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Those of us who spent at least part of last weekend at our computers had a ringside seat at an on-line rumpus. On Sunday, reports started appearing that sales rankings were disappearing from books on the Amazon web site – mainly but not exclusively books with gay and lesbian themes. The word was being spread via Twitter, the micro-blogging feature on mobile phones which allows users to tell each other "I’m on the train" (or, famously, "I’m stuck in a lift!"). Twitterers added the tag #amazonfail to their tweets on the subject, and suddenly here was an instant campaign.

No, I didn’t find out about it from Twitter. I prefer the internet to the mobile phone, so I read about it in a blog (Cheryl Morgan’s blog, in the first instance, although very soon I was reading different accounts of what was happening in all sorts of places).

The removal of an Amazon sales rank matters, and not just because authors and publishers check them obsessively to see how well their books are selling. Amazon also uses the sales rank to organise books that appear in search results – so de-ranking a book means that a customer is less likely to find, and to buy it.

After the first shock, most people came to the conclusion that Amazon was not deliberately black-listing books, being homophobic or adopting fundamentalist religious values. So what was going on? As usual, there were conspiracy theories (Amazon’s system had been gamed by troublemakers) and cock-up theories (Amazon is a large complex system in which it’s easier to make mistakes than to correct them). A day or so later, it does seem as if someone made a genuine mistake. Yes, it’s hard to imagine what they thought they were doing, or why the system allowed them to do, unchecked, something with such extensive results, but still, genuine error. The sort that can be fixed by repairing the damage and apologising profusely.

And that, finally, is what Amazon is doing. Although authors who complained were told first that this was indeed Amazon policy, then that it was a ‘glitch’, a mere technical error, the company did finally admit "This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection." And sales rank figures are reappearing on books which had been de-ranked. Perhaps Amazon were just unlucky that this public relations disaster happened over a holiday weekend (when Easter and Passover coincided), and that’s why the initial response was was the sort of minimal ‘your letter has been noted’ that only irritates the complainant further. I’d say though that if you give people the power to foul up on this scale, you’d better make sure that a highly skilled apologiser is on duty at all times!

Many of the web sites I maintain link extensively to Amazon. Some of them have Amazon Associateships, whereby the owner of the site receives a small percentage of sales made through Amazon. I was not looking forward to untangling those, and to finding alternative ways of promoting book sales – and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to doing it in a rush, all at once. But it isn’t good for one shop to have a monopoly, and this weekend’s upheavals have been a reminder of that. I already try to encourage people to order books through their local independent bookshop, if there is one. Now I’ll be on the lookout for other alternatives, too.

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