Amazon.com, the world's largest online retailer, blamed a computer "glitch" for stripping scores of gay-themed books of their sales ranking, preventing them from appearing on the site's best-seller lists. But a notorious Internet hacker is also claiming to be behind the mysterious happenings at the Web site, which is the top online bookseller.
Amazon would not elaborate on the cause of the glitch or why it seemed to mainly target books about gay and lesbians -- from academic treatises to romance novels. Some authors of the targeted books believe the company actively engaged in a discriminatory policy that hurt their sales.
The company did not respond to direct inquiries as to whether the Web site had been hacked, and blamed the disappeared rankings on a "cataloging error."
"This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection," Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith wrote in an e-mail.
In recent weeks, a number of authors of gay- and lesbian-themed books noticed that the sales ranking -- a figure prominently displayed on the each book's sales page and the metric that determines how high a book will appear on lists of popular titles -- had disappeared.
When several authors contacted the bookseller to ascertain what happened, they say they were initially told their books had been branded "adult products," but similar books about straight sex retained their titles and appeared on popular title lists.
Craig Seymour said his book "All I Could Bare: My Life in the Gay Strip Clubs of Washington, DC," had lost its ranking while comparable books, including screenwriter Diablo Cody's stripper memoir "Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper," and porn star Ron Jeremy's autobiography "Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz" retained them.
Rankings for books as diverse as Lisa Iannucci's "Ellen DeGeneres: A Biography" to Robert Aldrich's "Gay Life & Culture: A World History" were removed from the site.
Seymour said he spent weeks trying to get Amazon.com to explain why his book had lost its ranking and ceased to appear when the title or author was searched on the site.
"I did a reading in Chicago and people told me they couldn't find the book on Amazon," said Seymour, whose memoir was released late last year.
"I understand wanting to protect kids and keeping really explicit stuff off the main page," he said, "but when people searched by the title the book wouldn't come up. It's not really consumer centric if you can't find the book you're looking for."
After enlisting his publisher Simon & Schuster to intervene, the ranking on Seymour's book was restored.
Amazon said it was not just gay-themed books that were affected but "57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search," according to Smith's e-mail.
Until this incident, Amazon.com had successfully tread a line between being the go-to place for online family shopping and offering adults a wide variety of explicit material and sex toys.