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How news of the Amazon de-ranking spread, and perspectives on where it's at

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Discussion continues, on Twitter and elsewhere, about what the de-ranking of certain books on Amazon might mean. Twitter is where Jacket Copy first learned of the de-rankings, which is being called #amazonfail — from a journalist who had circulated a tweet by Bethanne Patrick, former books editor at AOL who spent two years at Publishers Weekly. She now writes about books and interviews authors for WETA in Washington, D.C. At midday Monday, Patrick told Jacket Copy:

I think that there's much more going on than a simple administrative glitch. My perspective on that also comes from being part of AOL. I know that glitches happen, and that there are all kind of things that can go wrong with coding. But my thing here is if it were just a certain category of books — let's say, hard-core erotic how-to manuals — then I might believe them. But the sales rankings were removed from things like "Lady Chatterley's Lover," from "Maurice" by E.M. Forster, from all kinds of books: classics, children's books, sex manuals, romance books, YA novels. To me, that is not an administrative glitch. This is just an outside view, and I think we have to get a real response from Amazon before anyone takes any kind of hard line, judgmental stance.... We see a problem, and hey, let's get some momentum behind it and get the problem addressed. That's what I think is important about the Twitter storm; it's not a witchhunt, it's not trying to get Jeff Bezos out of there. It's 'gosh, we saw this — we're here, we're the blogosphere — get used to it.'

Patrick had heard about the de-ranking from someone else — Sarah Wendell, a founder of Trashy Books, a sassy romance website. Although we now know that some authors had been de-ranked earlier in the year, Wendell came across the news via Storm Grant, who discovered that his ranking disappeared sometime Friday morning. She's following the story — and didn't quite believe it when someone surfaced claiming that the delisting was the result of a prank he'd pulled (that's a claim some have questioned). She spoke to us on Monday as well:

Knowing what little I do about publicity, I imagine that Amazon is not sure what to do to respond, except to put it all back. That would be the ideal solution, that they reverse what they did and put these books back.... There are some books that are more explicit that are older romances that are still ranked on Amazon. Authors Jaci Burton and Maya Banks had their most recent books stripped of their sales ranking while older books were still available. It seemed to be mostly books that were on the more erotica end of the spectrum [were de-ranked] — it certainly didn't happen to any Christian inspirational romances; for example, I don't think anything from Harlequin's Steeple Hill Line was stripped of its ranking.... It's amazing to see what Twitter can actually do, especially on a Sunday when you don't think anyone is at the computer.... I am basically just waiting for a bigger press response from Amazon answering the accusations.

We also look forward to hearing more from Amazon.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Twitter tweets 

 
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Amazon has claimed that it was a mistake. Corrections have, apparently, already started being made. It remains to be seen how complete those corrections are.

Most likely we will never know if this was really a mistake, a hacker with some sort of grudge to bear, or a remarkably bad policy decision that Amazon was forced to backtrack on by rapid public reaction.

What scares me, however, was the massive outpouring of assumptions based on speculation rather than fact. Fuel was added to that fire by the nature of Twitter, which doesn't have room for analysis or even nuance. It strikes me as something that can easily facilitate the spread of a mob mentality.

In this particular case, no great harm was done. Depending on the cause of what is being referred to as #AmazonFail, maybe it even did some good. But, it is terrifyingly easy for me to imagine any number of scenarios in which a great deal of harm could be done by masses of twits leaping to conclusions and basing assumptions on incomplete, inadequate, rumored, or just plain wrong information.

I got a twitter mid day/early Sunday from Neil Gaiman
@neilhimself about rankings - Mr. Gaiman is not gay but has author friends whose books were de-ranked -

I found out about the delisting of books on Amazon.com via Live Journal and Twitter yesterday and rather than just jump on the band wagon, I logged onto my Amazon.com account and looked for myself. I found that numerous titles with Gay/Lesbian content had indeed been delisted and you’d better believe I sent an email to them, then followed up with a telephone call to their customer service line this morning.

The removal of a book’s sales ranking on Amazon.com affects its place in the site’s search engine and is, for all intents and purposes, a form of censorship. As it stands now, the company is in the process of fixing the programming error that resulted in the delisting of books and other products and a message has been sent to all and sundry that censorship will not be tolerated. Would you really rather people ignored censorship and did nothing? What kind of journalist are you?

Pardon, the last part of my previous comment was directed at Eric Stone. My apologies to Ms. Kelogg, who doesn't deserve that textual slap.

I would like to know why the "flip" affected only gay and lesbian subject matter or -- in the words of Amazon itself -- "a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica." Amazon emphasized the latter to suggest that gay content wasn't targeted, but what do those areas all have in common? Definitely the likelihood that they would touch on homosexuality. Knitting, woodworking, mathematics, the American Revolution, the Cavalier Poets, scholastic philosophy, the Arian Heresy and the history of baseball seem to have come through unscathed.

As of 7am today (Los Angeles time) my gay books have been re-ranked but are still not showing up in searches under my name, even when the books in question have better sales ranks than my non-gay books. I posted some examples on my blog.


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