Tomorrow I’ll be back to regular work and blogging (not a moment too soon, I think). I’m still utterly flabbergasted that Amazon shows no sign of offering an apology, and can only assume this means they’re okay with the communities who were directly insulted–LBGT, the disabled, feminists, authors and readers of several genres, etc.–being, well, directly insulted. This story broke on Saturday and we’ve had two very, very faint statements, neither of which had anything remotely resembling an apology in them. So I guess in Amazon’s world, being a huge online store with a chokegrasp on market share means never having to say you’re sorry.
They are, of course, free to stick their nose in the air and give the impression (warranted or not) that the deranking was deliberate, and not a big deal to them anyway. Consumers and content producers (authors and publishers) are equally free to draw their own conclusions and think hard about whether Amazon’s behavior is something to reward with continued patronage.
What We Know
As early as February (and as Dear Author points out, very probably as early as 2008) Amazon started taking the Sales Rank off books with so-called “adult” content. The sales rank is important because it allows the book to be searched for, listed with others in its category, and included in the “You Might Like” and “Bestseller” algorithms.
In other words, if your book is deranked, a customer can’t find it to buy it on the biggest Internet retailer–the one most people go to first.
At first, authors who protested were given short shrift and told the deranking was to “protect” Amazon’s customers from “adult content”. Then, over the past weekend, over fifty thousand books stopped showing up in searches. The deranked books were overwhelmingly in several categories: GLBT (gay, lesbian, bi, transgender), rape counseling, suicide prevention, disabilities, sex and disability, female sexuality, and feminism. Suddenly, you could no longer order these books (including Ellen DeGeneres’s autobiography, Stephen Fry’s biography, EM Forster’s Maurice, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Even searching by specific title or author often didn’t show them. Some versions of books remained, others from different publishers vanished.
Then the Internet noticed. More specifically, Twitter noticed. And then, to use a highly technical term, the shit hit the fan.
Literally thousands of people spread the news, weighed in in 140-character bursts, and started writing blog posts and making a stink. (There was even an Amazon Rank Googlebomb.) Amazon’s customer service phone lines and email centers were flooded with angry and inquiring communications.
Amazon said nothing. Reasonable for the first few hours, since it was Easter weekend. But then…
Theories flew fast and furious. Online reporters and media spread the story far and wide. The tweets, blog posts, and furor kept coming. And Amazon still said nothing, apparently paralyzed. Over the next two days Amazon offered two weak explanations: a “glitch” and a “ham-fisted cataloging error”. As of this writing, Amazon has said nothing else and the mainstream media has picked up the tale, including such oddities as a “hacker” who claimed to have caused the whole mess. (His claims were swiftly debunked.)
The deranked titles are beginning to slowly reappear. For a long while an odious “cure your children of homosexuality” screed was #1 in the “Homosexuality” category at Amazon. This was noted across the board–right wing or fundamentalist anti-gay books seemed to have escaped the deranking, adding to the oddity.
Why Have Search Rankings At All?
A question I do not see being asked much is: what is the point of having sales rankings if Amazon is going to “game” them by removing content it deems questionable? Even if they were trying to institute a “safe search” option, deranking even ONE book, no matter how good the reason, severely impacts the trust a consumer can feel in any Amazon sales ranking.
Jane at Dear Author says it best:
Ranking has importance because ranking helps dictate visibility. Visibility is vital for sales. Most people in book selling will tell you that the best advertisement a book has is its presence in a store. This is true for online retailing as well. If you can’t find it, you can’t buy it. #Amazonfail showed us that deranking books based on publisher supplied metadata can remove a book from front page searches, book page searches, suggested reads lists, and bestseller lists. #Amazonfail showed us that Amazon can internally tweak algorithms to place the content that it desires at the top of the lists. (Dear Author
Note this: The biggest online retailer has been caught trying to tweak algorithms to place content it desires at the top of the lists. Not content the customers have desired, content Amazon desired. We do not know how long subtle deranking may have gone on. We now do not know if any book called a “bestseller” in a certain category at Amazon truly was, or if certain books were hyped. The sales rankings, “You Might Like” lists, and bestseller lists now rest on a shaky foundation indeed. For a company that brays of being customer-centric with a site that is user-driven, the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. If Amazon hadn’t committed a clumsy error in implementation, we may never have known that the results of the game were being, well, gamed.
Who Would It Profit?
Amazon has clearly had the ability to derank books for some time. Companies do not pay for and implement tools they do not intend to use. Stripping a sales rank and thereby stripping a book’s ability to be found on the biggest online retailer has serious implications, but just for a moment I want to consider how Amazon could possibly profit from this. (The fact that this clumsy debacle has cost Amazon money and goodwill does not enter into my calculations of how they could profit if they didn’t get caught.)
What about leverage? Specifically, what about leverage against publishers? “Opt in to our program (for a fee) and we can guarantee your books won’t be deranked/ made harder to find/ made harder to buy.” It’s simple, it’s easy, and a variant of this strong-arm method has been tried before by this very same company.
Do I think that’s what happened this time? Despite it being my pet theory, no. For one thing, I ran it past several industry people whose judgment I trust (my agent, my beta reader, some fellow authors) and their consensus is best expressed thus:
I suspect that the truth is a little more prosaic. Deranking books as a strong arm tactic is something they’re perfectly capable of and they’ve done it before … This particular mess I believe was caused by a scenario very similar to what is postulated by Patrick Neilson Hayden. They wanted to keep “dirty” stuff off the main page and someone went through … and reclassified a lot of tags (queer, erotic, sexuality, who knows what all) as “adult” meaning incredibly dirty, and then they all went poof …
[If they wanted an safe-search option]What they need to do is to put a separate tag that says this is sexually explicit porn you can’t even look at in most states unless you’re 18 (or do it state by state, most people are logged into their Amazon account, so they know what the law is there), and make you say at one point, perhaps when setting up the account, “yep, I want to see the dirty stuff,” [or] “nope that stuff squigs me right out”. But that would be very very cumbersome and they tried to take a short cut that just blew up spectacularly in their faces.
Which I think is a good thing actually. Because while I don’t think there was evil intent here, I think they’re totally capable of strong arming, monopolistic evilness and now everyone’s watching. (from a personal email)
We now absolutely know they possess the capability. And once corporations get past a certain number of cars in the parking lot, they stop behaving like groups of reasonable individuals and take on a life and aims of their own, behaving very much according to their own peculiar desire for profit and survival (including getting bigger and squeezing out competition, two things corporations naturally wish for). Just as naturally, informed consumers don’t want only one supplier because it robs them of the power of choice. The tension between these two normal drives makes (however imperfectly) for any social responsibility a corporation may be said to possess. It’s not altruism, it’s survival.
Now that we know Amazon can and will play dirty pool, do we want to let them stay at the table?
The Question Of Majority
Slight aside: I don’t particularly mind the idea of a “safe search” function, though I wouldn’t use it. Sex toys and heterosexual porn were unaffected by the derankings, which is an argument against it being an innocent “glitch”. But the wider question is, who exactly is in the majority?
Despite rules against filth, obscenity, etc., etc., people buy sex toys and porn in great quantities. If Amazon is looking to filter search results so we don’t see that porn and sex toys are going to outsell in possibly every category they’re put in, what does that tell us about ourselves? I wish we would see more of this angle being discussed–the sheer amount of money spent on nookie and porn, and how this perhaps indicates that the sexless Leave It To Beaver fantasies of conservatives and fundamentalists are just that–fantasies. Not a majority, and not an accurate indicator of human experience.
Despite this being a fascinating topic, I’m moving on. But just…think about it, would you?
A significant portion of the reaction to AmazonFail was and remains “Buy Indie!” This is probably best expressed in Patrick of Vroman.net’s essay AmazonFail and the Cost of Freedom:
In the world of ecommerce, the search is king. Almost everybody who shops online visits a site to find a specific product. By intentionally obscuring and manipulating the search results of your site, you are making a clear statement: We don’t want you to read these books. I can tell you from experience that if something is difficult to find through a search, it will not sell. Not only was this a suspicious action on Amazon’s part, it had the potential to be very “successful” (ie, it would’ve greatly decreased the sales of those titles).
I know you think I’m overreacting. You say, “So what? They’ll list the books again, and surely they won’t be stupid enough to try something like this again. After all, we caught them, didn’t we?” True…this time. My point still stands. Concentration of power is a dangerous thing. “But what if it was a hacker?” I think the point still stands. This is the proverbial putting of eggs in too few baskets. I think independent publisher sales rep John Mesjak put it best when he tweeted this statement: “I haven’t read all of #amazonfail, so I am likely repeating, but my takeaway: this S#!T happens with monoculture gatekeepers. Go IndieBound!”
It’s worth noting that Mesjak uses the word “monoculture” here, a word derived from agriculture. It’s taken us some thirty years (since the passage of Earl Butz’s “Get Big or Get Out” Farm Bill in the 1970s) to realize that having a few corporations control our food supply was a really bad idea. (link)
Two sites, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (a site I often read) and Dear Author (who I have quoted several times during this whole thing) have made the decision to become IndieBound affiliates instead of Amazon affiliates. As Dear Author explains:
Words without action have no meaning. While it is true, to some extent, that Amazon can sell whatever it likes consumers have those same unfettered choices in their book buying decisions. Yes, Amazon makes it incredibly easy to buy books at its site but at some point, consumers can and will get fed up enough to take their dollars elsewhere. Dear Author is going to start working with IndieBound even though Amazon Affiliate dollars is the only income that DA earns. I know that SmartBitches will be doing the same although it represents a pretty significant financial loss to them. (link)
After much thought I have decided to do the same. There will still be Amazon links to my books on my site, since I am here to serve readers (and several readers may still make the choice to patronize Amazon) and I am not going to go back and find every. Single. Link. Though the affiliate program at Amazon was never a consistent source of financial help for me (what, a latte a month if I was lucky?) I was still driving traffic to them. I’m making the choice instead to drive that traffic to IndieBound.
I am not at the stage of complete boycott just yet, though I’ve emptied out my Amazon shopping cart–I am waiting for what Amazon will eventually say about this, if anything, before I make that decision–but this episode has shown me how dangerous a monoculture could be to my health.
After all, the books that I depend on for my livelihood–and to feed my kids-could have been deranked. It could have been me. I am invested in a healthy economy and a healthy industry because it maximizes my chances both as a writer and a consumer.
Just as Amazon is naturally interested in their bottom line.
What Amazon Should Do
1. Apologize. I can’t say it loudly and often enough–the longer Amazon goes without offering at least a token apology (notice I am not naive enough to wish for a sincere one), the more goodwill it squanders, and the worse it looks.
2. Explain what happened. In detail. In plain English. Taking responsibility for bad choices.
3. Vow to go on with transparency around sales rankings, and do so. Explain how and why books are deranked and what an author can do to challenge a deranking. (That is, if they’re going to derank at ALL.)
4. Apologize again, first and last, specifically to the communities affected–the GLBT community, health professionals and rape counselors, the disabled, sex educators, erotica and YA authors…you get the idea.
The longer this goes on, the more Amazon looks like a callous, heartless Henry Potter to the plucky George Bailey of readers and authors. Or a soulless corporate monolith who doesn’t care what it crushes as long as profits are up. This may not be the truth–but if you as a huge company fuck up this hugely and don’t at least say “I’m sorry” and try to do better, what do you expect to be seen as?
I’m actually thrilled at the grassroots response, despite plenty of people decrying it as a rush to judgment. Direct outrage over the disenfranchisement of minorities who are still under siege in many parts of the world is a good thing. I do not think it detracts from the struggle for human equality. Far from.
I personally do not think this was an “innocent” glitch, for reasons I have stated at length. I spy something lurking behind these events that might not be exactly sinister (for it is perfectly normal for corporations to seek to maximize their profits and to do so in bumbling hamfisted ways that are not completely thought out) but is certainly troubling. Even if I’m wrong (and I fully admit I think my friends stand a better chance of being right, for I am a suspicious old cynic), each one of my friends noted the same thing–that Amazon has been caught with the means to covertly game the sales ranking and we’d be fools to think they haven’t used it in the past or will not use it in the future.
My anonymous friend above said it all: Because while I don’t think there was evil intent here, I think they’re totally capable of strong arming, monopolistic evilness and now everyone’s watching.
I hope we don’t look away.
Amazonfail posts (of which this hopefully will be the last):
1. Amazon Censors Search Rankings To “Protect” Us
2. This Is Not A Glitch
3. Still Not A Glitch, But A Policy
4. (Update) Idiosyncratic Code?
5. Why I’m Bothering With AmazonFail
6. (Update) Seattle PI releases Amazon statement
7. Glitch, Ranking, & Porn
8. Days Later, Still AmazonFail
9. Glitch, Monoculture, Profit (AmazonFail Recap)