Regarding the #AmazonFail Incident

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.

5 thoughts on “Regarding the #AmazonFail Incident”

  1. This is what bothered me about the #amazonfail fiasco. People seemed to want it to be a conspiracy by a huge corporation, although it made no sense that they would jeopardize a large revenue stream. In doing so, they were missing the real problem, a weakness of technology we all blithely embrace with no understanding of how it works, just believing it will.

  2. Andrew Demcak, Poet

    I think Amazon was caught censoring material based on some sort of prejudice; otherwise why the glib missive to worried authors that Amazon’s new policy was re-categorizing what they considered to be “adult” materials, thereby making them harder to find and making Amazon’s website more “family-friendly” (which the rest of said missive states.) The fact that it disproportionately effected LGBTQ authors was alarming. Period.

  3. It’s happened to me on occasion that a corporation’s made a mistake, I’ve complained, and someone working in customer service has come up with a rationalization for what’s happened that’s subsequently turned out to be wrong — at this point, that’s how I’m inclined to interpret that e-mail about excluding “adult” materials.

    If Amazon really intended to derank “adult” books permanently, why did they change this policy as soon as there were complaints? After all, their management could hardly have failed to anticipate this policy would provoke complaints.

    That’s how it looks to me personally right now, but I welcome dissenting comments.

  4. There are quite a few arcane algorithms that impact our lives currently; the Amazon one is only the newest. The granddaddy of them all is the FICO algorithm, determined by the actuaries and mathematicians at the Fair-Isaac corporation (an ironic name if ever there was one). This formula determines your credit score. There are others, as well; Google’s search algorithm, the Department of Homeland Security / NSA’s “Carnivore” program that scores e-mails and telephone calls on their potential terrorist content, and so on. And as our lives become more electronic and more tightly interlinked, these algorithms will be more numerous and more invasive.

  5. Here’s what feeds the conspiracy theories…

    HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES, a kid’s book for children of lesbian parents, is cataloged in some way so that it was deranked the same as THE BACK PASSAGE, a novel of gay erotica. But A PARENT’S GUIDE TO PREVENTING HOMOSEXUALITY is cataloged by Amazon in a way that makes it the #1 book that comes up when the term “homosexuality” is put into the website’s search function…and it was never deranked in this whole debaucle. What metric is being used that makes this possible? Only one: books that are gay or sex positive (yanked), versus those that are anti-gay (safe).

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