Amazon acknowledges its “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

On Monday afternoon, Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener released this statement about the AmazonFail fiasco to the LA Times and other media outlets:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Various sources are reporting that rankings have been restored to some of the affected books. I just spot-checked the specific titles I mentioned in my last blog post, and as I write this some have had their ranking restored, but most have not. Let’s see how long it takes to fix them all. Fixing the damage to Amazon’s reputation and restoring the trust and goodwill that’s been lost will take a lot longer and require more than just this PR statement. That Amazon has not handled this well is a monumental understatement. It would help if they issued an actual apology that showed some understanding or acknowledgment of why the Internet and Twitter exploded. It may have been an unintentional error, but the results and implications of that error and Amazon’s late and inadequate response caused pain to authors and readers alike and felt like a betrayal to those of us who’ve been Amazon customers for years. You can fix this, Amazon. Please try. Hard.

I’ll leave you with one last link for now: Kelley Eskridge’s great post on her Humans at Work blog about the management lessons to be learned from Amazonfail.

Update: On Monday night the Seattle P-I posted “AmazonFail: An inside look at what happened“:

I’ve spoken to an Amazon.com employee who works closely with the systems involved in the glitch… On Sunday afternoon at least 20 Amazon.com employees were paged alerting them that items, possibly many, were incorrectly being flagged as adult. The employees also received links to the Twitter discussion AmazonFail. Thousands of people were angry that gay-themed books had disappeared from Amazon’s sales rankings and search algorithms…

By this time, Amazon.com had upgraded the problem to Sev-1. (Amazon.com breaks down its operational issues in terms of severity levels. Sev-3 means a problem affects a single user. Sev-2 is a problem that affects a company, or a lot of people. Sev-1 is reserved for the most critical operational issues and often are sent up the management chain to the senior vice president level.)

“People got pulled away from their Easter thing when this whole thing broke,” the employee said. “It was just a screwup.”

Amazon.com employees are on call 24/7, and many began working on the problem from home. It didn’t take much digging to realize that there was a data error.

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.

New Update (April 14): All of the books I listed in my original blog post have had their sales ranking restored.

4 responses to “Amazon acknowledges its “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

  1. Out of curiosity, what would be required of an apology? How is “We messed up, more books were affected than people think, and we’re cleaning it up and trying to keep it from happening again” not an apology?

  2. lisagoldresearch

    Shouldn’t an apology include the word “sorry” or “apologize” or “regret” somewhere in there? What they actually said was “This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted error,” which feels like “mistakes were made”– a bit too passive to satisfy me. AmazonFail has been raging since early Sunday morning in part because of customer service messages sent to various affected authors claiming it was due to Amazon’s “adult” books policy and not an error, as well as the total silence from Amazon’s official spokespeople or corporate headquarters until Monday evening. If Amazon had posted or Twittered a simple statement on Sunday to the effect of “This is an error, we are sorry, we will fix it,” this would not have turned into a conflagration.

    I have always liked Amazon and have been a customer since way back, which is in part why I was so disappointed in what felt like a lame attempt at damage control rather than an actual apology. I expect more of them.

  3. Seems like you and other bloggers should be more than a bit embarrassed about the paranoid ranting about Amazon’s homophobia that went on when this problem was first discovered.

    It was a mistake. Shit happens.

  4. lisagoldresearch

    Spiffing– Shit doesn’t just happen. AmazonFail wasn’t the result of just one little computer glitch. A series of different mistakes were made by various people who work for Amazon. I’m willing to accept that someone made a “cataloguing error” and there was no evil or homophobic intent, but this raises a host of questions that Amazon has yet to address:
    — Now that we know (via Amazon’s own customer service statements) that Amazon has a policy of removing the rankings and limiting the searchability for books they consider “adult,” what criteria do they use for applying the “adult” label? Who decides? Do individual employees do the categorizing? (Apparently so, based on the “French employee screwed up” explanation.) Are these categorizing decisions reviewed by management? How do they prevent mistakes or abuse by employees? Would anyone at Amazon have caught and fixed the “error” if not for the uproar?
    — If it was just a coding error of books tagged with terms like “sexuality,” why were explicit heterosexual books NOT given the “adult” label, but books with any gay content or subject matter were given the “adult” label. (This included history books, academic books, and children’s books without any sexual content. Though it seems books on “curing” homosexuality were not affected.) With authors like Dan Savage, Andrew Sullivan, E.M. Forster, and James Baldwin, only their “gay” books were labeled “adult” but their other books were not.
    — Why did Amazon handle this so badly? Why did it take so long for them to acknowledge the error, and why didn’t they apologize for it, state clearly what their policies are, and reassure everyone that they do not discriminate? Remember, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Now that they’ve screwed up the PR response, they have more explaining and apologizing to do.

    And yes, while there was a certain amount of “FOAMY FOAMY FAIL FAIL BOYCOTT GAAHH” (to quote John Scalzi) in the blogosphere and Twitter over AmazonFail, I don’t think it’s “paranoid ranting” to call out the world’s biggest bookstore on what certainly looked like a discriminatory and wrong-headed policy that damages writers and readers and ask that they quickly fix it, explain, and apologize. Amazon wields an inordinate amount of power. With great power comes great responsibility. Amazon needs to do more to reassure their customers.

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