Jennifer Astle

April 14, 2009

Glitch, My Ass

I might be a little late to join the discussion of the epic fail on the part of Amazon, but I am joining the discussion none the less.  Think of it this way; I needed a day or two to wrap my head around why, in the 21st Century, Amazon (a product of said century) would begin to act like a tiny Christian bookstore in a small Texas town?  For those of you who haven’t heard, or don’t understand what the big fuss is about, let me clarify.

Amazon has recently removed sales rankings from books that they deem “adult”.  As a result these books will not appear as frequently (if at all) in related searches, or display how well they are doing in sales.  The problem is, the books that are being stripped of their sales rankings relate primarily to homosexual issues, queer theory, and don’t forget, the evil feminism, while books by the likes of Tucker Max, chauvinist extraordinaire (you have to be good at what you do, I suppose), are allowed to remain in the regular search and sales rankings.

Pardon me, but what the fuck?

I’m not a big fan of censorship in general.  My mother raised me in a censorship-free home.  This doesn’t mean that I was raised with a get out of jail free card, but it does mean that I was encouraged to think for myself, ask questions, and form opinions based on what I knew, not what I thought.  The only time I can ever remember my mother denying me the right to watch or read something was when I expressed an interest in Clockwork Orange…when I was twelve.  I can’t say I blame her.

But, back to this epic fail by Amazon.  They are defending their actions by saying that this is a glitch.  Let me clarify what this means for you in Public Relations speak; “We were subversively trying to marginalize books by the LBGT and feminist communities, and we really didn’t think that anyone would notice, because who reads books by gay and women writers? And then we got caught.  So as not to offend what we now realize is a large portion of our base, we’re saying it was a glitch. Please believe us!”

Others (including myself) aren’t taking the bait.  Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com, an author whose books were stripped of their rankings, quotes her editor who communicated with Amazon about the issue;

Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won’t run into links to products that might be offensive.

I ask this of Amazon; what if I find Harry Potter offensive, or Tucker Max, or any of the books about “curing” homosexuality in your kids?  I still have to look at those search results.  Here’s my trick…if I find it offensive, I don’t click on the fucking link.  Or better yet, I click on the link so I can learn the perspectives of those who offend me so I am better able to make clear and succinct arguments about it.  It’s called not living with your head up your own ass. Why is this such a difficult concept to grasp?

But changing the collective conciousness of an America who encourages young women to wear purity rings and promise their virginity in a mock marriage to their fathers is not a task I feel I can accomplish in my lifetime.  The question still remains what Amazon’s intent was.  What did Amazon hope to accomplish by creating it’s very own dark room behind the curtains for certain books?  From Deanna Zandt;

What kinds of books received this “adult” label? Erotica with gay themes (but not heterosexual themes), rape survivor advocacy and rape culture criticism, and feminist missives were among those suddenly labeled adult material. Soft-core hetero porn (such as Playboy centerfold calendars), hetero-themed sex toys and anti-gay screeds were left untouched. Let the maelstrom begin.

Yes, let’s. As someone who has probably spent somewhere in the vicinity of thousands of dollars on Amazon, I am outraged that my money is paying for the salaries of those who specifically chose to exclude LBGT and feminist books while leaving Playboy centerfolds untouched (so to speak).  I’m not saying censor Playboy, or Max, or any of the other books on the site.  Leave them all alone.  Presumably, if we are an intelligent society we can grasp the horrors of finding a book we may not like for personal/political/homophobic/religious reasons in our search results, can’t we?  Remember the old adage; don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

This all boils down to one thing; the dehumazining of the homosexual (and to some extent, female) writer.  Both life and the publishing industry are difficult enough for straight people, let alone gay people and feminists searching for their voice, and readership in the literary world and Amazon simply decided this literature didn’t count.  It’s sick, and it’s sad, and yes, I feel very strongly about this issue.

The LBGT community has theory and history, and they have more than earned their right to a collective literature about their lives and struggles.  Imagine for a moment if Amazon decided to declare all books about Black History or by black authors inappropriate?  Of course, then it would be a mistake too, wouldn’t it?

This little book burning party by Amazon has caused me to realize that, at least until this issue is fully rectified, and an apology is issued to the LGBT and feminist communities, I can no longer continue to patronize Amazon.  Over the years I have ordered many books, electronics, and other items from the site, and these humble dollars will now go elsewhere.  I urge you to do the same.

Below I have included a list courtesy of Jezebel, of books that have and have not been stripped of their sales rankings.  Decide for yourself what message Amazon was trying to send.

Books Stripped Of Amazon Sales Rankings:
Wetlands
Ellen DeGeneres: A Biography
Outing Yourself: How To Come Out As Lesbian Or Gay To Your Family, Friends, And Co-Workers
Gay Life And Culture: A World History
Homosexuality And Civilization
The Way Out: The Gay Man’s Guide to Freedom No Matter if You’re in Denial, Closeted, Half In, Half Out, Just Out or Been Around the Block
The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World
Coming Out Of Shame: Transforming Gay And Lesbian Lives
The Gay And Lesbian Self-Esteem Book
Heather Has Two Mommies
Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity And Sexuality In High School
Sexing The Body: Gender Politics And The Construction Of Sexuality
Chelsea Handler’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection Of One Night Stands
Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown
Full Frontal Feminism by Feministing’s Jessica Valenti
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
For Yourself: The Fulfillment Of Female Sexuality
Queer Theory: An Introduction
Out In Theory: The Emergence Of Gay And Lesbian Anthropology
Diary Of A Drag Queen
The Rise And Fall of Gay Culture
A Memoir Of No One In Particular
Apples And Oranges: My Journey To Sexual Identity
Bi Lives: Bisexual Women Tell Their Stories
Bisexual Women In The 21st Century
Lesbian, Gay, And Bisexual Identities Over The Lifespan: Psychological Perspectives
Social Services For Gay And Lesbian Couples
The Lesbian Parenting Book: A Guide To Creating Families And Raising Children
The Truth Is…My Life In Love And Music by Melissa Etheridge
Nasty: My Family And Other Glamorous Varmints by Simon Doonan
The Praeger Book Of Transsexuality: Changing Gender to Match Mindset (Sex, Love, and Psychology)
True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism—For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals
GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond The Sexual Binary
Girl Meets Girl: A Dating Survival Guide
The Art Of Meeting Women: A Guide For Gay Women
The Mayor Of Castro Street: The Life And Times Of Harvey Milk
Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life In America
Women, Gays, And The Constitution: The Grounds for Feminism and Gay Rights in Culture and Law
Identity And The Case For Gay Rights: Race, Gender, Religion as Analogies
Gay America: Struggle For Equality (YA)
Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer
Men Who Rape: The Psychology Of The Offender
Gay Day: The Golden Age of the Christopher Street Parade 1974-1983
Gay And Lesbian Washington, DC
Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter To America
Stone Butch Blues: A Novel
Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender, and Identity
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965
Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities
Odd Girls And Twilight Lovers
Band Fags
Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink Or Blue
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, And The Rest Of Us
Queering The Popular Pitch
Homosexuality In Greece And Rome: A Sourcebook Of Basic Documents
Greek Homosexuality
Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World
Between Men: English Literature And Male Homosexual Desires
She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders
Live Through This: On Creativity And Self-Destruction
My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely

Books NOT Stripped Of Amazon Sales Rankings
Fear Of Flying
Belligerence and Debauchery: The Tucker Max Stories
The Complete A**hole’s Guide To Handling Chicks
Lesbian Couples: A Guide To Creating Healthy Relationships
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence Expanded and Updated Second Edition
How To Be A Happy Lesbian, A Coming Out Guide
Ron Jeremy: The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz
Traci Lords: Underneath It All
I’m With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie
Emma And Meesha My Boy: A Two Mom Story
Boy Meets Boy (YA)
How To Be A Super Hot Woman
The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Amazing Sex
Female Chauvinist Pigs
Getting Off: Pornography And the End Of Masculinity
A Parent’s Guide To Preventing Homosexuality
Gay Children, Straight Parents: A Plan For Family Healing
Confessions of a Video Vixen
The Vixen Diaries
Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody
A Stripper’s Tail: Confessions Of A Vegas Stripper
Seduce Me! What Women Really Want
The Professional Bachelor Dating Guide: How To Exploit Her Inner Psycho
Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds
Super Beauties: Nude And Natural
Male Nude Photography: Lance And Beau
Hot Cougar Sex: Steamy Encounters With Younger Men
Exercising The Penis: How to Make Your Most Prized Organ Bigger, Harder & Healthier
Whore
The Anarchist Cookbook
Hot Luxury Girls: Best Of Sugar Posh Beauties

And to illustrate…

This book is okay; Gay Children, Straight Parents – A Plan for Family Healing

This book; not so okay; Ellen Degeneres – A Biography

This book gets the Amazon grade; A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality

While this one is stripped down; Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities

This book is totally acceptable; The Complete Asshole’s Guide to Handling Chicks (yes, really)

While this book is very, very naughty and god forbid a child even see the title; Gay America – A Struggle for Equality

Have I made my point?

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March 10, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Digitized Pt. 2: Could Kindle Really Change Everything?

kindle3Last time, I talked about the supposed demise of books due to the technological revolution and the uphill battle that publishers and pushers of paper of all kinds are facing with the combined force of a weakened economy and a (relatively) free forum like the Internet from which to gather information.  I questioned whether Amazon’s Kindle could really convince the market to switch from paper to processor and from books to e-books, even with a screen bright enough to allow you to read in a bar.

I did however, recognize the benefits that a device like Kindle could have on a struggling educational system.  I’m probably not the first to think of this, but I do think it is an excellent point; this device, if provided to school and college aged kids, could revolutionize the way they read, research, write, and learn.  If a university student doesn’t have to pay for or travel to obtain access to a scholarly journal or book, they are much more likely to read and implement it in their educational process. That got me imagining what else Kindle could do.

Newspapers and magazines are struggling, and there is no end in sight.  Even the formidable New York Times is having trouble making it from paycheck to paycheck, and having to do a real estate shuffle to stay afloat. Sacramento Bee staffers took a pay cut so to prevent further layoffs.  There is a debate going on as to whether free online content is to blame and whether newspapers can stay in business by requesting “micropayments” (e.g. 10 cents per click) or offering content on a subscription basis.  Similarly, magazines (although bought and paid for) are losing advertising money and are cutting back accordingly.

So where does Kindle come in?  Let’s suppose for a moment that Kindle could access the Internet on a wireless connection .  Then let’s suppose that Kindle offered a database of not only books, but current “print” copies of newspapers (not web versions, but Kindle friendly versions of the actual paper), magazines, and other reading materials.  So, for example, let’s say I want a subscription to the New York Times, but I am one of those people who have come of age with a cell phone in one hand and an iPod in the other.  I would read the NYT but, I am not someone who will lug around a bulky paper. I will just wait until I get home, visit the New York Times website and get all of my information there.

Now let’s say that Amazon offered a subscription to the New York Times via Kindle.  I could access the newspaper from my device where ever I wanted it.  Let’s say the same goes for magazines.  Of course, subscriptions would have to be cheap, which they could be if paper was eliminated and it was all web-based.  Newspapers and magazines could offer their product to another audience, the crucial one that doesn’t necessarily have a web-based phone on which to access news and information (which even on a BlackBerry still looks like it belongs somewhere circa 1999), but isn’t inclined to purchase papers or magazines for various reasons.  Let’s take it a step further and add blogs.  Now readers can access books, magazines, newspaper, journals, and blogs.  With Kindle (and enough storage space on the device) there is the potential to build an entire library of reference material that doesn’t get thrown away, is easily and instantaneously accessible, and is compatible with today’s web-based generation of iPod addicts and technology savvy users.  Hell, a tree or two might be saved after all.

So, if these technologies are already available, why aren’t we using them?  If anyone has the power to convince the world that Kindle could mean a reading and writing renaissance, it is Amazon.  It’s up to them (and us, as consumers) to decide what use will be made of the technology.  Not everyone will buy a Kindle (or a similar device), many will want to stick with the traditional paper versions of various media.  I only pose one question; isn’t it better to read a paper on Kindle than it is for the paper to go under altogether?

At Amazon, we’ve always been obsessed with having every book ever printed, and we know that even the best reading device would be useless without a massive selection of books. Today, the Kindle Store has more than 240,000 books available, plus top newspapers, magazines, and blogs. This is just the beginning. Our vision is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 60 seconds on Kindle. We won’t stop until we get there.

Whether you prefer biographies, classics, investment guides, thrillers, or sci-fi, thousands of your favorite books are available, including 102 of 111 books currently found on the New York Times® Best Seller list. New York Times Best Sellers and most new releases are $9.99, and you’ll find many books for less. (Source: Amazon).

March 9, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Digitized: Books Meet Technology

kindleThere is no doubt that as a society we are bombarded by media from the moment we wake until the moment our heads hit the pillow (or longer, if you fall asleep with the television on).  News, movies, television, magazines, YouTube, Facebook, billboards, it’s everywhere.  But what of books?

Quite possibly the oldest, and longest lasting form of media, books face an uphill battle in the face of quick media like blogs, Twitter, and social network status updates.  Not to mention, many books are transformed into films or television spin-offs that make visual access more efficient than reading a few hundred pages.

Where does this leave the future of books?  E-books are a huge phenomenon barely heard of only a few years ago.  Amazon guru and Kindle backer, Jeff Bezos, would have you reading all of your books in digital format on his device, which retails for about $350.  That, of course, does not include the cost of the books themselves, which can be downloaded for an average of $10 for each of the roughly 250,000 titles offered on the electronic medium. Kindle is even available on your iPod.

The Huffington Post advocates for the digitization of books, arguing that the electronic medium makes it possible to read in the dark, like while at a bar or in bed, without having to turn on a light or lug a heavy volume around with you.

But does that satisfy the same feeling as thumbing through page after page as you read?  Are we trying to improve something that was perfect in it’s original form?  I take great pride in looking at my bookcases and seeing the collection of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I have accumulated throughout the years.  Despite being broke in my days as a student, I rarely re-sold textbooks  to the bookstore for credit.  There is something to be said of the tangible quality of holding a book in your hands.

On the other hand, imagine the possibilities if devices such as Kindle were commonplace in schools.  Imagine the possibilities of equipping students with a device pre-loaded with books, texts, and resources.  Imagine if a student need only buy the device (or have it donated) and could read ahead, easily reference back to materials, and access new literature instantly, all in one place.  The possibilities are endless.  University students would love this idea.  Purchase a Kindle for $350 (not that much more than the cost of a textbook or two), and offer texts, journal subscriptions, and other reference materail at a discounted rate.  Universities could even include the device as part of tuition.

So while I am wary of the digitization of books for a variety of reasons, I also see the value. But personally, if I like a book, I will buy it…in it’s good old fashioned form.  Sorry trees.

March 6, 2009

The Celebrity Book Deal and the Struggling Writer

The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world.

hilton_bookOminous words coming from respected magazine, New York.  With the publishing industry flailing, a writer has got to question her future.  Let’s just forget for a moment, the challenges of finding let alone the right agent, but any agent at all.  Then there is the query letter, and the waiting.  All of that, considering you have your book written first.  The challenges facing a struggling writer in the beginning of their career are steep, and that is under the best of conditions.

So, what does this mean for struggling writers and the publishing industry? It seems that there is a spike in celebrity book deals.  I have no statistical data to support this, only my observations from my daily morning online meandering.  James Franco has just signed with Simon & Schuster to release a collection of short stories.  That’s just the beginning.  In 2008, as the economic crisis that has challenged the publishing industry loomed, Miley Cyrus signed a seven figure book deal with Disney.  At least James Franco is an MFA candidate studying creative writing at NYU and Columbia.  Miley Cyrus is 15 and famous because her daddy had an achy-breaky-heart back in the 1980’s (although it must have got fixed sometime in the 1990’s).  Is it possible to still take the craft seriously when there are thousands of talented writers out there who are sending short after short to literary magazines, searching for an agent, and hoping for any advance at all, while Miss Cyrus gets a million dollars for her memoirs?

Let’s not forget Britney Spears’ $20 Million book deal to spill all of the sordid details of her recent crazy years.  Excuse me, but that is not literature, it’s voyeurism…and not very well cloaked.  What about Kanye West? Or Paris Hilton? Or Kathy Griffin? Or even Sarah Palin?  Musicians, actors, politicians…it seems anyone but a writer can get a book deal these days.

Is this really the way to save the publishing industry; by offering celebrities who already blog, Twitter, star in YouTube videos, films and television, appear on news and talk shows, and are the topic of paparazzi and media everywhere seven or eight figure book deals to write their memoirs?

Of course, I am biased considering that I am a “struggling writer” and not a celebrity.  I understand why the publishing industry is increasing its affinity with celebrities.  They come with a built in audience, just waiting to spend their allowances on the next unauthorized Lindsay Lohan tell-all.

But what of the struggling writer then?  Where will the future of publishing take us? To the Internet? Vanity publishing and self-promotion?  Is this just the right moment for writers to take reins away from powerhouse publishers by getting wise to the opportunities offered by services like Amazon (e.g. Kindle, CreateSpace), blogs, online lit mags, and a new generation of news media like the Huffington Post? No one knows for sure, not even the publishing industry.  One thing is for certain; enough with the celebrity book deals.

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