Sunday, April 12, 2009

Amazon's Moral Meltdown

I don't know if you use Twitter, I do because ... I don't know, I'm a nerd or something. Twitter is a kind of blogging environment where you are limited to 140 characters, and you can post from your cell phone or your computer. You can't say much in 140 characters, so the communications are necessarily immediate and generally not very informative. It's funny though what gets conveyed in a simple statement about what a person is doing at the moment. It's especially interesting when all that information gets aggregated and you can see what people are talking about.

I was just showing Twitter to somebody and I noticed something. Twitter has a little box on the side that says "Trending Topics," and shows words that are appearing in a lot of tweets. Like, today you have stuff about the Masters Tournament, Easter and Jesus are mentioned a lot, "Navy SEALS" is coming up a lot, I suppose they were the ones who rescued that ship's captain from the pirates? These are the things that are on people's minds today.

The top topic threw me: "#amazonfail," it says. Sixth on the list was "Amazon" again. Well, the cool thing about Twitter is that you can get the news really fast -- if there's an earthquake, some nerdy person is going to whip out their smartphone and write "I'm in an earthquake right now," and right away you get reports from the scene, well before any reporter or government agency gets information out.

What is this Amazonfail business? The LA Times now has an article online.

It shows two book covers, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and Unfriendly Fire by Nathaniel Frank.
One of these books has been removed from Amazon's sales rankings because of "adult" content; the other has not.

"American Psycho" is Bret Easton Ellis' story of a sadistic murderer. "Unfriendly Fire" is a well-reviewed empirical analysis of military policy. But it's "Unfriendly Fire" that does not have a sales rank -- which means it would not show up in Amazon's bestseller lists, even if it sold more copies than the Twilight series. In some cases, being de-ranked also means being removed from Amazon's search results.

Amazon's policy of removing "adult" content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon's customer service explained:
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.

Probst is the author of a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the LA Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: "Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs; "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, "The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1" by Michel Foucault, "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), "Little Birds: Erotica" by Anais Nin, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and "Becoming a Man" by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Books that remain ranked include: "Naked" by David Sedaris; "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller; "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis; "Wifey" by Judy Blume; "The Kiss" by Kathryn Harrison; the photobooks "Playboy: Helmut Newton" and "Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds"; "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs; "Incest: From 'A Journal of Love'" by Anais Nin; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (2007 Vintage International edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 Penguin Classics edition).

Certianly many of the books that are no longer ranked are no more "adult" than many of those that are -- as the list above shows, the same book, by different publishers, might meet either fate. And Kindle editions of some books remain ranked. "Unfriendly Fire," for example, is #1 in Gay and Lesbian Nonfiction on the Kindle -- even as the hardcover of the book, which was released on March 3, does not show up at all when searched for.

When book critic Bethanne Patrick came across the news, she posted in on Twitter, where it circulated rapidly. Sunday afternoon it took just an hour for the hashtag #amazonfail to become the top trending topic on the site. An online petition was created. A site run by romance writers started an effort to redefine the phrase "Amazon rank" as "To censor and exclude on the basis of adult content in literature (except for Playboy, Penthouse, dogfighting and graphic novels depicting incest orgies)."

But as troubling as the unevenness of the policy of un-ranking and de-searching certain titles might be, it's a bit beside the point. It's the action itself that is troubling: making books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can't be a good idea. Amazon de-ranks so-called adult books, including National Book Award winner

When my book was selling well I checked the ranking every day, it is an important indicator of how you're doing. Amazon is removing gay literature from the rankings even when it is not sexual or "adult" in any ordinary sense of the word, so you could be Number One on Amazon while a lot of books outsell you, if they have gay characters. That's the point: to make it harder to search for gay literature.

If you Google "Amazon rank" now you will see the top response is the new definition of the phrase.

I can't imagine what in the world Amazon is thinking. Just sell the books, and if you're going to give the consumer information, make it accurate. De-ranking gay literature will make it harder to find it in searches. In the Internet marketing world, jumped out to the early lead, cornering first the book market and then everything else with incredible high-tech techniques. If they want to act like this, just watch how fast the competition sinks them.


Anonymous Aunt Bea said...

This item is the Top News Story over at Publishers Weekly. PW reports:

A groundswell of outrage, concern and confusion sprang up over the weekend, largely via Twitter, in response to what authors and others believed was a decision by Amazon to remove "adult" titles from its sales rankings. On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a "glitch" had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new policy regarding "adult" titles. As of Monday morning, a number of titles affected by the glitch were still without sales rankings. No one at Amazon was available this morning to discuss when the problem might be fixed or what caused the glitch.

For most of the weekend on Twitter, in conversations with the hash tag "#amazonfail," users were discussing the fact that the e-tailer was removing the sales rankings for books that it deemed featured "adult" content. Many readers, and writers, decried the fact that Amazon appears to be removing the sales ranking for titles that feature gay and lesbian characters and/or themes.

The director of the Erotic Authors Association, who goes by the pen name Erastes, told PW that many of her members "noticed their titles had been stripped of their sales rankings" on Amazon. One, Mark Probst, contacted a customer service representative at Amazon and wrote about the exchange on his blog. Probst wrote that the Amazon rep responded to his inquiry by saying that "'adult' material" is being excluded from appearing in "some searches and best seller lists" as a "consideration of our entire customer base."

Whatever the cause, titles like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain are among the those that have lost their sales ranking. Bloggers aren't buying the glitch explanation and some are calling an Amazon boycott, but the fact that such a wide range of titles have lost their rankings suggest that whatever Amazon may have been trying to do went haywire.

Petition Amazon here

April 13, 2009 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to go buy some stuff from amazin' Amazon right now!

A solid all-American company that needs our support.

April 13, 2009 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you see a great company like Amazon come through like this, it's encouraging!

The book industry was being held hostage by gay pirates and the brave captain of Amazon stood up to them.

April 13, 2009 5:29 PM  
Blogger Tish said...

I switched to Borders and Barnes & Noble several years ago because of some other questionable sales practices at Amazon. If we decide to let one retailer supply all of our books then we are allowing one retailer to choose which books we get.

April 13, 2009 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so, I guess Amazon doesn't need to worry about you boycotting them

April 13, 2009 6:26 PM  
Blogger Tish said...

An old friend who writes Romance novels has had some of her books de-ranked, but not others. I like a suggestion that showed up on "I can has cheeseburger": find a bookseller in Vermont or Iowa and buy on-line from them.

April 13, 2009 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

I'm reminded of what happened to Friends' Meeting of Washington several years ago. Friends' Meeting makes a practice of, when it has commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples, of writing a letter to the DC bureau that keeps records of their having done so. At one point, someone in that office wrote them that if the practice was illegal, and that if they continued, they would lose the right to perform any marriages.

This caused a hubbub at Friends' Meeting, but of course it was just an anti-gay bureacrat spouting off, not the policy of the DC government. It was quickly straightened out.

I suspect this was a fairly low-level decision at Amazon that the company will rectify in short time.

It's generous of anonymous to buy books from Amazon, since he doesn't have that much use for them. Most of his opinions appear to come from OneNewsNow and Hannity/Limbaugh.

April 14, 2009 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's generous of anonymous to buy books from Amazon, since he doesn't have that much use for them."

Old unstable Robbo. Wouldn't hurt a fly, much less make a "personal" attack on anyone.

What a hypocrite!

And wacky too!

Amazon's list should include the type of books they think their customers want to read. It's business decision not a political football.

April 14, 2009 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ratings are back- they say

Andrea not anon

April 14, 2009 11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A book supplier/company that caters to the public should not require uniform thinking in its much as you would like it to be like your church, "Anonymous". And I always thought, given your so-called "conservative" proclivities, that you, of all people, would be opposed to censorship - you know... the good ol' Bill of Rights that you always fall back on when you think you are being attacked for your peculiar ideas.
Get organized in your thinking, for crying out loud!

April 14, 2009 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, if I were running Amazon, I'd simply list all books but that's not the point

they are a private company and not a governmental entity

they can have an criteria for selectivity they want

it's not censorship

April 14, 2009 11:48 PM  
Anonymous Aunt Bea said...

they can have an criteria for selectivity they want

it's not censorship

What if they stop ranking books that cover religion? Do you think that wouldn't be censorship either? What if it was only one religion they stopped ranking?

I disagree. It is plainly censorship to allow heterosexually explicit books to be ranked but not to allow any book covering LGBT issues, even when there is nothing explicit at all in them, to also be ranked.

April 15, 2009 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What if they stop ranking books that cover religion? Do you think that wouldn't be censorship either? What if it was only one religion they stopped ranking?"

Actually, many books with Christian themes used to be excluded from bestseller lists. Same with CDs.

I think they discontinued the practice when those materials became one of the few remaining bright spots in the publishing industry.

Most Americans consider homosexuality to be deviant and don't want it promoted to teens.

Again, censorship is when the government interferes with freedom of the press or written expression. Companies don't have any power over individual consumers and can't ban literature.

April 15, 2009 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Aunt Bea said...

censorship is when the government interferes with freedom of the press or written expression.

Go check a dictionary and learn what "censorship" actually means - "government" has nothing to do with it. For example, when an MCPS parent opts to not sign the permission slip for his student to take sex education classes, that's a parent censoring his own kid. Amazon acted as a censor when it prevented some of the books it offers for sale from being ranked and included on "some searches and best seller lists."

April 15, 2009 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, it didn't.

All book rankings involve some qualification for the list.

Amazon excludes deviant salaciousness.

here's the definition of censorship: "the institution, system, or practice of an official examining in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable"

Amazon has no power to delete or suppress. This is a capitalist society and any author can go elsewhere to publish. Having private standards of decency is not the same as censorship.

Their lists are marketing tools to target the audience they wish to serve. They should be required to market or otherwise promote teen deviancy.

April 16, 2009 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oops, correction:

"Their lists are marketing tools to target the audience they wish to serve. They should not be required to market or otherwise promote teen deviancy."

April 16, 2009 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Aunt Bea said...

Amazon excludes deviant salaciousness.

Oh really! So you think incest is not "deviant salaciousness." From the article Jimk cited above:

Books that remain ranked include: ... "Incest: From 'A Journal of Love'" by Anais Nin

April 17, 2009 4:34 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home