The Garret Tree
Monday, April 13, 2009
  The Amazon Cluster Fark : The Return of the Jedi-Author
As I write this, Amazon has not yet explained what it calls the “glitch” that saw books with gay, lesbian, feminist and similar content delisted from best sellers and sales ranking over the Easter weekend (April 13, 2009).

The Associated Press is now reporting that
“ apologized Monday for an 'embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error' that led to the sales ranking being removed from tens of thousands of books.....On Monday, Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener said that 57,310 books had been affected.

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that some of the rankings are being restored at this moment.

Amazon is still being stupid and ham fisted but let's go beyond the events of the day.
There is a very important lesson for Amazon from the events of this weekend. It's not just the usual public relations post mortem (even though this has been a PR disaster for Amazon. Why hasn't Amazon fixed things overnight ).

As Humans at Work says

Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue. I was aware of the controversy early Sunday morning: there was no response from Amazon until late afternoon, and the company spoke through a press release to the Associated Press. Amazon is an online business, suffering an online publicity massacre, and they offered no online response of substance. No blog post of their own. No direct dialogue attempts on Twitter. Imagine that you’re on an arena stage in front of tens of thousands of angry people, and instead of speaking into the microphone, you get on your cell phone and call someone to take a memo to send those folks. That’s essentially how Amazon handled it.

So no wonder all authors were so outraged by Amazon's screw up. High Amazon ranking, being on the Amazon best seller lists mean sales. If Amazon could do it to the gay and lesbian community ( intentionally to please conservatives or through a series of mistake) it could do it anyone else (bird books maybe?)

If Amazon is smart and goes beyond the computer glitch strategy (and so far they have been just plain stupid), the company will realize that the authors, whose products they sell, are either the company's best friends and worst enemies. Although the Tweet hurricane, the Facebook tornado, may have begun with gay and lesbian writers, what happened at Amazon was an immediate threat to all authors and a huge number (Neil Gaimon, for example) reacted.

The calls to boycott Amazon are a big problem, a very big problem. Authors need Amazon. A boycott won't do any single author any good at all. Amazon promotes books that the chain bookstores won't touch.

Those calling for a boycott should think about this. How many of those gay and lesbian books that Amazon deranked are found in your local big box bookstore? A handful, and probably none published over three months ago.

If Amazon wants a long term fix to the business and public relations disaster, they must immediately create a respectful relationships with the authors that create those products.

The Cluster Fark glitch (or hack)

It appears that the “glitch” is some sort of meta data malfunction. It's easy to blame it on computers, (but of course the famous wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl was a case of humans doing their thing).

There are two theories:
  1. that some form of homophobic hacking manipulated Amazon's meta data.
  2. a series of perhaps unrelated management decisions created an unintended consequence.

The Making Light blog calls what happened a Cluster Fark where a series of management decisions led to this public relations disaster:

(1)Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries. (The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.) A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.

(2)Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from “let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff” to “we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.” Indeed, as Teresa pointed out, it’s entirely possible that someone used a canned list of “adult” titles supplied from outside, something analogous to the lists of URLs sold by “net nanny” outfits, which would account for the newly-unranked status of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (As one net commenter observed, “What is this, 1928?

(Aside: The Amazon disaster happened the same night that the Discovery Channel Canada premiered Who Sank the Titanic? with the theory that the deadly cluster fark was a series of management blunders, beginning with the substandard rivets and reducing the lifeboats from 48 to 16).

#amazonfail – Twitter comes alive on a holiday weekend: A lesson for the media.

The groundswell of rage against Amazon showed the power of the social media and the absolute failure of the bean counters in the mainstream media (as one who works for the MSM, I am sad to say)

The media managers assume that, in most cases, news doesn't happen on a holiday weekend, when they have to pay overtime.

Most media workers these days are so over worked they crave the time to relax, by themselves or with families or friends on a holiday weekend.

Newspapers, starving to death, still don't “get it” that today news has be posted NOW. It can't wait for 24 or 36 hours until the presses roll.

As history now shows (even though the history is only 48 hours old), blogger and author Mark Probst found that his young adult books about the old American west, which have gay characters, had been deranked.

From Probst's blog, the word quick spread to Facebook and Twitter., where the hashcode #amazonfail quickly became the top subject on Twitter.

I was watching as the events unfolded over the Sunday afternoon. I saw posts from other media workers, with no outlet for their work on the weekend, also posting on Facebook and Twitter. The Amazon glitch was and is a direct threat not only to authors of gay and lesbian subjects, it was a threat to all authors. So authors posted, cross posted, linked and sent out messages. So did the reading public, who saw those initial posts. Then came the online community at large on Twitter and Facebook.

The events of Sunday were not only the first time that Twitter became a viral phenomenon without parallel media coverage, it showed the power of crowd researching. People would go to Amazon and check their favourite books and authors and find out if the ranking was still there.
Hundreds of people doing targeted research all at once creates more information more quickly than a single reporter can.

That, unfortunately, is a lesson, for the mainstream media. When we weren't there, the public didn't need us. They cover the news themselves.

Return of the Jedi-Author

Here, dear reader, I am, without apology going to mix my metaphor, from Battlestar Galatica to Star Wars.

Authors are under threat from an Empire, publishing companies and chain bookstores, empires ruled by corporate Palpatines and Vaders.

Authors are like the lonely surviving Jedi holding out against the chain bookstore Death Stars and publishing company storm troopers that view authors as cannon fodder.

Amazon enters the picture.

A neutral Force. (yes a Force with cap “F') that might give power to the Jedi-author.
Is Amazon going to go to the Dark Side or Light Side of the Force?

That is the decision the Amazon corporate executives must face.

Every author (like me) today links to their books listed on Amazon. (In fact one of my frustrations is that due a rights Cluster Fark, people can't order A River Kwai Story from Australia on Amazon)
The long tail theory began when the sales of books were tracked on Amazon and those figures showed that a book could have a long and perhaps profitable life long after the three months that the chain bookstores carry a book.

Ask any author today and they will tell you that the publishing companies have no respect for them. At publishing companies, the corporate mail mobile (whether human or robotic) is more important than an author.

The majority of bookstores don't want authors around, in fact, they'll keep them at bay with a 10 metre pole (unless they're Stephen King or Neil Gaimon)

So I am hoping that the Force really is with the author. That Amazon will realize that they have completely farked their customer relations and they are still farking their customer relationships.

Hiring a PR firm that specializes in salvaging this kind of mess won't t help.

So here's what I think Amazon should do.

Will Amazon take advantage of a disaster and turn it into an opportunity?

Or will it turn to the Dark Side of the Force and become just another literary Death Star?

Jeff Bezos. You have choice. So, from metaphor No. 3, take advice from Spiderman. With great power comes great responsibility.


Amazon really doesn't get it. It apparently issued a new release on the afternoon of April 13. Yet nothing but corporate/SEC stuff on the Press Release page. It was the public on Facebook and Twitter that alerted the media to the problem, yet it seems Amazon is only speaking to the media who ask. The public still doesn't matter.

Ad Age: Amazon's Silent Mistake in the Face of a Social-Media Firestorm

All weekend, as the firestorm spread, Amazon maintained silence. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, who's on Twitter, has yet to write a word about the brouhaha. Finally, today, Amazon's director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, blamed the issue on a "glitch," which was not explained.

Whether the incident is a glitch or the work of a hacker is rather beside the point. Amazon should have been monitoring its brand in social media 24/7. And clearly it wasn't. It should have responded much sooner and much more clearly. If it didn't know the cause, it should have said so and explained what it was doing to find out.

LA Times updates Amazon blames book-search glitch on 'cataloging error'

Herdener did not respond to requests to clarify the cause of the error, nor about why works such as the "Milk" pictorial -- which did not appear to be listed in any of the categories mentioned by Amazon -- may have been removed from the search listings...

In striking contrast to all of the online uproar, Amazon -- a leading Internet company and media pioneer -- remained nearly silent. It issued a brief statement Sunday evening, citing "a glitch," then waited most of Monday before issuing the mea culpa.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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