This is one of those writing/publishing industry posts I do from time to time, so if you’re a dear reader looking for the hot stuff, alas, this one is probably not going to do the trick. Sorry about that:/ I hope some of you do stick around to see some of the “inside baseball” stuff writers deal with though. It’s illuminating — and I’ll try not to make it too dry.
So, most erotic fiction writers paying any attention are now aware that Amazon appears to have stripped the rankings from the book pages on the US site. I’ve had to take a little time to cogitate on what all of this may or may not mean. I have a few thoughts, but unfortunately, not a lot of concrete conclusions. I’ll share what I have with you regardless, in case it proves to be a help for anyone trying to understand the potential implications of what’s happened.
First, some disclaimers: I am not a lawyer, nor is this post to be considered legal advice. I’m not a journalist either. I’m a writer dude trying to make sense of all of this. The entirety of this post is my opinion only based on my best understanding of the current environment and issues at hand.
Now that we have that out of the way, let me say one thing before I begin.
This is NOT the time to panic or otherwise freak out.
There are far too many unknowns thus far to justify any sort of panic. I am trying to keep my emotions divorced from all of this as much as I possibly can… despite the fact this sort of thing seriously pisses me off. I admit at first glance (and maybe second glance) I was fairly deep into “the end is nigh” type of thinking when I first grappled with the possible upshot of all of this, but in the intervening time my thinking has changed a bit.
I’m going to lay out what we know, and what we can possibly deduce (or what remains speculation).
What We Know
The rankings for books categorized in the main Erotica category have had their Amazon book store bestseller rankings, which is the ranking you see on each book sales page, stripped. They’re just… gone. They’re gone whether you view them on Amazon.com or via Author Central.
However, the book rankings in the specific Erotica sub-categories a given book may be listed in remain visible on the book sales page and via Author Central.
Some books are being bumped from other categories (such as Romance) and into Erotica — without the author requesting it, or even knowing it’s happened. I can confirm this as it happened to a couple of my books. Other writers have confirmed the same thing with respect to their own books as well.
The Top 100 Erotica authors list has also disappeared.
The rankings for books categorized in Erotica in the Amazon.de store have apparently been stripped for some time, though admittedly I hadn’t paid enough attention to it to even notice until it was pointed out recently in several different discussion fora.
The rankings for books categorized in Erotica in the Amazon.co.uk store do not appear to have been stripped. I haven’t checked all of the other Amazon stores, but of the ones I did check, this problem appears to be confined to the US and Germany Amazon stores only.
That’s about it for the things we do actually know.
What We Can (Possibly) Deduce
This rank stripping shouldn’t have a dramatic effect on Erotica sales, unless the book in question was already a big seller. The influence of bestseller ranking (note: I’m making this distinction as it’s not quite the same when it comes to pop list ranking) has been continually overstated in author circles — though I know that’s a hotly debated subject:)
Will it have some effect? Sure, though it’s likely to vary significantly among writers. The only time bestseller ranking really means anything significant is when a book is in the top 100 in the entire store, or when the book makes a top 100 sub-cat list, or hot new release list. Otherwise? Ranking, IMO, has been imbued with more importance than it deserves. For books that are already strong sellers, or meet the conditions noted above, deranking would hurt their sales… but for 99% of the rest of us, would we even notice it in our sales graphs? Remains to be seen, I suppose.
(Yes, ranking has some influence on how much Amazon internally “pushes” a particular book vis-a-vis e-mails, recommendations, etc, but there is no proof as to how much, and I suspect there never will be. It’s in Amazon’s interest to keep such knowledge safely black boxed.)
The bigger question, to my mind, is this: is a marginal reduction in sales the feature of deranking, or a bug? I suspect it’s the latter, because IMO, the goal is to take away visibility not nuke sales (though I understand the two go hand in hand). I simply think Amazon doesn’t want visitors to stumble across this stuff… but they don’t really care either way if a few copies still sell. More on that later on in this post;)
It’s reasonable to deduce that this is not indeed simply “a glitch.” Why? Any one of the items noted in the What We Know section above, in isolation, could very well be a glitch. But all of them, occurring more or less simultaneously — and now for multiple days? I’m… dubious. What’s more, this fits an ongoing and long-established pattern of Amazon treating Erotica (and erotic fiction in general) with mystifying capriciousness. It’s very difficult to predict what Amazon is going to do to Erotica or erotic fiction, but it is quite easy to predict it’s almost never going to be good.
It was interesting to me to see a post on Facebook noting that RWA had reached out to that organization’s Amazon rep about this issue. According to this post, the rep reportedly told RWA that this was a glitch and that it was being worked on.
Now, I don’t know if RWA believed this explanation, but I certainly do not. Again, one item in isolation, sure, it’s likely a glitch. But the more “glitches” you have, and the longer it goes on, the likelihood that it wasn’t intentional… well, it begins to strain credulity. What could have been a trial balloon, or testing the waters for an upcoming change can easily be papered over as a “glitch” after the fact if such gambits prove to yield negative or unanticipated results.
Again, if we hadn’t already seen explanations for these things, ahem, “evolve” before (to wit: page flip), it would be easier for me to believe at face value that these things constitute mere “glitches.” Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… well, you get the point.
What Remains Speculation
In my opinion, because I do not find it credible that this is a mere “glitch,” I suspect a major change is underway at Amazon, of which this may be either the opening stages or simply a (sloppy) trial balloon. I think one of two things might be happening:
If we’re lucky, Amazon is finally bowing to common sense and instituting a “back room” for erotic content (much like Smashwords does with its sensible “Adult” content switch that automatically hides or shows Adult content at the discretion of the customer). Shunting erotic content to a “back room” makes business sense for Amazon. It greatly reduces the chances visitors to the site will unintentionally be exposed to adult or erotic material. Right now, I don’t know of an easy or intuitive way for a visitor to self-filter content/results on the site. What’s more, not only does this make for a better customer experience, and reduce the chances of a PR nightmare like another retailer experienced with the WH Smith kerfluffle a few years ago, but it also allows Amazon to continue making money on content that huge numbers of customers want, and will pay good money for. There is one big drawback to doing this though: it would force Amazon to admit it makes money from such content, something they may not want to do in any official sense.
Why might Amazon do this though? One reason, among several potential ones, is that it’s becoming clear Amazon wants to really push both its own publishing arm and the “legitimacy” of its “uncurated” Amazon bestseller lists. IMO, Amazon wants their Bestseller lists to gain the same sort of cachet that the New York Times, USA Today, or Wall Street Journal lists currently enjoy, most importantly because such a list would ostensibly be based on actual sales of books (such as USAT and WSJ), as opposed to “curated” lists such as that compiled by the NYT (curated being, among other things, spot-checks of a few trusted reporting venues, and editorial discretion of what books might, or might not, truly belong on such lists).
But if that’s a feather in the cap Amazon values, having dirty smut clogging up bestseller lists — or even being visible there at all — probably wouldn’t comport with that goal, would it? Could that be the reason the overall store rank has been stripped, but that the sub-cat ranks remain? (The thinking there being that top 100 sub-cats wouldn’t have anywhere near the same visibility nor cachet as an overall Amazon Top 100 Bestseller list might.)
If we’re very unlucky, this is the initial stages of suppressing erotic content altogether. Amazon’s one Achille’s Heel is bad PR; they’ve proven this over and over again. Getting rid of smut would solve a lot of potential PR headaches for the retailer, especially if erotic content no longer fits into whatever new plan or direction the company might want to go. In a strictly bottom-line business sense this would appear to be a bad idea, as you’d be cutting out a significant source of revenue. But in the minds of management, how do we know the cost-benefit analysis for carrying this controversial content no longer pencils out? It’s important for authors to remember that books are no longer a critical source of revenue for Amazon. (I’d argue book revenue for Amazon is fast becoming a minor consideration, which is one of the major reasons the company uses the entire e-book category as a loss-leader in the form of its Kindle Unlimited subscription service.)
I think the most likely way this would be accomplished would be via the “fucking with them” method (one well-known in business management). You make the conditions, requirements, and penalties/sanctions so onerous and miserable, that the person/content targeted simply leaves or quits. It’s a win-win for management; they can say they didn’t fire (or otherwise intentionally get rid of) the target, but the problem nevertheless removes itself. Plausible deniability is maintained, problem is solved. Specifically for this example, perhaps content could increasingly be blocked, perhaps with little or no recourse or explanation as to why. Maybe account terminations become more common? Perhaps visibility in the store is further throttled, and advertising barred (whoops, those last two have already happened…)? Perhaps this is simply a fait accompli? That most erotic fiction writers will either start writing in other genres, or they will be forced to take their wares elsewhere.
Another consideration here has to be the SESTA/FOSTA legislation that just passed both the House and Senate. There are good write-ups on this law elsewhere so I’m not going to bore you with all the details (see here for a good, quick summary), but the gist of this legislation is that it removes the “safe harbor” protection long afforded retailers and operators of online fora (such as Craigslist) from prosecution or civil liability in the case of users who might use such venues to conduct illegal activities — in this case sex trafficking. I’ve seen some writers on social media and online fora note that this isn’t a big deal due to the fact the legislation in question specifically targets sex trafficking and not erotic fiction. On the surface, this appears to be a solid argument. However, there are serious problems with such an argument:
- The legislation is sloppily written, with Mack truck-sized ambiguities and broad areas for interpretation in it (including a mind-bogglingly stupid ex post facto provision that I’d bet good money will eventually be struck down as unconstitutional). Even I as a layman can see how this law could be twisted into something much different than the originators of the bill might have intended.
- Corporate counsel for various online entities almost surely also see this already and are advising their clients of the potential liability this legislation may open themselves up to. If sufficiently alarmed corporate legal departments really get management riled-up, you could see overreactions, and “let’s go a step further, just in case” preemptive action taken by these companies in a bid to make sure they’re leaving no margin for error. Don’t buy this one? It’s already happening in the case of Craigslist (which took down its ENTIRE personals section rather than have to deal with the headaches this bill exposes them to) — and admitted that this legislation was the specific reason for them doing so. Reddit just recently nuked a whole host of subreddits that literally have nothing at all to do with sex trafficking, even though this legislation only addresses sex trafficking. Does anyone else think the timing of that is… at least a little bit suspect? Hmmm.
- The specific text and intent of the legislation may, in the end, prove to be far less important to writers than the effect of the legislation, which is to say, how retailers and other online entities react to the legal implications of this law. So many internet companies rely on automation for policing content (because it’s cheaper and faster and easier). How many of them will have their bots searching for a whole lot more terms that will be flagged as problematic? For instance, this legislation targets sex trafficking, kidnapping, and the like. What happens if a retailer bot is then told to flag anything containing those, or related, terms? Hello, dark romance — you may be fiction, but can a bot tell the difference? Even if it eventually gets sorted out, that this is fiction, and not an instruction manual on how to abduct someone, how much time, effort, and heartache will result when sloppy, hasty, poorly thought-out “solutions” get rolled out by various online entities. These sorts of overreacting, band-aid approaches have happened before. Do we have any evidence at all to think that this time things will be any different?
Now, I am the first person to admit that I could be wrong about this, and my thoughts are worth exactly what you paid for them. My interpretation of these events and this legislation could be overly negative (or cynical — depending upon whom you ask:)
It may indeed all prove to be much ado about nothing. In fact, I HOPE I’m wrong about this. But regardless, I urge all authors of erotic fiction, or genres that regularly incorporate controversial themes to pay close attention to what’s happening.
This may be nothing more than SNAFU … or this may be the beginning of something much worse.
Until next time:)