Furor over Amazon ranking system

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When you're the marketplace giant, it's a mistake to imagine that you're going to be able to do anything quietly. That's a lesson that the folks at Amazon may have learned this weekend when much furor was unleashed over perceived changes in their ranking system.

It all started on Saturday when Mark R. Probst, a self-published author noticed that the Amazon ranking had disappeared from the young adult book he had written. Probst's book is a Western novel with gay characters intended for young adult readers. He wondered if its content had anything to do with the disappearance of the ranking number.

He began to check well-known titles with homosexual content  ("Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown, "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, "Maurice" by E.M. Forster) and discovered that they had all lost their rankings as well.

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An Amazon ranking is, of course, very important to authors because it allows titles to show up on bestseller lists. Also, loss of ranking can make it more difficult for  a book to show up in Amazon's search results.

Probst blogged on the topic and also contacted Amazon. The company explained to him that material classified by the company as "adult" does not receive sales rankings.

Meanwhile, other readers had picked up on Probst's blog. Book critic Bethanne Patrick posted on Twitter under the hashtag #amazonfail and the news began to spread like wildfire. An online petition was created.

What infuriated many readers was the fact that (although Amazon regularly does not rank books considered to be "erotica"), they do allow many titles full of graphic heterosexual sex and/or violence to be ranked. The LA Times blog Jacket Copy, for instance, points out that "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis – a "story of a sadistic murderer" is ranked while "Unfriendly Fire" – "a well-reviewed empirical analysis of military policy" that discusses gays in the military – is not.

"Amazon's policy of removing 'adult' content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented," notes the LA Times.

Amazon has since stated that what really happened, "was a glitch with our sales rank feature that is in the process of being fixed. We're working to correct the problem as quickly as possible."

Many readers, however, continue to believe that the "glitch" was a conscious attempt on Amazon's part to prevent the company's more conservative customers from taking offense over seeing too many titles with gay topics popping up on bestseller lists.

Was it a big blunder on Amazon's part? Foreign Policy blogger Evgeny Morozov posted under the heading of "#amazonfail and the politics of anticorporate cyberactivism" and even linked the debacle to the Twitter revolution in Moldova.

According to Morozov, Amazon goofed big time. When a company underestimates the power of Internet activism, he wrote, it "usually ends up paying much higher fees in publicity services to deal with a swell of the negative publicity – all embedded in the precious Google juice – than the losses it would incur from dealing with complaints from their conservative customers, who may want to restrict the publication of certain materials."

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