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Amazon's Conflicting Censorship Stories Show Problems [UPDATED]

If you paid attention at all to industry news yesterday, chances are you heard about Amazon's book de-ranking kerfuffle. A large group of books, including many with gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) themes all lost their Amazon sales ranks. Supposedly all is again where it was and the company has apologized for its "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error".

Story over? Not quite. There is strong evidence that Amazon was acting deliberately over a period of months and that contradictory stories that the company has issued in the tumultuous consumer backlash may be nothing more than posturing.

First, a quick rundown. Over the weekend, some people had begun to notice that GLBT-themed books, including such prominent ones as Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, lost their sales ranks on Amazon and that the books did not appear in search results. Apparently this status removal had started as early as Feb. 2, 2009, according to blogger Craig Seymour, who had found that his own book, All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C., had its history eradicated.

Seymour continued his attempt to track down the reason over a period of weeks -- and do check his report for the details. On Feb. 25, he learned that Amazon told him the rank and appearance in search results disappeared for two reasons:

  1. The title "was classified as an Adult product"; and
  2. It takes new books that aren't selling heavily to show a ranking.
The only problem is that a) this was a book, not a sex toy, and b) it had been selling since June 2008. The sales ranking and appearance in search engines reappeared on Feb. 27.

Fast forward to April 10, when people began noticing that some leading GLBT-themed books were missing their sales ranks and were no longer appearing in searches. Messages began careening out of Twitter, blog posts went up, and intellectual mayhem ensued. (As my BNET Media colleague David Weir points out, by Monday afternoon, more than 18,000 people had signed a petition to boycott Amazon.) Blogger, writer, and small press publisher Mark Probst, who also saw one of his books being given the transparent treatment, contacted Amazon through his Amazon Advantage account, asking about the situation, and received the following answer from a member services representative:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
It was the same response that Seymour had received. And as Probst pointed out in a later post, there is additional evidence that Amazon has simply not listed sales ranks of "adult books" in the past.

The firestorm continued and by Sunday afternoon, Amazon was saying that the whole incident was a mistake:

On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a "glitch" had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new policy regarding "adult" titles.
The company also said that the issue extended beyond GLBT literature, though I haven't come across a list of non-GLBT titles that received the treatment.

The problem is that given the previous responses by Amazon, the "glitch" excuse stands in contradiction. One of the following things then must be the case:

  • Amazon did decide to treat certain books with sexual or sexual identity themes as adult products and reversed course when there was enough negative reaction.
  • The "glitch" was something that happened on at least two occasions over the period of months.
  • There was a series of mistakes, but Amazon representatives were incorrectly told that adult-themed books were being treated as adult products and treated as such.
  • Some Amazon representatives independently decided to start the "adult products" excuse without clearing the answer in advance of giving it.
The last possible explanation is the hardest to treat seriously. The other three indicate some significant problems in how Amazon is doing business. Either it is excluding products without giving customers a choice, and inviting the scrutiny brought by consumers with web access, or it is creating a variety of clashing messages, each carried by one part of the company but not another. In either case, it indicates some real and significant weakness in a company that has developed a reputation for being smart in its operations and communications.

[UPDATE: There is additional evidence that Amazon was following a directive from top managers "who essentially want to be Walmart."]

I did email Amazon's PR group today, looking for an interview to discuss this topic. What I received was an email from its director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, with the following:

Thanks for your message. Here's the statement we released yesterday.

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 â€" 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.

As I replied, given the mounting evidence, the statement sounds like so much deceptive PR spin. I also asked whether any of the books in the other categories were not focused on or including a GLBT theme. If a response comes in, I'll be sure to update the story.

Redacted text image via stock.xchng user scol22, standard site license.