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Amazon Offers Up MetaData Error As Excuse

Recent comments from Amazon seem to directly dispute the idea of a hack or external tagging issue, but rather an internal cataloguing error. I don’t think that Amazon’s explanation is any explanation at all. It doesn’t address what it’s “adult content” policy is and what it will do in the future to books in terms of rankings. It is clear that ranking can have very adverse affects and without any transparency regarding this issue, the hamfisted mistake can be trotted out a dozen times to explain a “glitch” that probably had the exact effect that Amazon had wanted; just not the consequences.

From Drew Herdener to the Seattle PI:

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.

From Customer Service email I just received:

Thanks for contacting us. We recently discovered a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed.

Let me assure you that Amazon.com does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts; we do support the right of every individual to choose his or her own reading material or entertainment.

As a retailer, our goal is to provide customers with the broadest selection possible so they can find, discover, and buy any item they might be seeking. That selection includes some items which many people may find objectionable. Therefore, the items offered on our website represent a wide spectrum of opinions on a variety of topics.

Amazon.com believes it is censorship not to sell certain titles because we believe their message is objectionable. Therefore, we’ll continue to make controversial works available in the United States and everywhere else, except where they’re prohibited by law. We also allow readers, authors, and publishers to express their views freely about these titles and other products we offer on our website. However, Amazon.com doesn’t endorse opinions expressed by individual authors, musical artists, or filmmakers.

We value all feedback from our customers, and I thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments about this issue. Although we won’t be able to comment further on this topic, we hope you’ll allow us to continue to serve you

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

34 Comments

  1. library addict
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 16:47:08

    It certainly took them long enough to make an official statement about the matter.

    Regardless of how it happened, their handling of the situation has been a total PR fiasco.

    It’s good that they've taken the blame/responsibility, but where's the apology?

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  2. JulieLeto
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 16:54:27

    Long enough? It’s only been a few days! And a major holiday to boot. Look, this resulted in lower sales for them…and bad PR. You can bet they didn’t do it on purpose and to be honest, I really had a hard time believing that Amazon was acting in such a way in the first place. Amazon is all about the $$$ and I couldn’t see them doing anything to upset their customers. I’m glad they are clarifying and fixing…but this is a big problem and our instant society sometimes needs to calm down and relax and see how things play out.

    That said, it didn’t help that those first customer service letters went out that were, in fact, erroneous. Betcha someone got fired.

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  3. Bea
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 16:54:27

    In a word: bulls**t.

    Still boycotting.

    ReplyReply

  4. vein
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:00:56

    A few days? the first books were delisted around February 1st.

    ReplyReply

  5. Heather
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:01:25

    I agree, it’s Bullsh*t. Their response is spin, spin, and cover their a**es.

    Heather

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  6. Dana
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:01:25

    I’ve been trying to keep up with all the links, but fell behind because I had to go to class. Did Amazon ever address the policy changes that was indicated in the email to the authors? Or is that part of the glitch as well?

    ReplyReply

  7. Ivy
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:14:48

    What they did was just wrong. They need to apologize to all the people they offended with their actions.

    ReplyReply

  8. JenD
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:23:48

    I’m waiting for more info about their ‘policy change’ before I’ll shop there again.

    ReplyReply

  9. GrowlyCub
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:25:34

    I read somewhere that this actually started some time in the middle of last year.

    I’m done with them and I hope that DA and SBTB remove their Amazon buy links.

    And the idea that it will take time to fix this is rather unprofessional, too. Any reputable company this size would be assumed to have older versions of their database for roll back for just such disasters as this. What if they had a catastrophic crash, would they rebuild their database from scratch? I don’t think so.

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  10. Jane
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:26:47

    @Bea: I agree. This statement says nothing about what it’s real policy is and why it was done in the first place. I.e., why were books with gay/lesbian/sexuality/erotic adversely affected and not say violent books like American Pyscho or Playboy Centerfold? or conversely, why didn’t it affect inspirational books or Christian books? The so called glitch is squarely targeted at books that some groups have issues with.

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  11. Jane
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:32:04

    @GrowlyCub: There is no physical way I can go through the 2000+ posts and delete out the Amazon buy links. What I can do in the future is hook up with Indiebound or some other affiliate program. I can’t use Borders because it’s far too complicated to get a specific book link. DA will take a huge hit on this because it is our only source of income and during the time in which we offered Powells’ links, no one ever used it.

    @Dana: Nope, they never explained the “adult content” statements to the authors as far as I have seen which makes their explanation so suspect.

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  12. GrowlyCub
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:37:21

    Jane,

    I meant for future book reviews. I didn’t realize it would be a huge loss, guess I underestimated how many people are impulse buyers.

    I assume Bamm.com doesn’t have a referral program that would serve? I’ve been using their links in my LJ reviews without issue, but I didn’t want to earn any money with it, just offer a buy link that wasn’t Amazon.

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  13. Magg
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:40:28

    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

    Except that there were no misreportings… No one said it was just limited to Gay & Lesbian titles.

    But you have to admit, LGBT books were disproportionately impacted.

    ReplyReply

  14. library addict
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:41:21

    but this is a big problem and our instant society sometimes needs to calm down and relax and see how things play out.

    Which people may have done if the PR department had taken responsibility immediately instead of blaming it on a “glitch” and then waiting ALL day to make a statement. Even a “We’re looking into the cause and want to assure everyone we do not discriminate”-type statement issued earlier today would have gone a long way to calming the waters. By not doing so and offering an immediate apology, they have blown it from a PR perspective.

    They could have averted much of the speculation and conspiracy theories that have been sprouting up all over cyberspace if they had taken steps to assure their customers they were handling the situation. Maybe they couldn’t issue an official statement on Easter Sunday, but late Monday afternoon/early evening was too late for a company that runs 24/7.

    Now they’ll have to spend a much longer time playing catch up and they will probably never win back all the customers they have lost.

    ReplyReply

  15. Mad
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:49:54

    The first response just popped up into my email box courtesy of someone at Amazon.

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  16. library addict
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 17:51:07

    And that’s provided they issue a statement that can explain WHY it happened that people can actually believe. Because it's still awfully suspicious which books were affected and which weren't, the emails to the authors, etc.

    ReplyReply

  17. Has
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 18:19:21

    Dont believe that either- there was real intent to censor these books but I think they cocked up when it hit mainstream books. And why were feminists and books on disability and sex were nuked? Something stinks and I bet we will find out why sooner or later because it looks like they aren’t really apologising about this mess because I dont think they really care and that they think this mess can be brushed over.

    But I wont buy from them again- There are better alternatives and they provide better service. Book Depository all the way.

    ReplyReply

  18. Hydecat
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 18:21:42

    I just got the “ham-fisted cataloging error” response to my emailed complaint. While I’m willing to believe that what we saw was implemented by some kind of spotty programming, I also still wonder what sort of policy about adult material they have that might have caused said spotty programming.

    ReplyReply

  19. vein
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 18:43:52

    How is “oops we accidentally called all gay material obscene” any kind of real explanation whatsoever?

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  20. Elaine
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:31:57

    The loathsome “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” is still showing up at Amazon as the first book when using the query “homosexuality” as of 7:30 Mountain Time on 4/13.

    ReplyReply

  21. Louisa Edwards
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:33:48

    It’s shocking to me that they haven’t handled this better. A company that size who actually traffics in internet savvy ought to be just a little more on top of this kind of PR explosion. That said, I’m honestly not sure what would mollify people at this point. A pledge to donate to an organization fighting censorship, perhaps? Amazon’s charitable giving is shamefully low for such a huge corporation.

    ReplyReply

  22. Louisa Edwards
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:34:18

    @Elaine:

    This? Makes me insane.

    ReplyReply

  23. Amazon Alert - De-Ranking some erotic romance « Tour’s Books Blog
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:41:36

    [...] fiasco.   Dear Author has something to say that worth reading, as it usually is.  Click here to read [...]

  24. Diana Castilleja
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:47:25

    Just received mine about an hour ago. Was out, and it’s a brush off. Not happy. Not shopping with them. Never have so losing something they never had won’t affect them.

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  25. Bonnie
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:54:23

    Wish I could hate Amazon, but alas, I cannot. I love them. They provide way too many things I need, use and enjoy in a timely manner. Well, except for some ebook realeases, but that’s not their fault.

    Sorry.

    ReplyReply

  26. Nialla
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 19:58:59

    As a person who has formerly worked as a customer service rep who actually did know what the hell they were talking about, I can assure most don’t. They’re reading/emailing canned responses they think fits the question and hope it shuts you up, so you can’t assume what they’re saying truly is the policy. I would like further clarification on that point as well, but I’m not ready to attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

    From what I’ve beem reading from coders and such who claim to have worked at Amazon or similar sites, there is some supression in ranking going on, but no total blacklisting like this was. Basically, they’re not wanting the entire top 100 list to be made up of erotica. The “official” lists are just that, but those based on sales ranking will give a truer picture, but not always the one TPTB want to see.

    The bestseller lists are generally complete BS anyway, mostly made up of the “usual suspects” the publishing industry wants to push. It’s not all that different from the Nielsen TV ratings, where a fave show of mine is said to be doing poorly in the ratings, even though they’re #1 in total viewers for their timeslot. They’re just not getting it all in the coverted by advertisers 18-49 demographic.

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  27. Robin
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 20:32:34

    See, this is where someone needs to create a viral email campaign that stays strong past the waiting us out that Amazon is likely doing right now. Boycott is a choice, sure, but customers are likely always flowing in and out of Amazon. But consistent pressure, consistent attention, that IMO is what’s required to keep a company like Amazon (relatively) honest. If you’ve ever worked for an organization that is the target of a lot of public attention, you know how effective that can be, even without dis-investment.

    ReplyReply

  28. joanne
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 21:35:23

    Amazon has a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but they’ll live. Maybe they’ll learn. Maybe they’ll be healthier in the future. We’ll see how they handle themselves as they come out of shock.

    In the meantime I’m perfectly capable of deciding where I’ll spend my money. Links on Dear Author, or any other site, won’t make me go to Amazon any more then the lack of a link to that site will keep me from shopping there. I hope that DA will continure to do what it feels is best for it’s own well being now and in the future and I hope we would all support that completely.

    As for garbage like “A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality” — I can detest the book and feel pain for the child whose parent is going to try to use it —but I support the right of Amazon to carry the title.

    No censorship of books. Period.

    ReplyReply

  29. AQ
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 21:59:21

    Ran a few tests. It appears that the rankings have finally started to return. Tested 8 books on the original list.

    ReplyReply

  30. Cindy
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 22:59:38

    12:55 am on 4/14. I just zipped over and searched homosexualtiy. The Parents Guide to Preventing Homosexuality is still first.

    2nd. some weird bit that just says homosexuality and fiction. nothing else.

    3rd. You don’t have to be gay.

    4. For the Bible Tells Me So

    5. Can Homosexuality Be Healed?

    And then oddly enough, several children’s books regarding it…fiction of course. Including penguins. WTH?

    So…near as I can tell…adults are not allowed to read about it, children are.

    ReplyReply

  31. Stumbling Over Chaos :: The one that may cause nightmares
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    [...] you been following the #amazonfail kerfluffle at all? [...]

  32. MCHalliday
    Apr 14, 2009 @ 10:30:09

    Amazon is an almost global supplier and many of us outside the USA rely on Amazon for incredible selection, excellent price and fast delivery. Perhaps, small town America also uses Amazon for these reasons as I have purchased toys and books for friends in America and been thrilled with the reliable delivery any time of year.

    Boycotting is only a choice if it is possible to buy from other retailers. Jane’s suggestion of an Indiebound link might be a good one but the site is limited to bookstores across America. Powell’s is only for Americans as the duty is enormous on books bought outside my country, added to the exchange rate and shipping cost, it becomes prohibitive.

    Robin’s idea of using an ongoing campaign to remind Amazon that censorship won’t be tolerated, would allow me to feel okay about continuing to shop Amazon and I’d definitely be part of it.

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  33. Sphinx
    Apr 14, 2009 @ 10:43:40

    . . . can I just say I dislike the statement about “continuing to make controversial works available”?

    I’LL be the judge of what is controversial on my bookshelf, thankyouverymuch.

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  34. Uly
    Apr 14, 2009 @ 13:21:30

    Cindy, “For the Bible Tells Me So” is actually a book on why being gay is NOT wrong in the Bible. It’s pro-gay.

    Also, Tango Makes Three (the one with the penguins) is non-fiction, and pretty darn adorable too… even if it does involve penguins instead of people.

    ReplyReply

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