So my previous rant regarding #AmazonFail garnered a lot of traffic. This appears to be the hot topic of the day as I figured it would be. I did state I would wait for official word from Amazon and to their credit, I did receive it–the same canned message they sent The New York Times:
Thank you for contacting Amazon.com.
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.
[ad#longpost]As Ken pointed out (we do spend a great deal of time on the phone playing Sad Hardy Boys), those 57,310 books could have included Mind and Body books about homosexuality. So saying that it wasn’t limited to Gay and Lesbian titles isn’t good enough. Amazon has handled this poorly. In fact, the term “accident” I find a little strange. They’re trying to play this off as some sort of mistake, even though the theories are going around that this was somebody gaming the Amazon system.
If so, why wouldn’t they just come out and admit it? There’s two possible reasons. One, which is probably most common with big corporations, is pride. They don’t want to admit they’ve been had because that makes them look like morons. Trouble is, in this scenario, they already look like morons regardless of the root cause of the issue. So the second also plausible reason is that they don’t want to admit they’ve been had…yet. Because if they were smart, they’d be retooling their whole setup so that this can’t happen again–like, say, in case there’s a Wave 2 of craziness coming up this weekend. And if it’s anything like what this article states, fixing it quickly could be difficult to do. But if I were Bezos and crew, I’d have a “disaster response crew” combing through their processes for ways to avoid this sort of thing–from top to bottom.
And it’s hard to come up with something that doesn’t involve humans monitoring what’s going on. Think about it: if you say that you can “opt out” of seeing adult items then you might not piss anyone off if you declare the homosexual lit of the world as “adult” because people who would bother to opt out of such a list probably aren’t looking for that sort of book anyway. But then you just turn around and game the system so that all the Disney movies are declared the equivalent of porn and drop off the radar of people who just want to order Snow White for their kids.
Two other ideas: you could simply opt out of having your searches or views influenced by others at all. Or, here’s a better one: be able to select people you trust and just be influenced by them. Your friends and family aren’t likely to pull a stunt like this (we hope) so if you want to start gaming the system, but nobody trusts you, then you can game to your heart’s content and the only person who’ll see it is you. Knock yourself out.
All of this to say that something is probably/hopefully being done to close some holes in their process. You can forgive somebody for having this happen once when it’s unprecedented (and 57K books dropping out is, to my knowledge, unprecedented as far as scale goes). But now that you know there’s a problem, you have to react.
If they are keeping a lid on it until they can get their affairs in order and plug some holes, then I strongly suggest that they come out with the full skinnee as long as it doesn’t compromise something company confidential. I’d also strongly suggest that they review how their customer service reps handle calls–because at some point if you’re seeing an undue number of authors complain about their works being de-ranked, you might want to raise a flag somewhere. Again, in hindsight we can clearly see all of these things that might have raised the alarm about what happened (and indeed, we external to Amazon still don’t know for certain), but now we can only hope Amazon sees them and takes steps.
I think I am fairly convinced that my initial thoughts on this were correct: this was not a deliberate attempt by Amazon to establish some kind of homophobic agenda. It didn’t make any sense to assume that and still doesn’t. I thought, if anything, it was maybe a small group inside the company that set this up–which sounds nuts, but stranger things have happened. Now I’m thinking they were either gamed or just flat out hacked, although the former theory seems to make the most sense at present. This is 2009, however, and fifteen minutes after I’ve hit publish on this, Christ knows what will be revealed.
Amazon’s steps are simple now: first, fix the problem. Second, perform root cause analysis on the problem. Three, ensure the problem can’t happen again. Four, admit the problem and then have somebody (I recommend Bezos) get on YouTube and apologize and explain.
This doesn’t change my relationship with Amazon as an affiliate and I’m happy for that. And I’m comfortable with that. A lot of people are still pissed and want to look at alternatives and that’s their right to do so. If there’s a gay/lesbian version of a bookstore online that gets more trade out of this debacle, or even a brick and mortar store that can stay alive a few more weeks, then more power to them.
Regardless, Amazon has a lot of damage to recover from. Even today people were discovering #Amazonfail via Twitter and getting up to speed, and the initial thought that hit most people’s minds–that Amazon had somehow turned into Total Bastards–is hard to shake. We don’t trust big companies. And I don’t think anybody can blame us. We’ll see in the next week or so just how much Amazon learned from this incident.
Of course, anybody wants to hire me to help them try to fix their processes ahead of time, *ahem* did I mention my rates were reasonable?