Amazonfail: Amazon Responds

After multiple attempts to contact Amazon, I have at long last received the following reply from Patty Smith by email:

“This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

“It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 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.

“Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.”

When I asked Ms. Smith about whether or not this problem represented a hack, she insisted that this was a “ham-fisted cataloging error” that had been caused by Amazon. Therefore, Amazon’s position seems to indicate that the cataloging problem came from its end. Ms. Smith did not, however, answer any questions I put forth to her about why much of this metadata was necessary in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that Amazon still hasn’t issued an apology.

Amazonfail: A Call to Boycott Amazon

It’s been called #amazonfail on Twitter, but it represents the greatest insult to consumers and the most severe commercial threat to free expression that we’re likely to see in some time. Amazon has decided to remove certain books that they deem “adult” from their ranking system. But the “adult” definitions include such books as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Amazon link) (screenshot), Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (Amazon link) (screenshot), Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (Amazon link) (screenshot), John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (Amazon link) (screenshot), and numerous other titles. [NOTE: These titles have now been ranked again. But please see UPDATE 11 at the bottom of this post, which contains additional links and screenshots. Amazon is still deranking many titles, but only seems to be restoring the ones directly called out by multiple sources.] Books that, in some cases, have fought decades to gain literary respectability have become second-class overnight because of Amazon’s draconian deranking policy.

To add insult to injury, such anti-Semitic texts as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Amazon link) and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Amazon link) remain within the ranking system while the less offensive books named above are considered too “adult.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has written openly about sex, Amazon considers you worse than an anti-Semitic writer who helped initiate pogroms and concentration camps.

As Kassia Kroszer noted, this is an offensive and unacceptable gesture from Amazon to the many readers and writers who make the publishing industry what it is. This is retail maneuvering of the most spineless and despotic form. It amounts to a store treating adults, who are informed individuals who can make up their own minds about how “adult” something is, as if they are incapable of independent decision making. It is a betrayal of the community that keeps Amazon thriving with the customer reviews. It is an insult to any author or reader who has dared to take a chance.

This decision must be responded to by a complete and total boycott of Amazon’s services. DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM AMAZON unless they restore the ranking system. Boycott Amazon and let them feel the sharp pincers of your wallet going somewhere else. Instead of supporting a corporate behemoth who wants to put up the equivalent of a beady curtain at a video store for many titles that don’t deserve it (including numerous GLBT and sex-positive books), go to an independent bookstore who will treat you with inclusive respect. Remove all links to Amazon from your websites. Let Amazon know precisely how you feel in these economically uncertain times, and then maybe they’ll think twice about treating you as if you are unthinking cattle.

We can make a difference in this. We made a difference back in February with the Facebook TOS snafu. We can make a difference with this needless and demeaning ranking system. Boycott Amazon. Because a retailer should never be in the position of determining what is “adult” or salable. As the old maxim says, the customer is always right.

UPDATE: See also thoughts from Mark Probst, a petition to protest the policy, and Google bomb efforts from Smart Bitches. Also, as many helpful people on Twitter have noted, the Amazon customer service line is 800-201-7575. Although we may want to see if we can track down the executives who enacted this ridiculous policy and hold them accountable instead.

UPDATE 2: Goddammit, that’s the last straw. Nobody deranks Jonathan Ames and gets away with it. Here are the numbers for the Amazon Board of Directors. Flood all these people with your complaints on Monday morning.

Thomas O. Ryder (914) 244-5782
William Gordon (650) 233-2750
Myrtle Potter (650) 225-1000
Alain Monie (206) 266-1000
L. John Doerr (650) 233-2750
Tom Alberg (206) 674-3000
Patricia Stonesifer (206) 709-3140

UPDATE 3: On Twitter, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles reports that Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener has told him that there was recently a glitch in the sales rank feature and that he is working to correct the problem. I am likewise pursuing investigations to get Amazon’s side of the story.

UPDATE 4: Of course, if the glitch was only just “recently” discovered, the big question here is why Amazon told Mark Probst two days ago that the company was now in the practice of excluding “adult” material in some searches. For that matter, why did Amazon offer the same answer to author Craig Seymour? Something is fishy. I have left voicemails and emails for Amazon spokespersons. What they do not realize is that I am a rather tenacious fellow. If they do not answer me tonight, starting tomorrow, I will be contacting them once every hour until they offer a reasonable answer to these many questions.

UPDATE 5: An Amazon search for homosexuality revealing anti-homosexual books in the top results is more than a “glitch.” In the comments, it has been reported that if you search for Olympia Press and Cleis Press through Amazon, the results have been diminished with this “glitch.” Meanwhile, here is coverage from Foreign Policy, The National Post, and The Associated Press. Tiara Shafiq has called for Amazon alternatives. There will doubtless be more news as Amazon tries to mop up this morass on Monday. And it would very much be in Amazon’s interests to “comment further” on the “glitch” that has been in effect since February.

UPDATE 6: Dear Author has dug up metadata that would suggest not so much a “glitch,” but a conscious effort on Amazon’s part to exclude books.

UPDATE 7: As of Monday afternoon, I have left eight voicemails for various contacts at Amazon and they will not return my calls. Also, the main Amazon corporate number — 206-622-2325 — appears to have been disconnected. We still have nothing from Amazon elaborating on the “glitch” that they are working on.

UPDATE 8: I have sent numerous emails and left repeated voicemails to Patty Smith (Director of Corporate Communications), Drew Herdener (Senior Public Relations Manager), and Dean Falvy (Amazon’s legal representative). These are all people who should really be going on the record and answering very specific questions about the “glitch.” But these spokespersons have refused to return my calls. And I have learned that they are not returning calls from other journalists.

UPDATE 9: Still no response from Amazon in my ongoing voicemail efforts. Some speculation that this was a hack has been debunked. Meanwhile, Mike Daisey claims inside info to The Stranger.

UPDATE 10: The metadata theory promulgated by Dear Author seems to me the most reasonable explanation (and Jane now has spreadsheets up of the books with metadata categories). See also Scrivener’s Error and this theory from an inside coder.

UPDATE 11: Amazon is now pretending as if the “glitch” appears has been rectified as of 5:30 PM EST. But here’s what’s interesting. The specific titles that I linked to offered direct links to have been ranked again. But many other books are still deranked, including such as Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage (Amazon link) (screenshot), James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (Amazon link) (screenshot), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Amazon link) (screenshot). So is Amazon only ranking those titles that people are singling out? In other words, if the “glitch” is being fixed, then why does it only apply to the titles specifically linked to on other sites, rather than an across-the-board metadata value?

UPDATE 12: Patty Smith responds to some of my inquiries.

UPDATE 13: Andrew Sean Greer writes in the comments: “Well all I know is the paperback of The Story of a Marriage came out last week but you can only see it by searching directly, not by looking at sales lists of literary fiction, etc. The equivalent of having it for sale only by asking the bookseller for something behind the counter. *sigh* Glitch, hacker, cataloging error, it still hits a writer where it hurts. Nobody likes their new book to be invisible except if you know where to look. Isn’t book buying all about browsing for unexpected treasures?”

UPDATE 14: James Marcus, author of Amazonia, offers a lengthy response at Propeller. Meanwhile, Sara Nelson offers a contrarian take, suggesting that Amazon has every right to determine what it wants to sell.

UPDATE 15: The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich investigates. Shockingly, I actually agree with the smug Daniel Mendelsohn for once. But more interesting than this is that all the publishers who Rich contacted failed to comment on the record. In other words, we should be reminded by this setback that Amazon holds a needless vise-like grip on the publishing industry. But are we willing to accept such a hold when Amazon’s data can be so easily manipulated or modified?