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Amazon Says It Will Correct Its Search Function


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.