used Mr. Boening’s dissertation as a spring board for his own, and Meehan’s dissertation duly credits his predecessor’s work. It appears these false charges have been made in an unfair attempt to pressure the university to pay money to resolve a questionable claim regarding ownership of the plant specimens. The two matters are totally unrelated.

So the two matters are completely unrelated, have nothing to do with one another, and besides he didn’t do anything wrong.

Except the statement that “third parties” have satisfied the university that Meehan is in the clear is questionable. Leddy references an AP article in which

Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today examined the dissertations and “concluded that ‘extensive portions’ of Meehan’s dissertation were plagiarism of Boening’s work.” In other words, the third-party investigation supports, not discredits, the allegation of plagiarism.

One has to wonder just which third parties gave Meehan’s dissertation a thumbs-up? It would’ve been nice if the press release had been more specific on just who was supporting Meehan.

The main argument in favor of Meehan seems to be that he acknowledged Boening. In his abstract, he says: [link to PDF]

Using a case study and content analysis design, this study replicated at a regional comprehensive institution a study of sabbatical leave patterns that had first been conducted at The University of Alabama in 1996 by Carl Boening.

That’s fine so far as it goes, but that’s an acknowledgement that the original idea for the study, and perhaps the method, came from Boening. This very general acknowledgement doesn’t give Meehan wholesale leave to lift extensive phrasing and passages from Boening’s dissertation without further, line-level citation. Boening’s dissertation is included in Meehan’s References list, and Boening’s name is mentioned ten times in the body of the document. That’s not nearly enough to account for all the lifted passages.

The fact that Meehan duplicated Boening’s study, but at a different institution, isn’t the problem. An editor’s note in the Tuscaloosa News describes the situation, then says:

So far, so good. I can’t see anything wrong with extending one line of research in new directions. In fact, that’s what the scientific method is all about. We do similar things with news stories. If one newspaper looks at an issue in their hometown, we may look at the same issue here.

This is common practice in both academia and journalism; whether or not a thesis applies in a larger context or a different setting is a completely legitimate question for research. The problem isn’t with what Meehan chose to study, or even how he conducted his research, but rather with the extensive verbage lifted directly from someone else’s paper.

What’s really outrageous about this isn’t that, unless there’s a fairly huge chunk of mitigating data hiding somewhere, an extremely prominent (and well paid) academic plagiarized large chunks of his dissertation, although that’s bad enough. No, what’s really outrageous is that neither the institution which granted his doctorate nor the one which currently employs him seem at all interested in pursuing the matter.

DRMT, commenting on BoingBoing’s post on the subject, [Comment #108] says:

When a university president is found to have plagiarized, it’s the alumni and donors who need to raise their voices and force the board of regents to fire him or her. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the only way these things get done. Plagiarism is an increasing problem in our classes and students need to understand how serious it is.

I’d say that the alumni and donors of both Jacksonville State University and the University of Alabama need to call for a thorough, independent and transparent investigation of the matter, followed by a firing if the results go against Meehan rather than dismissal without some sort of due process, but otherwise I agree. It’s hard enough to convince other people — writers, readers, students, teachers — that plagiarism is a serious violation and not to be tolerated when someone as prominent as a university president seems to be getting away with it, and profiting handsomely from his stealing and cheating, even after the matter has been made so public. This is outrageous, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to want to be associated with any institution which condones or overlooks such behavior, much less support them with funding.

[ETA: comments closed because of spam.]


All In One Place For Your Convenience

…we have racism, ablism, classism, plus a Hey, let’s all laugh at the fat people! Wow. Check out the WalMart Bingo Card. [eyeroll]

Oh, and down in the comments there’s someone taking a swipe at those outrageous women who actually breastfeed in public! [exaggerated look of horror] Wow, wouldn’t the world be better without them? To say nothing of the people with eyepatches, and the white women with multi-racial kids? [I have to wonder whether women of other races with multi-racial kids are somehow less offensive to whoever made up this bingo card, or whether this person just thinks all brown people look alike and therefore has never noticed a woman of color with multi-racial kids. It’s racist and offensive either way.]

I guess if nothing else, this is a great example to show that people who are bigoted against one group of people tend to be wide-spectrum, equal-opportunity jerks. Because clearly seeing someone who’s missing a limb shopping in the same store as you is just as offensive and objectionable as seeing that someone has left frozen foods thawing on a random shelf somewhere.

Good grief. :/


Amazon Update

Amazon is trying to sidestep the publicity nightmare by claiming that this is all a glitch and that they’re working on fixing it. Umm, sure.

Jane at Dear Author looked up the metadata for a number of books, both ranked and de-ranked, and it seems the stripping of sales ranks might’ve been done in accordance with the metadata, looking for “Gay & Lesbian” or “Erotica” in the metadata to choose what to strip. Books like A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality weren’t stripped of their ranking because, despite being clearly about homosexuality, they don’t have “Gay & Lesbian” in any of their metadata.

That explains how this could have been done automatically. There apparently is a consistent keyword-type search which could’ve been used to strip rankings on books which all had metadata features in common by someone typing in a command. I still don’t buy the “glitch” story, though, because that doesn’t explain why writers like Mark Probst were told straight out that the de-ranking was done by Amazon, per their policy of removing “Adult” material from searches and listings. Why would anyone have said, “Yes, we do this, it’s policy” if it was actually a glitch? Sorry, Amazon — I’m still not buying it.

Note also that someone came up with the tag Amazonfail and people have been applying it on Amazon to books which had their ranking stripped. This isn’t something that’s going to force Amazon to do the right thing; they can and likely will delete the tag as soon as they notice it. I’m willing to spend some time tagging and confirming tags just to be annoying, though; have fun if you have some free time.

I did notice that some of the books which have been used as counter-examples (“Why were those books de-ranked and not these?!”) have been included in the Amazonfail tagging. I didn’t confirm those; I still think that all the books should have their rankings and be included in searches and listings. No matter what I personally think of some other books (the historical manual on dogfighting, for example) I oppose all censorship and suppression of books and won’t even suggest suppressing books I disapprove of, any more than I approve of anyone else censoring books I like. That’s just me, though.


Amazon Is Protecting YOU From Naughtiness!

What? You say you’re an adult and don’t need a nanny when you’re shopping for books? Too bad. Someone thinks you do, and whoever that someone is obviously has a lot of pull at Amazon, and has a particular axe to grind when it comes to GLBT books (that’s books, not just fiction) and also some het erotica.

We’ve been tracking this issue for a few days now and have been trying to be fair, wondering about mistakes and glitches and computer hiccups. Erastes’s Transgressions and Alex Beecroft’s False Colors have been doing very well on Amazon for the last ten days or so, had been ranking in the top five for GLBT pretty consistently and often went one-two. False Colors had been selling well enough that it was close to hitting the bestseller list in “Romance” rather than just “GLBT Romance,” which would’ve been a wonderful coup for Alex as well as her publisher.

Apparently someone objected to that, though, so the sales ranking data was stripped from both books, as well as quite a few others. Without that ranking data, a book won’t show up on any bestseller list. God forbid that NICE people who are just searching for a good, wholesome romance have their eyes burned out by being forced to view the cover and title of False Colors. (Which, BTW, is a historical whose cover art has two guys fully clothed in historic Naval uniforms on it, nothing nasty or smutty or naked, unlike so many of the het romance covers which are apparently considered clean and pure and worthy of being displayed in the more general searches.)

If you’re not sure what sales-ranking data has to do with searches or anything else, this is briefly how it works: When you do a search on, say, ROMANCE on Amazon, it gives you a list of all products which fit that term, listed in order of popularity, determined by how many copies have sold. Those sold copies contribute to the item’s sales ranking; an item which ranks 3,820 on the ROMANCE bestseller list isn’t as popular as one which ranks 249. Everyone wants a rank of 1. If a product doesn’t have a sales ranking attached to it, it’ll never appear anywhere on those search lists, since they’re ordered by sales ranking and the list won’t find a product without one.

The books are still listed on Amazon, are still available for purchase, and can still be found if you go specifically to the Books section (as opposed to using the search box on the front page) and enter the author’s name or the title, but a customer who’s just browsing a section rather than looking for a specific book or author will never see it. Stripping the sales ranking from a book doesn’t make it completely unavailable, but it does cut down significantly on the number of people who’ll see it, which cuts into the author’s sales.

Mark Probst, whose book The Filly had its ranking stripped (despite being a historical YA with gay characters but no sexual content) wrote to Amazon to ask what was up. This is what they said:

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.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D
Member Services
Amazon.com Advantage

So no, it’s not any kind of glitch or error or oversight. The Filly and Transgressions and False Colors, along with Heather has Two Mommies and John Barrowman’s autobiography and Stephen Fry’s autobiography and Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire (which is a non-fiction examination of military policy) and hundreds of other books, some with sexual content and many without, have been deliberately targetted as “adult” material. Umm, right. Heather has Two Mommies is a children’s book, and only the most narrow-minded of homophobic bigots would consider it to be “adult” material.

Oh, and in case you thought Amazon was stripping books with any mention of homosexuality, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality is still ranked and shows up on search lists. So no, this isn’t a case of some clumsy tech setting up too wide a target in the database and stripping the ranking from all books which mention GLBT topics or keywords; this is a very specific and targetted attack on books with friendly or positive treatments of GLBT subjects, plus whatever het erotica the censors think is ewwy enough to be swept up in the same net.

Unless of course it impacts the sales and promotion of Amazon’s own Kindle and Kindle-proprietary e-books. Alex noted yesterday that Kindle versions of False Colors and Transgressions had become available as Kindle e-books, complete with rankings which will let the Kindle versions show up in searches and bestseller lists, but the paperback editions still have no sales rankings. I guess Amazon’s concern for the children and the more narrow-minded of their customers only extends so far as other publishers’ books; for their own pet project, they’re willing to ignore morals and decency and do whatever it takes to make money. Wow, at least they’re consistent. [/sarcasm]

This is being discussed all over so most of you have probably heard about it already in one form or another. Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books are two of the larger sites discussing the story. It’s worth reading the comments; there are many good comments and more details about what is and isn’t being rank-stripped, as well as trackbacks to other discussions. Also note how many people are saying they’re ready to stop shopping at Amazon over this, and how many writers have already stripped the Amazon buy-links from their blogs and web sites.

Smart Bitches also set up a Google Bomb to redefine “Amazon Rank” thusly:

amazon rank
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): amazon ranked

1. To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies).
2. To make changes based on inconsistent applications of standards, logic and common sense.

Etymology: from 12 April 2009 removal of sales rank figures from books on Amazon.com containing sexual, erotic, romantic, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or queer content, rendering them impossible to find through basic search functions at the top of Amazon.com’s website. Titles stripped of their sales rankings include “Bastard Out of Carolina,” “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” prominent romance novels, GLBTQ fiction novels, YA books, and narratives about gay people.

Example of usage: “I tried to do a report on Lady Chatterly’s Lover for English Lit, but my teacher amazon ranked me and I got an F on grounds that it was obscene.”

Alternate usage: “My girlfriend wanted to preserve her virginity, and I was happy to respect that, then she amazon ranked and decided anal sex was okay.”

If you post about this issue, and I encourage you to do so, please include a link to that definition page. It’s already the first entry shown whenever someone Googles “Amazon rank,” but more is always better and will make it harder for Amazon or any publicity-doctor firm they hire to bury it.

The LA Times Blog has posted on the subject. At the time their article was written, Amazon had “not responded to the LA Times request for clarification.” I’m sure that’s because of the holiday, and the fact that no one’s in the office or at all contactable, and not because Amazon’s upper management is locked in a frantic meeting trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to pull themselves out of this publicity disaster they’ve created.

Some people around the blogosphere are questioning why GLBT and erotica books are being censored while most het erotica and sexy romance books are not. Also mentioned are other possibly objectionable books which are still sales-ranked on Amazon. To me, the clear discrimination makes this even more of an outrage, yes, but saying, “Why strip this and not that?!” makes it sound like stripping the sales rankings off all these other books would make this okay.

It won’t.

This isn’t quite censorship but it’s close, and as such it’s a despicable thing no matter what is or isn’t included. I don’t want more het-oriented books stripped of their rankings to make this somehow more “fair.” I want the sales rankings restored to all the books, so that I and every other customer can search for the kinds of books we want and know that we’ll be shown all the relevant books, not just the ones that aren’t too gay, or the ones that haven’t been stripped yet, or the ones available in Kindle editions. I’m an adult, I don’t need a nanny to “protect” me from making bad book choices, and I’m grossly offended that the views of a few narrow-minded people who apparently can’t bear to even see the title and cover of a book they don’t care to read are being given preference over the views of the rational and mature majority.

If Amazon doesn’t fix this soon, I’ll definitely be shopping elsewhere from now on.


On the Organization of Bookstores

Carleen has a poll over at White Readers Meet Black Authors, asking whether bookstores should have a section for African American fiction. Head over and leave your opinion.

Me, I have a few thoughts, which tend to distill down to “This is complicated.”

Because basically, it’s all about authors wanting readers to find (and buy, and read) their books, and readers wanting to find books they’d want to buy and read. So there’s actually a larger issue here of bookstore organization in general, as opposed to just a question of whether books by Black authors should all be shelved together in their own section. So where will readers most easily find books by Black authors?

Well, if the main criterion readers are searching by is the race of the author, then having a special section for Black authors might be the way to go. Want Black authors? African American section. Want Hispanic authors? Latin@ American section. Want Asian authors? Asian American section. Want gay authors? Gay Studies section. (Which is its own issue, because shelving novels with sociological studies, sex manuals, gay history and gay travel guides does not sell a lot of fiction.) Want white authors? Ummm… well, that’s the rest of the store, basically.

Which is where my main problem with this kind of sorting comes from. Giving each group its own little ghetto-shelf in the store doesn’t do very much to encourage people to buy books by writers who aren’t just like them. And by “people” I mainly mean “white people” here, because a Black reader who wants SF has to go to the SF section, and an Asian reader who wants romance has to go to the romance section; it’s not like there are duplicate stores complete with genre sections for each racial group. They might browse through “their” race’s special lit section too, but they’ll hardly ever find anyone else in that aisle.

Reading other discussions of this subject, I’ve seen people of color, both readers and writers, commenting with about equal energy and numbers on either side of the issue, and there is another side to it. If it’s mainly Black people buying books by Black writers, then putting all the Black writers in one section makes it easier for the target audience to find them. For writers, it’s playing to their core audience, and for readers, it lets them hit one spot in the bookstore instead of rambling all over.

To me, this seems like surrendering to the racial barriers, though. It’d never occurred to me, for example, that there were romance novels with Black characters until someone online mentioned them. Once I thought about it, sure, it made perfect sense that Black women would want to read romances too, and would want to have books about people like themselves. But they weren’t (and even now, still generally aren’t) shelved with the rest of the romances, so readers who just want “romances” without having any particular preference about the race of the main characters won’t find anything but white romances unless they think to go looking in the African American Lit section, or wherever that particular store or chain has the Black romances stashed. Impulse buys on the part of the other 80% of the reader market are forfeited when the books aren’t shelved in the place where most readers looking for a given genre would go looking for them.

The argument, though, is that virtually all the people who would actually buy the book are going to be looking in the “Whatever-American Lit” section, that putting the book somewhere else will forfeit the purchases of people who shop there and not in the genre section (and there are people who do that — I’ve seen them arguing in favor of the special sections on that very basis) while gaining few or no new readers from the genre section. It’s a smaller market, but it’s theirs and these authors don’t want to miss out on a chunk of it by gambling on maybes.

Fair enough.

I think it’s a shame, though, that people who might well be interested in a book by a writer of color, whether they’re consciously looking to choose books by writers with a variety of backgrounds or whether they just think that some book which caught their eye looks interesting regardless of the author’s race, are unlikely to ever run across such books in stores where they’re all sorted away into their “special” sections.

I don’t think this situation can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, unfortunately. Someone in the comments to Carleen’s post suggested shelving books in both places — the special ethnic section and the relevant genre section. That sounds good in theory, but unless you’re already a pretty great seller, getting a bookstore to stock multiples of your book can be tough. Heck, these days getting them to stock one copy can be tough. And I’ve never worked in a bookstore, but there are probably inventory and tracking issues with cross-shelving too.

Brick-and-mortar stores are just too limited to solve this problem. Luckily it’s not the only option.

This is a situation e-commerce handles perfectly. Since there are no issues around the physical location of the books, it’s just a matter of building your search database to handle any sort of query a customer might have. Want books by Black authors? Ask for a list. Want SF books by Black authors? You can have that too.

Or you should be able to have it — there’s no technical reason why “romance novel ‘Black author'” should be an impossible search. Practical application lags, unfortunately (just try to find those Black SF authors’ books at Amazon, for example) but the potential is there; it only requires making use of the available tools.

If online bookstores realize we want to be able to search this way, then there’s no reason they couldn’t virtually shelve any book in as many “sections” as will help readers find it. Beloved could be in “African American Lit” and “Literature” and “Fantasy” and “Bestsellers” and “Books-into-Movies” and anywhere else anyone can think of to put it. Or rather, it can carry any other tags or keywords anyone can think to hang on it. Any individual book can be found in a dozen different places around the virtual bookstore, giving its author the greatest chance of catching the eye of a new reader or being found by their core audience.

Everyone wins.


[EDIT:  Comments closed because of spammer trash.]