Amazon continues to fail

The LGBT and feminist book deranking debacle can't be good for business. So why hasn't the company even issued a proper apology yet?

Published April 13, 2009 3:06PM (EDT)

Sunday, news broke that had begun marking certain titles as "adult" -- mostly gay- and lesbian-themed books (including "Heather Has Two Mommies," for pete's sake!), as well as some about feminism or sex and disability -- thus stripping them of their sales rankings, making them both more difficult to find in a search and less likely to pick up sales from automatically generated links throughout the site. Authors who were affected went (rightfully) apeshit on blogs, Facebook and Twitter -- #amazonfail has been the top-trending hashtag for nearly a day now -- and Amazon's only response was to call the whole mess a "glitch." 

The "Amazon Fail" debacle is personal to me for a couple reasons. 1) I have at least four  friends/acquaintances who have found their books deranked (Jessica Valenti, Jaclyn Friedman, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Sue William Silverman), and an anthology to which I contributed an essay ("Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,"edited by Friedman and Valenti) is a victim of the "glitch." (I've also just been informed that Michelle Goldberg's new book, excerpted on Salon right now, appears to be on the list.) 2) I just got a Kindle, which I've been loving so much I'd gotten over nearly all of my Good Liberal reservations about buying books from a corporate behemoth. If I have to hate Amazon now, I've got a $400 useless piece of plastic, so I am very eager to see a big, fat apology and solution to this problem tout de suite.

While the first point is obviously the one I'm most outraged about, the second is the one I'm most curious about at the moment -- not in terms of whether I'll have to abandon my Kindle (well, not totally), but in terms of why the hell Amazon would do something that makes it harder for them to sell stuff. As Ron Hogan, editor of the publishing blog Galleycat and former LGBT editor for Amazon, said on Twitter, "AMZN's biggest mistake in #amazonfail should prove to be alienating [LGBT] customers who buy a lot more than LGBT books there." Not to mention LGBT allies and anyone else who feels oogy about buying products from a company that's OK with letting "You don't have to be gay!" manuals show up as the top results for a search on "homosexuality" -- and/or feminists, people with disabilities, and their allies. Add all of those pissed-off book buyers (all of whom seem to have blogs and Twitter accounts) to the simple question a friend of mine brought up -- "Come on, you're telling me there's a book vendor in the country that's going to try to HIDE Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors???" -- and the whole thing makes zero sense as a business decision. (In fact, as of last night, Powell's was considering an Amazon Fail Sale on LGBT-themed books -- capitalist opportunism at its finest! A close second: the new #glitchmyass store at CafePress.)

All of that makes me think it wasn't a business decision, any more than it was a "glitch." Or at least, given the evidence that there is indeed a corporate policy at work here, it was a poorly thought-out business decision (to say the least) that's about to be fixed. Even author Mark Probst, who set off the firestorm with said evidence, now says in response to Amazon's spin, "Of course, the knee-jerk reaction was -- They're lying. After some careful thought, I realized, no I don't think they were. Amazon is undoubtedly embarrassed, and they are trying to set things right."

That's the impression I get, too. As offensive as it is to describe a blatantly targeted campaign to damage the sales of LGBT-themed (and feminist, and disability-related) books as a "glitch," I strongly suspect that "glitch" is actually Amazonian for "We have no idea what happened -- can't talk now, busy shitting our pants!" At the very least, the "glitch" line suggests that this wasn't supposed to happen, and Amazon recognizes it's a highly undesirable situation for the company. Whether that means, "We had no intention of discriminating against anyone" or "We had no intention of so many people figuring this out at once and dragging our brand name through the mud" is an open question.

That's why it's a bit surprising that (at this writing), Amazon hasn't issued an updated statement. As Peter Smith at IT World wrote this morning, "[I]t's dumbfounding that Amazon would let this controversy grow unchecked for a whole weekend. For such a giant in the online space, they certainly seem to be behaving like a brick and mortar company from two decades ago." Maybe they're just trying to figure out what, exactly, happened before they make any further comment, but given the P.R. nightmare that this has become, you'd think they'd at least put out a statement along the lines of "We value our gay and lesbian customers, authors, and publishers, and we're doing everything in our power to rectify the situation quickly." The longer they take to do that, the harder it is to believe that they do, in fact, value the consumers, authors and publishers of the 1,000-plus (and counting) books that have been deranked -- and now tagged "amazonfail" on their own site. And speaking of #amazonfail, a recent Tweet there says, "Amazon stock down 1.6% in limited trading...and had been trending up," while several others are along the lines of, "There seems to be a glitch preventing my fingers from typing in my credit card number!"

I know you're having an awfully bad day, Amazon folks, but at least make with the apologies, already, before you've lost us all for good. I really love that Kindle!

Update: Right after I finished writing this, I saw that Jane at Dear Author has unraveled part of the mystery. "At the suggestion of someone I looked up the category meta data provided by the publisher to Amazon. I looked up over 40 books that had been deranked and filtered out of search engines. It appears that all the content that was filtered out had either 'gay', 'lesbian', 'transgender', 'erotic' or 'sex' metadata categories. Playboy Centerfold books were categorized as 'nude' and 'erotic photography', both categories that apparently weren’t included in the filter.  According to one source, the category metadata is filled in part by the publisher and in part by Amazon." That probably explains how this happened, but we're still waiting to hear why. As Jane says, "The question is then who implemented the policy of marking GLBT books as adult and who knew of the implementation? What kind of supervisory person signed off on it?"

Update: As posted in the letters section, a hacker is taking credit for the stunt. "I guess my game is up!" reads a blog post that went up on LiveJournal this morning. "Here's a nice piece I like to call 'how to cause moral outrage from the entire Internet in ten lines of code.'" Known as "Weev," this guy was profiled in the New York Times last August and claims to have changed Amazon coding on all gay and lesbian metatagged titles in an attempt to "cause a few hundred thousand queers some outrage."  Some are calling bullshit, but Gawker finds it a plausible explanation. (My two cents: That dude in particular is full of shit, but yeah, the basic concept is a plausible explanation for the whole debacle.) Controversy continues! Twitter away, folks.

Update: Jessica Valenti's editor at Seal Press, Brooke Warner, has spoken to an Amazon rep who told her it was neither glitch nor hack. In an e-mail to Valenti, Warner wrote, "Basically he said that amazon has been experimenting with the way they dole out content specifically so that people who are searching Harry Potter or whatever won't run into links to products that might be offensive... [T]his is mandated from their bosses, who essentially want to be Walmart.... also said no human is responsible for the decisions per se, and that it's all about tagging and feeds which are constantly being tweaked. He does think that amazon will retweak the tags based on the uproar that happened over the weekend." However, others remain convinced it's the work of outside shit-disturbers. Amazon, meanwhile, still hasn't apologized for the glitch/fail/hack/error, and I still find that totally baffling. 

Update: Various anonymous Amazon employees are coming out of the woodwork now, offering accounts of what went wrong that differ from each other, yet all point in the direction of an internal fuck-up.  One anonymous coder told Melissa Gira Grant, "I can’t find the actual actual root cause, but it looks like someone internally changed 58K asins to be adult - whether that was accidental or intentional I couldn’t say, but we’re rolling it back." (58,000!!!) Another told a guy who told Lilith Saintcrow, "a guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up 'adult', which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like 'erotic' and 'sexuality'. That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon. The CS rep thought the porn question as a standard porn question about how searches work." Then there's the Amazon rep who told Brooke Warner who told Jessica Valenti (see update above) that it was both internal and deliberate -- though now, obviously, that decision itself categorized as a fuck-up.  Of course, even if the truth is in one of these dubiously sourced statements, it won't matter. It would be terrible PR for Amazon to admit they were hacked or that it was a deliberate business decision, so really, an internal error, human or otherwise,  is about all they can admit to at this point. Thus, everyone in both the "They were hacked!" camp and the "They're evil homophobes!" camp will undoubtedly continue to believe they're correct, regardless of what the official story turns out to be. Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for someone to notice they could stem the flow of negative publicity if they'd issue a friggin' apology to the authors, publishers and consumers hurt by this. My old Sony Reader's starting to look pretty good again. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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