Amazon's Sexual Failure

05/25/2011 01:15 pm ET
  • Hugh McGuire Founder of,, and

You've no doubt read about the big Amazon rank kerfluffle last week, put in the public eye by the Twitter tag: #amazonfail. A huge number of sexually-themed and lesbian/gay/bisexual books got categorized as "adult", and hence deranked, removed from best seller lists, and buried in Amazon's search results. This effectively made those books invisible in Amazon. Included in the deranking, along with more hard-core titles, were Lady Chatterley's Lover and books by Gore Vidal and Jeanette Winterson.

Amazon claims a "glitch" -- an, er, "ham-fisted error," no less -- and is fixing things apparently. There has been some back and forth about what actually happened, though I think whatever the case, this infographic does the best job of describing reality.

Clay Shirky thinks we all went too far in claiming foul play, and should apologize to Amazon. Mary Hodder disagrees, and Richard Nash thinks the marginal always get the raw deal, and so no matter what, Amazon shouldn't be off the hook.

But I think all this discussion of the how/what/whys of this particular case, though important, miss the central issue.

Amazon, Google, and What We Get to See

It's not what Amazon did or didn't do, but what the whole thing highlights about our reliance on a couple of companies -- Amazon & Google ... and Wikipedia too, now -- to help us find, and then deliver to us a huge amount of our information. These companies have enormous power to make decisions about what society will and will not see.

We've had faith in their general decentness about using this power, about not gaming their systems, and generally working hard to provide us with the "right" search results. Still, I've long been annoyed that Google filters search results based on where I am searching, and, I presume, my browsing habits. When I am searching, I want to find the stuff that is most popular, not what Google thinks I want to see based on my profile. And as this story indicates, it ain't all gravy over at Amazon either, whatever the initial cause of the problem.

Applied specifically to the book business, it also highlights why Amazon has so much power in the book space online - if your book isn't in Amazon, it hardly exists.

An Open Alternative?

Wouldn't it be nice to have an open web-based book database/search engine that would catalog all books and point to everywhere selling them online? That would link to reviews & resources etc? That could plug into libraries catalogs as well?

Wouldn't it be a good idea for publishing companies to get together to support such a database/engine? On an open basis? Rather than letting Amazon be the defacto search engine for books, and hence completely control online book retail space?

Amazon has done wonderful things, as has Google, but both are essentially monopolies, and history's shown us that monopolies come with all sorts of problems.

Open Library

The Internet Archive's OpenLibrary is trying to build an open, community-driven catalog of all the books in the world, but it's still not really usable for people looking for books. Would be nice if it were. I wonder: are any big publishing houses supporting OpenLibrary? Other retailers? [Disclosure: LibriVox, a project which I started, is supported by Internet Archive's infrastructure to host and serve audio files].

It seems to me it is in their long-term interest to have an alternate to Amazon as the search engine for information on books. It needn't be Open Library, but if I were the CEO of a big publisher, I would be on the phone to all my colleagues about setting up something like it. The web is going to drive more and more book sales; leaving control of book discovery to just Amazon isn't wise business.

It's in everyone's long-term interest to make sure that one company, one entity, one monopoly does not control our access to knowledge and culture.