Amazonfail: Post-Mortem

April 15th, 2009 · 22 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Days later, Amazon has maintained corporate silence on the issue of mistakenly flagging certain books as “adult”, a designation that serves to delist a product (not just books) from sales rankings, making it difficult to find them — unless you know how to look — in the Amazon catalog. While it might represent a blip in overall Amazon business, this error had real-life impact on authors and publishers. Imagine for a moment being the author whose newly released title was impacted by this error. You don’t get a do-over.

Right now, the episode known as “Amazonfail” remains a trending topic on Twitter and seems destined to become a staple in lessons on social media failure. Amazon described the problem as “embarrassing and ham-fisted”. I’d apply that description to their corporate response as well. While the noise has slowed to a dull roar, people are still talking. Amazon isn’t responding.

The current official unofficial explanation from the Amazon camp is, if you’re a database geek, remarkably prosaic (not so much if you were one of the many authors or publishers impacted). Basically a field was switched from off to on (or false to true). That field controls how certain information is served to Amazon’s customers. Approximately 57,000 books were incorrectly identified as “adult content.”

The insider look at AmazonFail obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer lays out a scenario that, according to an Amazon employee happens frequently. It happens to databases all the time. Booksquare tech overlord Kirk Biglione outlined the process that lead to this snafu, adding special emphasis to the complexity of unwinding the mess. The following, based on an account from an unnamed Amazon staffer, mirrors his explanation:

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)

It’s no big policy change, just some field that’s been around forever filled out incorrectly,” the source said. (Emphasis mine, added because it comes into play later)

Provided this explanation remains operative, it answers the what and how question. More or less. Even as technical staff worked around the clock to fix an error that was elevated to Sev-1 (big-time problem), spokespeople remained silent. As we’ve seen, the lack of official response beyond the head-patting “we’re working of fixing it” did nothing to dampen customer ire. It did nothing to reinforce trust in the Amazon brand.

Several days later, it seems the problem is resolving, but look at one of the long-term consequences: on Sunday, April 12, 2009, the top result for the search term “homosexuality”, due to the error, was the 2002 book A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality — a book that promotes a practice that is deeply offensive to members of the homosexual community. Today, when I search, this title is in the top ten results, surely a side effect of its unexpected top level position.

We are left with several big issues for Amazon to resolve. First, of course, is how they are going to address the fact that this error impacted the bottom line business of authors and publishers. It’s impossible to estimate actual lost sales for any single book affected, but we know there was an impact. The error impacted Amazon’s business as well. Amazon needs to respond to this breach in a forthright manner.

Second, for those whose business relies upon Amazon’s ability to run its own business, Amazon needs to respond to questions of how this could happen and the steps being taken to prevent it from happening again. If it is true that a single employee was able to miscategorize some content and then flip a digital switch for an entire node (or branch) of products based on attributes of one, maybe two, maybe more products assigned to that node, then vendors need to understand the steps Amazon is taking to prevent their products from being “delisted”.

This isn’t just an issue for books, but that’s our focus here. The “adult” label exists in the record for all books, not just some. Human error occurs, and it can happen to any type of book or product.

Even as vendors can see how this impact them, customers of Amazon have lost trust. The Amazon search functionality — and I say this as someone who frequently uses the site for research — is famously quirky. Straight-on title searches often return odd results, a function, I believe, of adding sales rank information to results (this would explain why searching on the exact title of an out-of-print book would return many other choices before the book being sought). Stripping a product of sales rank by labeling it adult or some other designation that impacts results will lead casual searchers to assume the product isn’t available from Amazon. Maybe they’ll go somewhere else, maybe they’ll skip the purchase. Some, burned by this current failure, might worry that the problem is bigger.

There is no indication that this occurred as a result of malice on the part of anyone at Amazon, but the fact that one person could apparently wreak havoc should be enough for Amazon to be forthright about controls to prevent it from happening again. While Amazon admits that the error impacting a range of books, analysis indicates that the bulk of the delisting impacted specific types of books (titles dealing with sexual themes, including homosexuality and erotic writing). I would like to see how Amazon’s list squares with the titles identified by readers; my guess is the commonly identified themes will have the largest proportion of affected titles. Which leads to the final issue…

We all need to come to terms with something uncomfortable: this flag exists in the Amazon database and has for some time (see the emphasized text in the quote above). Amazon sells content that falls squarely in the X+-rated category. The initial customer service response about shielding the general Amazon customer base from this content makes sense now. The flag serves the purpose of burying pornographic (what Amazon calls “adult”) content a little deeper in the site; as we know, it can still be found, but some effort is involved.

The problem comes from the definition of, yep, pornographic materials. As we’ve seen over the past few days, it is something that can fall in the eye of the beholder. A single employee was capable of categorizing close to sixty thousand books as “adult” based on certain criteria. Amazon has not yet explained how that employee reached the conclusion that these titles were adult (I saw a news source that suggested this was a translation error), but there you have it. Someone deemed it to be so (or grossly misunderstood the use of the flag, also possible).

So now we all know this flag exists in the Amazon system, and we know it’s been in existence for a long time. We don’t know how it is used, who makes the decisions about whether to switch it on or off, or how outside pressures can be used to change the status of items in the database (one also suspects that another customer service comment about responding to customer complaints has an element of truth as well). While the book community in general will likely be more vigilant, it would be nice for Amazon to clarify its policy in this regard, and provide a notification/resolution process for those products that are “flipped”.

For better or worse, and I think we can find persuasive arguments on both sides, Amazon has had this “adult” policy for a long time. What hasn’t been made apparent is the fact that, if the customer service comments were true, there is a way for customers to initiate the process to flip the switch. It is one thing for content to be labeled adult from the get-go, it is another to change the status without due process, especially since that change impacts future sales. If there is a process whereby consumer complaints can lead to a product being delisted, then there needs to be transparency and dialogue (Jane from Dear Author discusses this as well.).

Amazon still has much explaining to do and many amends to make. Various levels of trust were breached. This mistake allowed us to see aspects of the company that most of us simply didn’t realize existed. And now we can see how the actions of one person can impact the business of many. Books might not be the largest part of Amazon’s business, but given the genesis of the company and their continued efforts in literary matters, I believe they are serious about their role in the world of books.

The question now becomes “are they serious about transparency and customer relations?”

File Under: Square Pegs · The Business of Publishing

22 responses so far ↓

  • Ken Arnold // Apr 15, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Amazon is not and never has been serious about transparency and customer relations. This latest episode is the equivalent of government officials whose errors are compounded by their arrogance in dealing with the public. Amazon typically refuses to answer questions, from publishers trying to find out where their Kindle earnings are to customers looking for a human being to talk to.

  • Robin // Apr 15, 2009 at 11:49 am

    We all need to come to terms with something uncomfortable: this flag exists in the Amazon database and has for some time (see the emphasized text in the quote above). Amazon sells content that falls squarely in the X+-rated category. The initial customer service response about shielding the general Amazon customer base from this content makes sense now. The flag serves the purpose of burying pornographic (what Amazon calls “adult”) content a little deeper in the site; as we know, it can still be found, but some effort is involved.

    The problem comes from the definition of, yep, pornographic materials. As we’ve seen over the past few days, it is something that can fall in the eye of the beholder. A single employee was capable of categorizing close to sixty thousand books as “adult” based on certain criteria. Amazon has not yet explained how that employee reached the conclusion that these titles were adult (I saw a news source that suggested this was a translation error), but there you have it. Someone deemed it to be so (or grossly misunderstood the use of the flag, also possible).

    This is the part that has interested me from the start. No matter how many explanations of the “glitch” emerge from Amazon, some of that is distraction from the whole issue of characterizing and categorizing material in a way that impacts its presence on a commercial website where only adults are allowed to purchase. Those decisions are ideologically charged and they have material impact for customers and manufacturers, and, in the case of books, for authors and publishers.

    That problems existed around this “adult” tag well before the so-called “glitch” demonstrates that this goes way beyond a simple error of translation or technological reversal.

    And the lack of public notice or apology on the Amazon site? Total fail of Spin 101.

  • Mike Cane // Apr 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    What is Amazon’s formal policy? It’s Tuesday. Why haven’t they made it public? Tomorrow will be Thursday, will we have it then?

  • ReacherFan // Apr 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Despite that ‘adult’ tag, during the big delisting on Sunday I entered the search term for All Amazon – bondage. I got a number of devices pop and several books on building your own bondage equipment. Apparently DIY bondage equipment is less offensive than a book with BDSM themes. And it’s all right to main list handcuffs and other restraints, but not books that include the use of of such items.

    Their logic fails me utterly.

    I will say here what I have said elsewhere, like the formula for Coke, I can understand keeping some elements of their business ‘trade secrets’. What I do NOT accept is the change in the operating ‘formula’ that affects target markets.

    Amazon handled the public backlash about as badly as any company has ever done. Astonishing in this day and age when crisis management is taught to all MBA’s. They need to study McNeil Pharmaceuticals’ response to the Tylenol poisoning over 20 years ago. It was done with such class, care and assurance, McNeil actually came through it with HIGHER confidence ratings with consumers! That is how it’s done.

  • Jon Reed // Apr 15, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Excellent post-match analysis, Kassia. I absolutely agree that this isn’t over yet – though it perhaps could have been had they issued a statement and apology instead of stonewalling us. I also find it depressing that some commentators are only now wading into the debate, saying ‘see, they did nothing wrong after all, don’t you all look foolish now?’

    The real failure is one of PR – and my take on this is that amazonfail = PRfail:

    I shall certainly be using this as a case study of how NOT to handle a social media crisis! And I, for one, am still not buying from Amazon.

  • Diana Hunter // Apr 15, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    Thank you, Kassia. I’ve read too many blogs yesterday and today that are willing to accept Amazon’s explanation at face value and put the blame for the mess on the Twitterers who, in their words, “overreacted”. I will state for the record here, what I’ve been stating in comments on many of those blogs:

    Amazon’s lack of response smacks of corporate elitism, hearkening back to the days of feudal overlords who ignored the concerns of the peons. A more modern analogy can be found in The Wizard of Oz — the Great Wizard has things under control and we should all just go about our business and trust that He knows what He is doing.

    Except, that trust has been broken. And Amazon, in the throes of their hubris, have not bothered with something so mundane as an apology for their mistake. You pointed out several levels to this error; Amazon has yet to say their sorry for any of them, intended or not.

    I cannot, in good conscience, continue to support a company that so willfully ignores their customers and clients. I had a book on the Erotica Bestseller List — it has fallen in the rankings since this debacle. While I hope it will regain its former status, the reality is, my sales were hit and an acknowledgement from The Powers That Be at Amazon would have at least made me think kindly of them. But the longer their silence reigns, the more suspect it becomes.

    Okay, this is turning into a full blog post of its own and I’ve already done that on my own blog, although I see I still have strong feelings…

    Good post-mortem, but the grieving and gnashing of teeth isn’t over yet.


  • Keith Cronin // Apr 16, 2009 at 6:22 am

    This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think you’re asking too much.

    Did Amazon screw up? Absolutely. And their response to this problem was badly handled as well, from a PR perspective. But Amazon doesn’t “owe” us more transparency into how their database is organized or managed. That’s their business, not ours.

    If you’re a stockholder, perhaps you have a right to more accountability, but the reality is that for a database-driven company like Amazon, how they manage their data is both proprietary information and a HUGE part of their competitive advantage.

    Don’t get me wrong: they screwed up. And they’re admitting it, if not with the level of speed, grace and candor that we might have wished. But our outrage over that doesn’t give us – I’m speaking of non-stockholders – any new level of entitlement to be privvy to Amazon’s business practices and database methodologies.

    I think it’s time for authors to accept the apology, make sure their book is listed, and let it go. People make mistakes. This was a biggie, but they’re fixing it, and they’ve apologized. Unless you own part of Amazon, I don’t think you have a right to ask for much more, at least this time around. I don’t see what more “grieving and gnashing of teeth” will accomplish at this point.

    Besides, Amazon is a smart company. I suspect they’ll learn from this, and will treat their next big PR problem more professionally.

  • Jon Clinch // Apr 16, 2009 at 6:43 am

    I’m with Cronin.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 16, 2009 at 8:56 am

    I’ll have more to say later, but do have a question for Ketih: aren’t authors and publishers stakeholders in this equation? As part of their business planning — and Amazon needs to be part of the plan — don’t they have a right to understand the circumstances that might lead to their books being labeled “adult”? I don’t think anyone is asking for Amazon to give away their algorithms (okay maybe a few people), but it’s not unreasonable to understand how Amazon defines this term.

  • Keith Cronin // Apr 16, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Do you similarly demand that Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble provide technical details to you for how they categorize books within their systems?

    It seems to me you’re focusing on minutae. The ranking system itself for Amazon is cloaked in mystery and conjecture, yet you’re obsessing over one field in what is likely a big honking database (BHD for short). How do they decide what’s YA versus a mid-grade book? Or crime versus thriller? There’s lots of stuff we may not know about how Amazon categorizes material.

    And don’t get me wrong: I’m all for authors learning as much as they can about the different sales channels they employ, and I understand that this can be a challenge. But I don’t think their desire for this information in any way obligates a company in which they have no ownership to give them deep access to that company’s proprietary business methodologies.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 16, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Hi Keith — Now for a more detailed response. First, yes, I am focusing on the single field because that single field was, apparently (Amazon still has not said one or the other, officially anyway), the root of the problem. At issue is the fact that *after* books are categorized, a single employee (again apparently) was able to not only flip the switch for individual books, but also for entire nodes (categories of products). This adult policy has been in place at Amazon for a long time, flying under the radar for most vendors (including authors and publishers) and customers. Now we are aware that it exists. More importantly, from the perspective of the vendor, we are aware that it can be triggered without any notice to the content owner.

    As we saw this past weekend, this reset can happen fairly easily, on both a micro and macro level. Obviously Amazon does not want this to happen; they lost sales too. The examples you use — young adult, middle grade — are designations that come from the publishers themselves, provided as metadata. Amazon does not normally come in and change metadata. They simply cannot read and review every item in the store. The designations, including adult, are supplied by their vendors. The adult flag is part of the overall Amazon record and was triggered after the fact for products that had been for sale via the normal Amazon sales channel. Amazon has admitted this was a mistake, but they have not apologized.

    Because there are no clear guidelines to define “adult” and because, according to customer service reps, consumers can agitate to have a product’s designation changed without discussion with the content owner, it’s reasonable to suggest that Amazon clarify both the policy and create a mechanism to inform its vendors of this major switch to the product. The adult flag has significant impact on how products are found on the Amazon site. An after-the-fact change in this flag has a real-world impact on sales because it skews search results.

    Unlike some, I am less bothered by the existence of this flag than I am about the lack of overall controls in its usage. This trigger could have just as easily impacted the young adult novels you mention because it wasn’t carefully applied on a title-by-title basis but on a category basis. Authors, publishers, and, frankly, all Amazon vendors trust that Amazon utilizes proper controls in the running of its business. If you are a large company, you cannot check the status of your products on a daily or even weekly basis. Publishing is interesting because there are two entities, and the author entity is, and I say this as one who has to talk many friends off the rankings checks, obsessive about sales rank. Even so, when this was identified by single authors, it was dismissed for various reason. It was only when large numbers got together that it became clear that a systemic problem existed. Amazon tech people have been heroic in unwinding the problem — it’s not just a simple switch back.

    So again, nobody is saying give up your secret sauce. How Amazon develops these sales rankings is its own business. We all know that bestseller lists are the result of each entity’s private mix and do not necessarily reflect the products that truly sell the best. What is needed is more transparency when it comes to this particular flag because flipping it from off to on makes a huge difference to the stakeholders, including, yes, customers. If it’s on from the beginning, such as with the x-rated films that Amazon sells, that’s one thing; it’s a bit different when it happens after the fact.

  • Keith Cronin // Apr 16, 2009 at 11:43 am

    We’re probably arguing semantics at this point. You say, “What is needed is more transparency when it comes to this particular flag.” The word I’m objecting to is “needed.” Yeah, I can totally see why it would be nice for authors and publishers to know more about how that flag works. But does Amazon *owe* you that information? I don’t think so.

    I think you’ll find most vendors who sell their wares to Wal-Mart have MANY opinions about things they wish Wal-Mart would do differently in how they handle their vendors. But the bottom line is the vendors don’t make the rules for how Wal-Mart operates; Wal-Mart does. Ditto for Amazon. Wishing it weren’t so ain’t the same as *needing* it not to be so. That’s all I’m saying.

    I can see why this flag concerns you, but I disagree that this concern automatically entitles you to Amazon sharing their flagging methodologies with you, because those methodologies are part of the root of their competitive advantage. Think about it: books are commodities. A book bought from B&N is no better than a copy of the same book bought from Amazon. So it’s the services Amazon provides that differentiate them from other booksellers, and I feel they have every right to keep the proprietary methodologies that fuel those services – the “secret sauce,” as you put it – to themselves.

  • angryxer // Apr 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Great post, Kassia, thank you. Clearly no point in trying to argue your point further with Cronin; he’s clearly tone deaf, or willfully just digging in. Sounds like the man has no understanding of the publishing business. This isn’t about proprietary issues; it’s about an Amazon policy that quietly makes books disappear, without authors or publishers having any idea that such is happening. We’re not asking them to explain the mysteries of sales ranks in the first place, or anything of the sort. Considering that complaints about delisted books began at least as early as February, this past weekend’s “glitch,” as you said, only served to surface a larger problem.

    I’m getting very tired of people saying “it’s a private company, it can do what it wants; you can buy your books elsewhere.” Really? that’s the point? Uh, yes, I will buy my books elsewhere, thank you very much, until such time as Amazon issues a proper apology/explanation. However. Amazon is essentially the Google of book searches. So imagine if people’s websites suddenly started disappearing from Google’s search results with prior warning. Think the response would be “it’s a private company, doesn’t matter, it can do what it wants”? No way. Well, maybe Cronin would. But let’s be realistic about the majority response. The issue is one of visibility, and it’s a serious one given Amazon’s monopoly on this realm (B&N, competitor? I think not! Dreadful website).

  • ReacherFan // Apr 16, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Flagging products and creating an ‘adult zone’ for truly adult material is one thing. Applying that flag for books written for children (Heather Has Two Mommies) and to gay BDSM seem ridiculous. THAT’S what what bothers me. There is only one possible flag for that, and it isn’t ‘adult’. That is the simple reason why I do not and cannot buy into their ‘flag’ line. Given the broad range of books de-ranked there was one common denominator and it wasn’t ‘adult’. It seemed ‘adult’ ended up be a subset of the larger field. That’s why things like menage books were actually re-ranked later in the cycle.

    Should Amazon feels the need to apply an adult filter, I actually have objection, just give me a way to register to turn OFF the filer. That’s very reasonable. I can enter some pretty ‘adult’ sites just by clicking a button saying I’m over 18. Certainly there are better places for kids to find ‘adult content’ than tame old Amazon.

  • ReacherFan // Apr 16, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Sorry I have ‘no objection’ to a filter

  • Bhetti // Apr 16, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    1) The current model for media (e.g. the film industry) is to use Independent authorities to rate the products and classify them based on this. A corporation should not be making the decisions itself. This will invariably lead to the disagreements we see.
    2) Books should not be censored. I don’t see censorship of them in bookstores (maybe being placed in a high shelf?) and I don’t expect them to be censored on a website which only those of the age of consent can realistically use to buy anything.
    3)Amazon sells more than books but has and will lose consumers over this issue. It may come as a surprise to people, but I think everyone had a level of trust in Amazon that they weren’t aware of until it was challenged. Part of its allure was easy access to any book you wanted that is in print or even out of it, access that can’t be matched by a bookstore.

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  • KatG // Apr 17, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Well, I kind of agree with Cronin — Amazon sells books however they want to (or doesn’t sell them.) Once they buy the books, the publishers and authors have no further say what Amazon does with them, including not selling them and calling them adult. Publishers may have a lawsuit claim if they paid for promotions which the glitch then did not carry out, but otherwise, suppliers to Amazon have no dominion.

    But there are two problems — one is that, intended or not, Amazon is contributing to discrimination and prejudice against the gay community by the fact that things that mention homosexuality, such as gay memoirs, have to be labeled by them with something — if not adult, then sexuality, whereas heterosexual memoirs do not necessarily. Heather Has Two Mommies is not about sex, it’s a kid’s book about families. The only label it should ever have in an equal world is children’s. So we can indeed protest and complain about Amazon’s policies there, even if we have no control over those policies.

    The second problem is the fact that Amazon is the Google search of books (and for that matter, that Google is the Google of search engines.) It’s dominance of the on-line market for books, while justly earned, is becoming more and more of a problem because people also use it as a reference source as there’s not much else out there that is as comprehensive. So what Amazon does matters not just as a company selling book, but as a major database on the Internet. They essentially have an effect, if not control, on information about books. This status may change, however. Try out

    As a linked issue, there is also BookScan, where the book world is trying to be fit into a Nielsen ratings system. Amazon, as a major vendor, is part of the BookScan numbers which can effect book orders, authors getting book deals, and many other things. So Amazon’s mess up can cost authors and publishers not just short term sales loss, but potentially long term damage. So authors and publishers have a right to complain about Amazon compiles their data and does their sales rankings, even if they have no control over those things.

    On a Kindle related note, here is why I’m not buying a Kindle:

  • Stan Scott // Apr 17, 2009 at 10:51 am

    As long as you do a search on “homosexuality on the site (see below), and get the current book list, it’s too soon for a “post-morten”.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    I think we all agree that Amazon has a right to run its sales as it deems appropriate for its business, and I’d guess (having no knowledge of the industry I’m going to reference :)) that the adult film industry, when doing business with Amazon, knows its products will receive the adult designation. This is likely commonplace for quite a few products being sold on Amazon. The flag exists, and I seriously doubt Amazon will change its policy. If I am understanding the pieces, generally, the adult tag comes from the vendor, not Amazon. What we now know is that this flag can be switched by employees (again, not an outrage) either due to consumer complaint or other internal decision.

    What we do not know is how “adult” is defined; in the situation of Amazonfail, it was clear that one employee (again, absolutely no indication at this point of intentional malice) defined certain terms as adult. As Kat points out, when this happens, and products are effectively removed from search rankings, Amazon’s position as a major player in book search and contributor to Bookscan come into play (this is why I pointed out the authors who had books released and impacted by this — they truly do not get do-overs, and this failure on the part of Amazon could have lasting repercussions. This was a side effect of the 9/11 attacks as well, things happen outside the control of the author/publisher; a horrific, horrible tragedy for all of us, but so very personal for some).

    In response to the final point, the fact that they can essentially disable a person’s Kindle account (and take away their purchases — though Kirk noted in his article today some broader issues as well) hasn’t engendered trust. I know that I don’t really own the books I purchase for my Kindle, not at least in the same sense I own a paper book, but as long as I’m abiding by the terms of my license, disabling access is extremely problematic. Especially in a week when Amazon is getting so much bad press.

  • What I Wish I Had Known Before Writing My First Book - by Joanna Penn | The Creative Penn // Apr 19, 2009 at 12:04 am

    […] to hold stock. It is practically free! Wow! This was (and still is) so exciting to me! Despite the #AmazonFail debacle, Amazon still provides an amazing service to readers and authors all over the world.  […]

  • Wyman // May 5, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Amazon is big and powerful and needs to answer to no one, just as Citibank, Bank of America, AIG, and General Motors answered to no one. They know all of you will be back, so why apologize. Some clerk clicked “yes” one turn too soon and zapped untold items into a wrong category. Once done you don’t get to flip it back. This is the power that Amazon, Google and others too, are gaining over all people. Big Brother comes in many forms, but the Biggest Big Brother will control them all and us too.

    When your genetic code can be patented, then sold back to you in the form of a cure, do you think books and authors will be treated any differently? Books and Writers are commodities. Think about it.