We’re now almost a full week into Amazon’s most recent targeting of erotic fiction. Only this time, it’s much, much more serious than simply going after smutty books.
For those of you who haven’t read my post from 3/24, I highly recommend you check it out HERE before reading this one.
Unfortunately, what I have to report today is mostly bad news… but with a glimmer or two of (cautiously) hopeful news. Forecast calls for 80% chance of black pills.
As before, I’ll start with the things we know, then follow with things we can reasonably deduce, then with what remains speculation. I’ll include what I think writers can/should do. Then I’ll close this out with some random thoughts and opinions on what’s happening.
Standard 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.
A final warning: this post will be long. Really long.
What We Know
The list from the previous post remains unchanged:
- 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.
- 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 that are not categorized in Erotica 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 coupleseveral of my books. Numerous other writers have confirmed the same with respect to their own books as well.
- The Top 100 Erotica authors list remains gone.
- This problem appears to remain confined to the US and Germany Amazon stores only (as of the writing of this post).
NEW Items We Now Know:
- This is no glitch. As posted on social media/online fora, numerous replies received from Amazon customer service in response to author inquiries regarding this issue — and despite a total blackout on any official statement from Amazon — now make it quite clear this is not a glitch and is indeed the new state of play on Amazon for any book categorized in Erotica. This deranking is intentional, and is part of a new policy of removing “adult content” or “adult-themed content” from the general store rankings. But that’s not all because…
- As I predicted, numerous additional books not categorized in Erotica — especially in the many flavors of Romance — are now being ensnared in this new sweep. Even huge names are seeing stunning numbers of books being deranked, or (in the case of Romances) forcibly recategorized into Erotica first, and subsequently deranked. For example, one of the biggest names in erotic romance and erotica (the name rhymes with Schmalexa Schmiley) has seen, as of last night’s check, nearly half — yes, you read that right — half of their entire catalog on Amazon deranked. Other very big name erotic romance and romance writers are suffering the same; in some cases multiple dozens of books are being deranked for a single author name.
- Unlike previous purges and suppression of erotic fiction, this new sweep is not at all limited to erotic fiction/erotica. Entire categories of some products (e.g. sex toys), are now being deranked as well.
What We Can (Possibly) Deduce
- Based on the seeming utter randomness of what gets deranked and what does not, coupled with Amazon’s well-known allergy to applying actual human brains to solving almost any problem, it’s safe to assume this is an automated, keyword/phrase-driven sweep. Why? Because many, many books not previously categorized in Erotica, including many romances and erotic romances, are being forcibly shunted into that category and then deranked. There is no other discernible pattern.
- Based on the numerous responses from Amazon customer service reps that have been posted on social media, it’s reasonable to deduce that this is a drive that is focused on much more than books that are categorized in Erotica. This is a generalized effort to lower (or snuff out) the profile of any erotic — or potentially “problematic” — content or product in the store. Since Amazon has not simply banned the sale of this content (Amazon really likes money) it’s reasonable to conclude that this is a visibility — not availability — focused effort. And yes, I recognize the two are closely related, regardless. Which leads to…
- This deranking is going to result in — at least in the short-term — very serious impacts vis-à-vis unit sales and revenues for affected authors in the US Amazon store. In my case, I’ve seen a >50% decrease in unit sales and revenues since the day the derankings occurred. Though it’s possible I’m the only one to notice this correlation, it’s reasonable to assume most, if not all, others will see very significant unit sales and revenue impacts as a result of this deranking. (Note: In my previous post, I had erroneously assumed this would not significantly impact me due to the fact I’m merely a mid-list level author; I’d assumed this would mainly hurt big sellers. Boy, was I wrong about that…)
- Once a book or product is deemed “adult content” or “adult themed” then it’s going to stay there — unless a very compelling argument can be made with Amazon to reverse its decision. This has been (admittedly anecdotally) confirmed by multiple posts on social media and online fora.
What Remains Speculation
Is an official “adult filter” in the works? This might indeed be the first steps in creating a separate “back room” on Amazon where erotic content can be found by those who want it, but which prevents those who don’t from stumbling upon it. This is reasonable and long, long overdue for Amazon. Why might this be true? Amazon wants to make money from this huge category… but they want to shield customers who don’t want to see such material (and thus avoid pissing off said customers). This is rational, and in the best interests of the company from a purely bottom-line point of view. The fact that other items such as sex toys have also been deranked, lends some credence to the speculation this “backroom” is indeed in the works.
However, there are factors that point away from this speculation being accurate. In my opinion, a big one might be that Amazon doesn’t want to officially admit it makes truckloads of money from this content/products. No way to know, but that’s reasonable speculation. What’s more — and at the risk of letting my cynicism show — Amazon doesn’t have a stellar track record when it comes to rolling out new initiatives. More often than not, new programs/initiatives operate about as well as a car without wheels. Why bring this up? Because I fear that the mere act of deranking will be Amazon’s version of a “minimally viable product;” I would not be at all surprised to see Amazon stop at deranking and call it “good enough” for the purposes of creating an “adult filter.”
This would be very bad news for anyone impacted by this change, as it splits the baby: deranking means we lose almost all organic visibility in the store, but without a dedicated adult filter customers can toggle on and off at will we won’t have a dedicated place consumers of erotic fiction can go to obtain the sorts of material they’re looking for. In that event, the dreaded Adult dungeon just gets expanded to an entire category of books and products on Amazon. Not good.
I’ve seen several instances of speculation on social media alleging that Amazon now scans the content of reviews in order to determine the proper category for a book. This is one I call rank rumor-mongering (I hesitate to even bring it up here, but I wanted to try to tamp it down). A quick five minute “let’s think this one through” session is about 4 minutes and 59 seconds more than you’d need to conclude that scanning reviews to determine categorization is an extraordinarily bad idea. I just don’t believe Amazon would be this profoundly misguided to do such a thing. Ergo, I don’t buy this one at all.
Could this simply be a general effort to clean up the store in preparation for expansion into new territories/areas/customer bases? Sure it could — and I wouldn’t fault Amazon for that in the least. What I do fault them for is their utter lack of any meaningful communication, leaving those of us affected to play amateur detective, which often yields conclusions not much more reliable than interpreting goat entrails.
Another big avenue of speculation relates to what’s driving this. Specifically, is this all being prompted by the passing of the SESTA/FOSTA legislation in both the U.S. House and Senate? Of course, in the absence of any statement from Amazon (or any company not named Craigslist or Reddit), that’s impossible to answer. BUT, there is a LOT of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence piling up in recent days that increasingly indicates this new initiative by Amazon may indeed be either directly, or tangentially, related to this legislation that is widely expected to be signed into law.
(BIG) Unanswered Questions For Affected Authors
There are quite a few, and the lack of any answers to them paralyzes authors when determining what actions they can take that will be at all effective.
What specifically is being targeted? All we can guess right now is anything deemed even remotely sexual, graphic, or explicit. This guess is bolstered by the fact that the wide range of titles that are being deranked (mostly) deal with at least something related to sex or sexuality. But that’s about the only commonality we can reasonably draw, as yet. That’s a pretty wide dragnet, if you ask me.
Is it keywords/phrases? Which ones? This looks to be almost entirely driven by automated keyword searches/filtering. The randomness and swiftness with which this occurred both lend credence to this, but it’s impossible to draw any other meaningful conclusions. We may never know what specifically is drawing the filter/deranking (more on that later on in the post).
What fields are Amazon scanning in their search for said keywords/phrases? We just don’t know.
Is Amazon scanning the entire manuscripts for books, or just the available metadata such as descriptions, keywords, categories, etc. Impossible to guess accurately at this point, but due to the wide range of books being ensnared, I’d guess it’s all metadata fields AND the entirety of the manuscript text.
Why are there NO readily discernible commonalities between books that are deranked? Again, it’s impossible to know. My guess? It’s fully automated, and either:
1) Being rolled out in stages (or perhaps having additional search parameters fed into it).
2) It’s a broken, ad hoc “:::Sgt. Al Powell voice::: “Now, goddammit, now!!” initiative instituted in a corporate lawyer freakout-induced panic.
It could be all of the above. Or I could be wrong:)
What recourse do authors/publishers have for books that have been deranked? This is a tough one, but something we’re all going to have to contend with sooner or later if we have any intention of reviving IP nuked by this new initiative.
Reading the several posted customer service replies literally… it appears the only recourse the author/publisher of a deranked book has is to unpublish the book entirely, and republish under a new ASIN. This would of course nuke any reviews the book once had, which the vast majority of writers will find approximately as appealing as exfoliating with a cheese grater.
My guess is (small bit of editorializing inbound…) that once Amazon realizes just what a supreme clusterfuck they’ve got on their hands, they’ll offer authors one of three courses of action:
- Leave it where it is and cling to the (fool’s) hope that Amazon does have a better solution in the works.
- Try to make a case to KDP/Amazon rep that your book should never have been deranked in the first place.
- Unpublish the book entirely, republish with new ASIN, then close your eyes and think of England.
BOTTOM LINE: Since Amazon isn’t providing any official guidance on these questions (or really anything to do with these sweeping changes) we’re simply left to guess:/
What Could/Should Affected Authors Do?
I’ll start with what what we shouldn’t do:
Don’t panic. This is still a fluid situation, and there is a helluva lot more that we don’t know than we do know. Keep your powder dry, people.
:::: William Wallace before the charge of heavy horse at Stirling Bridge: “Hold… holllld…HOLLLDD!” ::::
Don’t send Amazon a nastygram, or be nasty to customer service reps. They’re just doing their jobs.
Don’t freak out all over social media with tin-foil hattery rumor mongering, politico-social emetics, or general unprofessional (if understandable) teeth-gnashing. There is a fine line between blunt, justifiable criticism and outright tearing your business partner a new exit (this blog post and the one before it are intended to be the former).
Remember that Amazon is our business partner, NOT our enemy. They’re not perfect, and they make mistakes — just like we do. When they screw up — as they have here by not providing any official guidance as to what’s going on — then we should call them on it, and call for them to fix it. But we don’t attack our business partners.
What I’m going to do:
I’m creating a list of all my affected books, and sending Amazon an e-mail listing the titles and ASINs and ask them (courteously) to confirm why each book in question was deranked. I will follow the inevitable boilerplate (read: probably useless) response with a request for what specific keywords/objectionable items caused the derank. I’ll likely get more boilerplate in response. To which I will thank the person for their help, but (courteously) request the matter be escalated to a supervisor.
The key is learning exactly what triggered the deranking for each specific book. However, it’s entirely possible — even likely — that Amazon will refuse to provide such information, even in the case of escalation.
That would be bad, and here’s why. If we never learn the specific reasons why a book has been deranked, then going through unpublishing, getting a new ASIN, toning down descriptions, opening chapters, keywords, cover imagery, etc and republishing might land the very same book, with its shiny new coat of (anodyne, polite society-approved) paint… right back in the Amazon hoosegow.
Therefore, if you have any hope of that IP making any further appreciable money at Amazon, everything hinges upon learning the specifics of what ran afoul of this new adult filter.
Closing Thoughts and Opinions
(Warning: Though I take great pains not to talk politics on this blog, by necessity, what follows will have to venture into that realm. But only a little:)
Do I think this is a direct result of the SESTA/FOSTA legislation? Regarding the timing and the complete blackout on communication (which implies a mad scramble to roll this out — and perhaps even a directive to stay mum about this for the time being), yes, I think this legislation is the main catalyst. There are too many other similar steps against erotic or otherwise potentially controversial content being taken by other tech companies in the past few days for me to write this off as mere coincidence. I could be wrong about this, of course, but circumstances really are pointing to this being a driver (though perhaps it may not be the driver). Do I ignore what I’m told… or my lyin’ eyes?
To those who are poo-pooing any connection because this legislation because it’s supposed to be targeted at sex trafficking, not fiction, I implore you to think about this a bit more. Read the legislation. When you do, even a layman can see what a total abortion of a bill this really is, shot through with sloppy terminology (that’s almost guaranteed to have unintended consequences) and leaving plenty of room for expansive and “creative” interpretation. Who knows what the regulations spawned from this will actually say; those regs might end up looking even worse than this thing appears right now.
Look, lawyers are trained to assess risk, and even a shitty lawyer can see this bill, with its idiotic erosion of the “safe harbor” provision contained in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, presents potentially very serious legal and civil liability to a whole host of internet entities — yes, potentially including retailers like Amazon.
(Let me reiterate that this is one layman’s opinion, but read the bill for yourself. And remember the trouble this thing is already causing before it even becomes law.)
You see, this law — once you consider what a lawyer might think of it — matters most to us in how online entities react to it. Those reactions don’t have to be “rational” or “understandable” — at least not to us. But honestly? Considering the fact this turd was foisted upon us with overwhelming bipartisan support (thereby making it a guaranteed Congressional override in the case of a veto), I’m not sure I blame tech companies that much for overreacting. I don’t like these overreactions, not one bit… but I do understand why they’re happening.
I think it’s important to distinguish online entities’ reactions (or overreactions) from the legislation that appears to be causing it. They have to adapt to the new normal, just as we do.
The more troubling aspect of this whole saga is the fact this bill had resounding support from both parties… and this despite the fact that even entities like the Department of Justice could clearly see what a dumpster fire this legislation really was. This law is going to chill free speech — regardless of its original intent — in a way we haven’t seen in a very long time. Irrespective of your particular political stripes — and no, I’m not divulging which side of the aisle I may or may not fall on (it’s irrelevant anyway) — all writers should oppose this foolish bill.
We’re in the free speech business and there aren’t exactly teeming legions of us out there to defend nor elucidate what that concept actually means.
An attack on one segment of writers should alarm — and anger — all writers. Because it threatens the entire profession. Thus far though, that recognition seems to be slow to materialize… and it’s disappointing to me.
All of that said, I think a general “clean up the joint” push was inevitable anyway if, as I’ve previously surmised, Amazon wants to raise the profile of its own bestseller lists. I suspect Bezos would love to see Amazon Top 100 Bestseller have the same cachet, the same imprimatur of quality that is currently conferred by the likes of the NYT and USAT bestseller lists.
While at first glance it may seem illogical to cause so much turmoil for so many people in the pursuit a goal that seems like little more than a feather in the cap to most of us, keep in mind that books are becoming an increasingly minor consideration for the mighty Amazon. It’s likely that we’re such a minor player in Amazon’s game plan that the C-suite in Seattle doesn’t really notice us much one way or the other.
To get back to specifics regarding erotic fiction, while I’d like to think these deranking measures were undertaken the way they were (including the information blackout regarding what specifically triggers the filter) in order to discourage miscategorization and scammers… it’s probably wishful thinking. In the short run, until the problem children who continually stuff books into categories they don’t belong realize this is an automated system designed to make such tactics too risky… a lot more miscategorization is going to result from this move. It’s going to be quite a mess for a while.
To romance and erotic romance writers (I include myself in the latter camp), this is a GIANT wake-up call. Please, please pay attention to what’s going on. Please don’t shrug your shoulders if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who got through this unscathed. This problem is not simply something “those erotica writers” have to deal with. This is affecting all writers, and tomorrow it could very well be another segment that gets targeted. We just don’t know.
There is one more consideration I wanted to address, which to my mind, is the most important aspect of all of this — and that’s the impact on readers. To you readers, first — thank you, so much for your support. We do this for you. Our books aren’t even completely books until you read them — and bring them to life. Too many writers (and publishers) forget you’re the single most important element in the publishing industry equation. Every time one of you lays out hard-earned money — and more importantly, precious time — for one of my books, it remains, to this day, humbling. I don’t deserve it, yet you do it, over and over again.
But I need to ask a favor of you. Please think about how it makes you feel when you realize your congressional representatives and senators are (indirectly) interfering with what you can and cannot read.
Personally, I take a rather dim view of some insular gaggle of pols in D.C. passing defective legislation that anyone with two brain cells to rub together can plainly see will negatively impact freedom of speech online. While the intent of this legislation is indeed laudable… the practical effect of it is going to be disastrous.
One last thing for readers is this. I hate to say it, but this development is very likely to cause a significant decline in the production of new, quality erotic fiction — perhaps a drastic decline. Many authors are going to (understandably) conclude that they can no longer risk their blood, sweat, and tears being unceremoniously swallowed up by this new adult filter. For many of them, including me, this is how we make our living, how we feed our families. So, we will have to make rational, reasoned (and sometimes painful) decisions about what we can and cannot risk in this new normal.
I plan to continue writing erotic fiction unless and until the environment becomes more hostile. If that does come to pass… well, I may need to consider reevaluating. In the meantime, if you want to help, please consider buying direct from authors whenever you can. Directly support publishers that continue to publish the sorts of books you like — especially if those publishers offer a way for you to buy from them direct. (The retailer middleman does NOT have to be an impediment to finding great books)
If you support your favorite author wherever you can find them, you greatly increase the chances more of them will be able to weather these storms… and continue to write the books you love to read most:)
Until next time,