April 13, 2009KR BlogReading

Amazon: what happens from here?

Returning from Easter weekend, my GoogleReader is full of articles about the Amazon debacle.

In case yours wasn’t, here’s a quick run-down: Amazon eliminated “adult” material from the sales rankings. Sales ranks are a big deal; authors check them; publishers check them; it’s an easy way for readers to find popular content. In February, several gay and lesbian authors found that their books did not appear in the sales rankings. On April 10th, two bestsellers disappeared from the list. When he inquired about his own book being dropped from the ranks, Mark R. Probst, author of The Filly, received the following message from Amazon:

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.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services

Amazon.com Advantage

National Book Award Winner Unfriendly Fire was amongst those taken from the sales ranks. Others were taken from the bestseller list. Readers began to notice a change. The press picked it up yesterday, employing a quotation from an email from Amazon’s director of corporate communications, Patty Smith: “There was a glitch in our systems and it’s being fixed.”

Few articles in the last 24 hours have neglected to mention the Twitter coverage of the subject. #amazonfail was the top Twitter discussion topic of the weekend.

BoingBoing and others have pointed out that Heather Has Two Mommies is pretty far from adult content, but there are steps that could lead a corporation to make this kind of mistake.

There are two parts of this that especially intrigue me: our relationship with Amazon as consumers, and the long-term effects of such an event.

Amazon is a system built upon consumers’ trust. It is also a system founded upon availability. If your local bookstore doesn’t have this out-of-print book, you go to Amazon to buy it used. Limiting the users’ ability to find titles contradicts the idea of online sales (that everything is “out there,” and a good source can connect you to it). But beyond that, Amazon is a source for recommendations and networking. A user trusts Amazon to save the titles that she purchases, and may even buy other books related to those titles. There is a sense of identity formed in one’s library, and in the recommendations a networked source like Amazon has made for you. We feel an ambient intimacy with this retailer, and that intimacy fuels the fire. Publishers Weekly called the response “a groundswell of outrage, concern and confusion.” It’s clear that this issue strikes a chord with many readers on a personal level.

If someone you trusted did something you’re against, how would you respond? The inital reaction of the public (well, the limited sampling of internet users who posted some such thing on the subject) was to stop buying things from Amazon. Organizations also began petitions, writing to Amazon directly. Surprisingly, Amazon has still not issued a direct statement – for a company that operates online, surely it understands that every minute the mistake goes unacknowledged, people are talking about it, saying negative things, and probably costing the company some sales.

Even if Amazon releases a killer statement explaining the glitch, how will it affect the relationship it had with its users? Amazon is perhaps the most powerful book retailer in the U.S., but its stock is already down today. The question that’s been raised is, “Who is Amazon, anyway?” No one is completely clear on the (private) company’s values. Trust is something that’s built over the course of years – and Amazon has put in its time – but will an apology cover the error and bring customers back to buy books? Or will this major retailer be reduced to the level of other booksellers? If Amazon sales are down, how will that change the publishing world, writers, and readers?