A final word on #Amazonfail

There’s still a little confusion running around about exactly what happened and about what Amazon’s current policies are. As it happens I have an Amazon Associates account (I really must try to sell some books sometime), so I contacted them directly to get some answers.

Amazon does in fact have a policy that ‘adult’ (meaning pornographic) materials are not included in the sales rankings. Since the Amazon recommendation lists are generated based largely on sales rankings, this means that they are automatically excluded from being recommended by Amazon’s automated referrals (i.e. “Other customers who purchased {your book} often also order {another book}”). Books so classified are thus at a competitive disadvantage due to lacking visibility.

The #Amazonfail debacle apparently came about because a French cataloguing editor switched the ‘adult’ flag on for a large database node of 57310 books, and this change was universally applied to all of Amazon. This node contained largely but not exclusively books dealing with gay and lesbian themes, not all of them erotic in nature, which naturally made it appear that there was a homophobic policy in place.  Some strictly heterosexual erotica was also affected, notably Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and according to Amazon’s press statement also some books in the Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine categories. (Nevertheless, it’s still pretty striking how lopsidedly GLBT-themed the node was.)

The Amazon databases are very large and constantly changing, so there was no way to simply undo the single flipping of the ‘adult’ flag on the books affected, which is why it took a couple of days to get everything restored, but the process seems to be complete now and the rankings and recommendations are back in place for the affected books.

Okay, so a slew of mostly GLBT-themed books were miscategorized into a virtual ghetto. I’ve been saying for years that ‘adult’ is a deeply stupid euphemism to use for sexually explicit materials, and now it appears to have cost Amazon dearly, in that books which were themed for adults were  lumped in with the out-and-out pornography.

That still left a couple of questions in my mind. The first was, “How does Amazon determine whether a given book needs to be classified as ‘adult’ in the pornographic sense?” The Amazon rep I spoke to explained that the decisions are made as the result of agreements between Amazon’s cataloguing division and the publishers of the materials in question. There is no publicly available written policy or guideline because a) the agreements are negotiable on an individual basis, and b) the negotiations are considered a confidential part of the transaction between Amazon and the publisher.

The other question is broader, and I didn’t ask it because it’s obviously way over  the pay grade of anyone I’m likely to talk to. That question would be,  why do we need a special ghetto for porn anyway, especially inasmuch as there’s no real hard and fast way to distinguish it from erotica or the simply racy?

It would seem easier simply to tag sexually explicit material, allowing it to appear suitably labeled in  the same rankings as other fare and relying upon the customer to decide whether they want it, rather than imposing Amazon’s judgement by fiat.

An option to include or exclude results so tagged at the individual shopper’s discretion  should be a fairly simple thing to implement, perhaps defaulting to ‘no’ until a credit card purchase has been made (for age verification). The ‘Look Inside’ option could be locked with the same latch.



~ by B.T. Murtagh on April 27, 2009.

3 Responses to “A final word on #Amazonfail”

  1. I like your suggestion, B.T. It makes perfect sense and, like you said, it should be fairly easy to implement.

    Is there a way to pass the idea along to someone at Amazon who might be able to do something with it?

  2. Interesting issue. I will forever wonder how much the negotiations between the cataloguing department at Amazon and the publishers (to decide on which books are classified as “adult”) rely on the greasing of palms!

  3. Lottie, I’m surprised to discover no easy way to forward such a suggestion to Amazon, but I’ve sent an email to the generic Associates address.

    Ariane, my guess would be it’s a major ffactor!

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