Sunday, April 12, 2009

Amazon de-ranking & 'hiding' some 'adult' books?

The Los Angeles Times today has an article about a Twitter user's findings that some books considered 'adult' books (by that, I guess they mean with more than the usual emphasis on sex) are being taken off the Amazon ranking system where they'll no longer appear but, worse, will not be in search results if a user is actually looking for the book.

[ Possibly resolved - see updates ]

I've seen the problem on photograph-hosting sites, where the "most popular" have inevitably been the ones verging on pornographic or well into the zone, until the hosting site has de-ranked those while also removing them from search processes.  It's the latter action that I find ultra questionable, especially when it comes to books.

The L. A. Times points out that a book about a sadistic murderer remains available to find but a well-reviewed book on military policy (you guessed it: having to do with sex) has lost its sales ranking and won't be seen in the best sellers.  They go on with many other examples - see details at the linked LA Times article.  The problem for many, including me, is that these books are also taken off the list for searchable books, so a person looking for "Unfriendly Fire" will not be able to find it.

IRONICALLY, the Kindle version of "Unfriendly Fire" keeps its ranking.  All the more reason to have a Kindle :-)  The article cites book critic Bethanne Patrick who, when she came across the news, posted it 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." They report that a site run by romance writers is hoping 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)."

As LA Times writer Carolyn Kellog points out:
"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."
To say the least.

UPDATE 4:55 pm.  I just went over to Kindleboards to see what was being said and saw a link from MichelleR to a Live Journal's Meta Writer, a community maintained by Chris Smith.  They're requesting help on identifying books that have been de-ranked and among them are Brokeback Mountain; Well of Loneliness; Giovanni's Room, non-fiction books having anything to do with LGBT topics; a Travel guide: Damron Womens Traveller (expressly, it's said, written for Lesbians);  a behind-the scenes book for the tv show QAF by Paul Ruditlis;  Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde; self-help books coping with issues relating to LGBT concerns;  and Randy Shifts' The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk among many, many others.  I suppose they'll take the film/DVD Milk off the sales rankings as well?

This is beyond the pale.  What goofball would have decided on this and how could they even think to carry it out this way, if the reports are accurate?

But re the Best Sellers page that I link to, there are categories on the left side that will hold/display the categories of books found to be not searchable and which have been noted as removed from the general bestseller listings.  I maintain that the books should be generally searchable.

UPDATES through 4/13/09 at 10:10 am.  PublishersWeekly posted that an Amazon spokesperson said they were fixing a "glitch" that had occurred and said it was not a result of any new policy.  The Director ("Erastes") of the Erotic Authors Association said that many of her members had noticed their books were missing from the sales 'rankings' on Amazon.
  Publishers Weekly writes that one of them (Mark Probst) reported on his blog that Amazon customer service representative Ashlyn D, from Member Services, Advantage, had written him that "'adult' material" was being excluded from "appearing in 'some searches and best seller lists' 'in consideration of our entire customer base.' "

Now that's a glitch that also included a written explanation from a customer service rep, apparently.  Commenters to the story are saying that authors received emails from Amazon responding that their books were removed due to "content" and some of the authors are said to have posted copies of Amazon emails to that effect. Craig Seymour gives his own experience, with the same reason given him, though his situation has been corrected.

tehdaly theorizes that this was a troll-group using the flagging feature, for 'adult' content, against any books it deemed unworthy of visibility, with the goal of pitting one community aganst another and having, as an added bonus, a bad effect on Amazon.  Interesting theory, though most readers seem dubious.  Caution: some there say to avoid clicking on the early link to Warriors for Innocence which may have, at one time, had malware on it.  Here's the follow-up Twitter 'Glitch' response-thread;  a Kindleboards thread that monitors the placing of books back into the search database.  MichelleR adds a link to a blog with updated info at the bottom.  LeslieN adds Erastes' listing of news articles and updates.

UPDATE: 4/13/09 at 10:23 am. 'Weev' AKA 'veew' has claimed responsibility for the fiasco and explained how he did it (if he did), the methods and motivives matching closely the theory that tehdely (paragraph above) had last night.  He claims he did it out of hatred of "reputation systems based on user input" and his disgust with the gay community, taking advantage of a milder policy in place and system programming with not enough security against malicious use of it.  He now has his admirers, of course.

As I said in the comments section here last night -- that it was possibly a mischievous person who was primarily responsible helps, but the milder version of the Amazon 'adult' content policies already in place, as we've seen in emails from Amazon to authors recently, and the lack of sufficient care against system gaming, just made this possible.

Some of the books have been slowly showing up in searches again although their ranking #'s (which bring exposure to reader$) have remained removed as of today.  This would take longer though.  Let's hope that books like Brokeback Mountain (which was okay in a collection because it wasn't 'tagged'), Well of Loneliness, and Unfriendly Fire are not seen as books that should be hidden from families.  Amazon has a diverse crowd in today's world, which was confirmed this weekend.

MichelleR, put a copy of an Amazon statement about this, in this entry's Comments area.  Books affected in the Health books area that they mention had been included in the long lists circulated last night.

UPDATE: 4/15/09 at 05:15 am.  The Saga Continues.  Amazon calls mistake 'embarrassing and hamfisted' saying that categories of Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica were involved, not just LGBT (but lists showed those were primarily LGBT unless a book was outright raunchy.

 Mike Daisey, a former employee who has a book out about working at Amazon until 2001 (8 years ago) quoted the words of a friend who works at Amazon, saying that
"Well, this is the real story: 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."
and Brandt then opined that Weev was "full of" it.

 One problem with the story is that people searching on the weekend could not find books in Amazon U.S. but did find them in the UK and in Canada, so it doesn't seem to entirely have been worldwide.  Daisey says further that it was editing that is shared, not data -- so how are the attributes (tags) of a book changed without that being 'data'? even if it's through editing that these are changed?  And assigned a negative meaning.

 Daisey could see no connection, moreover, between the quiet de-ranking of authors and removal from topic searches since February (with emails confirming that Amazon was methodically doing this) and the current imbroglio.  No?  Wouldn't the most innocent explanation consist of a mildly executed policy suddenly going off the charts due to error on a holiday weekend?

In the meantime, Bryant Durrell, who has an impressive technical resume, opined strongly that Weev could not have done what he bragged he did, based on trying to run Weev's forum-posted coding examples on Amazon pages not there but being reminded later that Amazon had said they'd taken pages down and plugged up some problem areas by Sunday afternoon.  Weev/Bryant: yet another mystery, and Bryant may well be right (and I had said, "IF he did" it, as he seemed too eager to claim credit for upsetting Amazon and gays).  It's no more decided than anything else here.  We are all relying on people who have areas to defend.  Both Weev and Bryant Durrell warn about believing the online word of strangers too easily.

Gizmodo, on Monday, headlined: "Amazon Unconvincingly Explains Its Bout of Homophobia Was Just a Glitch" and it gets harsher from there. Other news sites are a bit more politic.
And Wired gives a fairly balanced summary of it all.

For me, the most well thought-out, generous and eloquent piece about this debacle (and there have been many fascinating blog pieces) is the article by "Making Light" site (very apt name) - specifically by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.  He imagines that Amazon's policies of removing rankings and participation in search-databases due to 'adult' content -- and they seem to have started in February -- were intially meant to cover what Amazon considered more raunchy material.  Somewhere in the last 3 months, someone or a few decided to include more types of writing and subject matter in that category, and human decisions made (by Amazon France's employee's "misunderstanding" of English sex-tinged terminology (a loose mgmt style?) or by a Weev/Veew just caused the total confusion and explosion we saw.

The listed books are showing up in search results now, and people are watching to see if authors also get their earned rankings back, depending on google caches to know what the numbers were before the disappearances :-).

UPDATE 4/17/09 at 1:05 pm.   Two articles that aren't just repeats of other ones: "Why Amazon Didn't Just Have A Glitch" - Washington Post Tech Crunch;  "Amazon’s "Glitch" Myth Debunked" - Below are ways to Share this post if you'd like others to see it.
-- The Send to Kindle button works well only on Firefox currently.

Send to Kindle

(Older posts have older Kindle model info. For latest models, see CURRENT KINDLES page. )
If interested, you can also follow my add'l blog-related news at Facebook and Twitter
Questions & feedback are welcome in the Comment areas (tho' spam is deleted). Thanks!


  1. I just search Amazon, via the site and not my Kindle, for several of these books and I was able to find all. I don't know about the re-ranking them but they have not been removed from Amazon's search database.

  2. Charles, I was about to post an update about Amazon saying it was a glitch that caused this, while an Amazon rep mentioned a policy on 'adult' books. A number of people had been checking on the various books earlier. Thanks for your own results a short while ago.

  3. Charles,
    The problem is not that books are being removed, but made harder to find. Also, not all editions of a book are affected.

    When you look for a book, you can scroll down to product details. Usually one of the details will be a ranking -- where it stands in sales. The books in question have lost their ranks.

    That doesn't automatically mean they won't show up in searches, but it sometimes means that less suitable choices might appear first. It's most noticeable when you search all departments instead of books. Under all departments, there are authors who do not come up at all. There are screencaps posted to the KindleBoards thread listed above.

    This is also affecting books on disabled people and sexuality, biographies of people who happen to be gay -- Ellen Degeneres and Stephen Fry both have some versions of biographies that are de-listed -- and just plain stories about 2 (or more) consenting adults consenting to stuff.

    Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain has very little sex in it. Her style is too spare for lots of descriptions. Yet the paperback version, not the hardcover, is de-ranked.

    And decades later, Lady Chatterly's Lover is still going through this stuff. Really?

    Readers might not initially think it's a big deal, but a writer who sells more books should be listed as a best seller and get whatever additional boost might be in that. Any work that Amazon does on searches should be geared towards making them more, not less, accurate.

    Michelle R.

  4. Hi Michelle,
    Ok. I guess I'm missing something here for while I searched for Brokeback Mountain I find 776 results just for the book alone, the paperback is the first hit while the hardcover is the third. As a reader I don't pay much attention to rank. I read the books I'm interested in and I find those books by browsing a store, virtually or in person. I read the reviews and check other listings mentioned by people there. I understand ranking is important but it's not keeping people from finding books. I agree with the suggestion that it's a form of censorship and should have no place on their site, but it's not keeping people from finding books.
    Also, bottom line is that Amazon owns this and they can do what they want with it. If a consumer doesn't like their policies then he/she should stop doing business with them.

  5. Charles,
    Browsing usually means looking over what is there, while searching is looking specifically for something you know is there.

    If a book is #20 on a "bestseller" list, it will be seen by more people looking at that list (and they're there because so many people do). If the book has its ranking removed, customers who aren't looking for it won't ever come across it. That hurts the writer in many ways.

    People already know the bottom line you mentioned, and that is why they're letting Amazon know (if Amazon is wholly responsible for this) before they make decisions on what action to take.

  6. Charles, if certain authors are searched under All Departments, Amazon does not find them at all. Sure, if you search under books they're there, but a number of members would logically assume that there are no books carried by that person, because AD is meant to include books.

    For instance:

    Often, the correct search term when searched under All Departments makes the book show up several items down the list, after less spot-on matches.

    Brokeback gets mentioned because people are familiar with it, but it sells so well and is so tied to other items, that it's not easily suppressed. Its fame makes it both a great example and a poor one.

    The books are still there, and able to be found, but they're being given less weight than other books, often with the only "adult" thing about them being they're tagged as gay.


  7. Interesting, too bad the picture you linked did not include a search date. I did that same search, just now, and came up with 1 listing under AD for "jackie barbosa". Now a lot of things could be happening, one of them could be that Amazon is listing to customers complain and changing their search policy.
    I understand the argument about de-ranking and I agree that censorship is bad. As a person who does not care about the bestseller list or Amazon's search ranking I feel like people are started to get a little "the sky is falling" over this topic. It's one thing to stop buying products from a company who's policy you don't agree with or to tell your friends. It's another to complain bitterly, over and over again and I'm not saying you or Andrys are doing that. I think people are making a much bigger deal out of this then it merits.

    BTW, Behind the Red Door by Jackie Barbosa sounds fun. I put it on my wish list. :)

  8. Charles, I think when others have been complained about some, to their faces and behind their backs, for most of their adult lives for a trait they were born with, as any of the rest of us were born with whatever attitudes are natural to us, it's difficult to suddenly discover that -- as with one's family, some former friends -- output which represents you best is being hidden, again.

    Mustn't offend certain people - that's the important thing -- never mind offending people with such negativity going their way and then telling them not to make such a big thing of it.

    If it was intentional, and some of it was -- though not to the great degree we saw this weeken -- your basic core is affected, your sense of who you are, your value to others.

    People tend to write from their hearts, so it's felt even more. People are usually proud of their books. In this case, the message is, Don't be. We need to hide you.

    That it was possibly a mischievous person who was primarily responsible helps but the milder version of the syndrome already in place, as we've seen, and the lack of sufficient care against system gaming, just made it possible.

    Ah, well. Thanks for joining in with your thoughts.

  9. Charles,
    It's true that there is no date on the screencap, but I did the search right before I posted it here to make sure it was still a valid result. (I got the cap from Dear Author.)

    Amazon, in the latest letter sent to people, verifies and acknowledges all of this:


    Thank you for contacting

    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.

    Thanks for contacting us. We hope to see you again soon.


    Customer Service Department**

    I never said the sky was falling and knew that Amazon would fix this, because not fixing it would be folly. I was never furious with them or saying, "Off with Bezos' head." I can even point you to a post I made a few days ago that could be summed up as, "I love my Kindle, would save it before my husband were a fire to break out, Amazon hung the moon." However, what happened -- accident or no -- crossed a line for me, and while there was never any thought of permanently leaving them, I knew and know it has to be made right for me to feel good about purchasing from them.

    Even though it might have been a policy gone wrong, even the most innocent version of this concerns and perplexes me. There job is to supply books for me and their search engine should be geared toward the most accurate results possible. I make no pretense that my reading tastes are not all literary fiction and serious tomes -- I like erotic romance, I have no issue with the configurations involving same sex partners. I've written a few of those stories, too.

    I'm an adult woman who shouldn't have to jump through hoops to get the reading material of my choice.

    As to the writers, there is no justification for taking away from them money or publicity. The playing field was made uneven -- was meant to be made that way, even if it went to an extreme that wasn't intended.



NOTE: TO AVOID SPAM being posted instantly, this blog uses the "DELAY" feature.

Am often away much of the day, and postings won't show up right away. Posts done to use referrer-links may never show up.

Usually, am online enough to release comments within a day though, so the hard-to-read match-text tests for commenting won't be needed this way.

Feedback and questions are welcome. Thanks for participating.

Technical Problems?
If you're having problems leaving a Comment, Google's blogger-help asks that you clear the '' cookies on your browser's Tools or Options menu bar and that will fix the Comment-box problems (until they have a permanent fix).

IF that doesn't work either, then UNcheck the "keep me signed in" box -- Google-help says that should allow your comment to post (it's a workaround to a current bug).
Apologies for the problems.

TIP: There's a size limit. If longer than 3500 characters or so, in a text editor, make two posts out of it.

[Valid RSS]