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Amazon begins to re-rank affected 'adult' books; theories swirl [UPDATED]

April 13, 2009 |  2:10 pm

UPDATED, 3:03 p.m. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener sent us the following statement, blaming the entire situation on a "cataloging error":

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.


The unexplained de-ranking of books on this weekend kindled an inferno of Internet outrage, the likes of which is seen only a couple of times a year. Meanwhile Twitter has shown that if you're looking to start a righteous conflagration, there's no better way to quickly add ten thousand twigs to the fire. 

Amazon now appears to be undoing the damage -- as of this writing the so-called "adult" books that were at the center of this controversy are now ranked again -- Mark Probst's "The Filly", Leslea Newman's "Heather has Two Mommies," and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence. (Bloggers have speculated that when a book loses its sales ranking, it becomes harder to find on the site.) Ranks have also been given back to a bunch of the other books on this list kept by the bloggers at Jezebel.

But for most of the day, cries of censorship, boycotts plans and petitions were flying around like dollar bills in a money tornado, characterized -- as in most mob frenzies -- by a striking absence of facts.

Feedback-amazonBlame Amazon for that. After more than a day of exceptionally bad PR, the online sales giant -- whose stated goal is to "be Earth's most customer-centric company" has said nothing except that their system had experienced a "glitch." "Glitch," of course, has entered the public relations lexicon as a synonym for "a bungle you'd like to sugarcoat by blaming it on computers." In this Twitterized world, Amazon's tortoise-like slowness is even more stark -- would it kill them to tweet one small update?

Meanwhile, the thousands of participants in the AmazonFail conversation are moving the mystery forward themselves. Earlier today, a LiveJournal blogger took credit for the situation, saying he'd used some simple programming to systematically catalog all gay and lesbian books in the Amazon database, then used that information to mount a feedback attack on the books in question: the idea being that if a book gets enough negative user feedback, it is automatically de-ranked. 

Another LiveJournal blogger named Bryant Durrell took the first guy's programming code and showed that it didn't work. But both he and Bart Leib, a third LiveJournal blogger (I haven't seen this much LiveJournal since the other mass-deletion controversy) speculated that even if the phony bad guy didn't do it, the scandal still has the pungent aroma of online pranksterism. If there was indeed a way for determined saboteurs to flag books as inappropriate, it might have made sense for Amazon to remove the entries while it considered the merits of the complaints. 

The problem is, there's no button to complain about a given book or product. Instead, users are offered the chance to leave text-based feedback for a product, a mechanism that would be much harder to manipulate with any real speed. 

Well, anyway, we'll probably have our answer soon. We've just heard that Amazon is planning to release more information about the glitch. 

-- David Sarno