Demanding complete data from Amazon

April 15th, 2009 by Grace Meng

At this point, if you haven’t heard about what happened with Amazon’s sales rankings of certain books over the last couple of days, you’re probably not online.  Tens of thousands of books lost their sales rankings, which meant they didn’t show up on bestseller lists, but also that they didn’t appear in searches.  A disproportionate number of these books were on gay and lesbian themes, leading many to criticize Amazon for censorship.

Amazon’s official explanation is that it was a “glitch,” while a hacker is going around claiming responsibility with a very strange Craigslist-related story.  No matter what exactly happened, everyone agrees Amazon handled it very badly.  Most of all, they are all atwitter that the protest gained momentum on Twitter.  (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

But what’s most fascinating to me isn’t the role of Twitter in all this.  It’s our assumption that it is our RIGHT to know the complete truth about which books are being sold.

For years, we relied on bestseller lists published by institutions like the New York Times, but it’s an open secret that these lists don’t count the books that have literally sold the most copies in the U.S.  There are complicated formulas and differing definitions of genres and categories.  Lots of bookstores and retailers never get included in the surveys by the New York Times or Nielsen’s BookScan, including whole sectors like Christian booksellers.

But we now live in the Amazon world.  Even though Amazon never promised to give us complete data, the exactness of a sales ranking, the way it is never rounded up or down, and the way the ranking can change moment to moment and not just week to week, all give us good reason to believe that no books are being excluded.  When I search for “The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” (which temporarily lost its sales ranking), I very much expect its sales ranking, 7,365 among “Books,” to be completely accurate at that moment.  (The ranking’s already changed five minutes later.)

I kind of love that the public has demanded complete data from Amazon.  Yes, the Internet furor was also about being vigilant against homophobia, but it also revealed that it will become increasingly harder to hide that books on homosexuality and other supposedly taboo topics are popular and being bought everyday.  We’ve come to expect and rely on data like sales rankings, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought,” and “What Do Customers Ultimately Buy After Viewing This Item?”  For Amazon to suggest in any way that this data might be edited/censored/inaccurate felt like a horrific breach of trust.

The New York Times can manage its bestseller list any way it wants.  Amazon can’t.

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