Over Easter weekend, a number of authors noticed that Amazon no longer showed a sales ranking for their books. Mark R. Probst, who posted about the incident on his blog, received the following message from Amazon:
"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."
Amazon's official position, which Mark R. Probst says he now accepts, is that this was a cataloguing error that impacted 57, 310 listings. These books have now reportedly had their Amazon sales rank restored -- although one gay author I know tells me that when his book's ranking reappeared, its rank had sunk, perhaps because a period of invisibility had cost him some marketing momentum.
According to this report, #AmazonFail was the leading topic on Twitter that weekend, and many Amazon employees had to forego their holiday weekend in order to work on the problem.
Over the last few days I saw indignation and horror expressed by writers whose books were deranked. It's concerning that a secret algorithm is used to generate a number that can impact whether or not an author's next book finds a publisher. The Future Publishing blog goes into some detail about how Amazon sales ranking is believed to work, concluding:
"Perhaps someday the arcane calculations within the sales rank algorithm will be exposed. Until then, authors, publishers and curious onlookers will have to examine the nuanced correlations between book sales and sales rank and speculate about the algorithm’s internal machinations. And of course Amazon will continue to adjust the parameters, weightings and equations, resetting the analysis and frustrating the cognoscenti. A corporate powerhouse, using secret code administered by a techno priesthood to strike fear (and sometimes exhilaration) into an anxious population of authors/publishers -- the whole thing has the makings of a good techno conspiracy thriller."
I try to avoid conspiracy theories on this blog, being inclined to agree with the hero of Darwin's Blade, a fine novel by Dan Simmons, that "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually stupidity." At this point it seems plausible to me that #AmazonFail was essentially an accident. But writers should certainly be worried about the inordinate influence exerted by whoever's job it is to tweak the Amazon sales rank algorithm.