Archive for Bookselling

Amazonfail and Algorithmic Culture

I’m rather late in adding my two cents to the recent controversy over, which broke a little over two weeks ago.  For all that I write about the late age of print (and Twitter, blog, etc.), my difficulty in keeping pace with the internet makes me suspect that I’m a Gutenberg guy at heart.

In any case, for those of you who may be even further behind than I, a PR disaster came crashing down around over Easter weekend.  Author Mark R. Probst, who writes gay-oriented fiction for young adults, noticed on Friday, April 10th that there were no sales rankings listed for two recently-released — and quite popular — gay romance novels.  He later discovered a similar trend among hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) titles on Amazon, including his own book, The Filly.  An initial inquiry into the situation brought this response from Amazon: “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.  Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.”

Needless to say, many people were outraged by the company’s apparent decision to classify GLBT books as “adult” and effectively to de-list them from its website.  The rest is pretty much history at this point.  Folks began Twittering en masse to #amazonfail, where details about — and inconsistencies in — Amazon’s listing process were revealed.  Among the more painful revelations?   As Feministe reported, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality and related anti-GLBT screeds continued to be listed and ranked.  Meanwhile, the LA Times blog Jacket Copy noted that Amazon hadn’t classified Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds as “adult” (duh) but had given the label to philosopher Michel Foucault’s provocative but hardly titillating History of Sexuality, volume I.

Once Amazon had a chance to regroup, it began issuing this statement:

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.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer added: “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.’).”

Some people are understandably skeptical of Amazon’s explanations.  Though the company has admitted to making a huge mistake and taken steps to rectify the situation, regaining the trust of its customers will undoubtedly take time.  Clearly the whole situation was hurtful to a great many people, and a disaster for

I wonder, in retrospect, what might it all tell us about the late age of print?

If Amazon is to be believed, the root of the problem lies not with any one person per se (the “ham-fisted” employee in France notwithstanding) but with what Alex Galloway, a professor at NYU, calls “algorithmic culture.”  By this he refers to the abrogation of the work of culture — the sorting, ordering, classifying, and judging of people and things — from human beings to machines.  You might think of algorithmic culture as an operational layer that sits on top of another, informational layer — call it database culture.  Put the two together and you realize just how much cultural work actually takes place more or less independent of human action.

I’m currently teaching a graduate seminar about mass culture.  In these days of interactive media and extraordinary customization, it’s become popular — even required — to rail against mass culture as dehumanizing, repetitive, and more.  But a question I always insist my graduate students confront is, “What did the mass culture paradigm do well in its day?”

The Amazon situation from a few weeks ago poses an analogous scenario.  It’s become de rigueur among many to decry traditional cultural work as “elitist,” given how it sets up a privileged few to determine what’s worth paying attention to, and why.  The assumption seems to be, if we could just make the process more open and democratic, then we’d move further in the direction of a more inclusive public culture.

The folks over at #amazonfail, and indeed all those who chimed in on the book ranking and listing controversy, have begun to show us that algorithmic culture has its weaknesses, too, and that there may be benefits to a more “traditional” approach to cultural valuation and classification.  If nothing else, the latter has an immediate doer behind the deed, who can be questioned about her or his choices.  Algorithmic culture may provide for more “democratic” forms of participation, particularly in the area of tagging and reviewing.  On the flipside, accountability exists at a much further remove.  If handled improperly, algorithmic culture can open large swaths of material to the  threat of “global replace,” in which a one becomes a zero and all hell subsequently breaks lose.


Mr. Bezos Goes to Lexington seems to be all over the news in 2009.

In January we learned that the company posted a profit in the final quarter of last year, despite the severe economic downturn.  Then in February, Amazon released the second-generation of its heralded e-reading device, Kindle, whose text-to-speech feature prompted a swift and bitter response from the Authors Guild.  March was a relatively quiet month for the retailer — that is, until CEO Jeff Bezos decided to shake things up again.  On Friday he reported for work not at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle but rather on the line at the company’s Lexington, KY warehouse.  He plans to work there for a week.

One can only wonder what motivations underlie Bezos’ decision to go blue-collar, if only temporarily.  The company hasn’t said much about why he’s decided to do so.

A commentator on the New York Times “Bits” Blog sees Bezos’ week in the warehouse as a stand-up move, especially given the penchant of late among billionaire CEOs to deny they had any sense of their company’s day-to-day operations.  And according to the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.”

I’m inclined to believe that Bezos’ reasons for getting his hands dirty are many.  No doubt he feels extraordinary pressure to show that he knows what’s going on in his firm, everywhere from the corporate boardroom on down to the warehouse break rooom.

The timing of his visit to Lexington, however, raises all sorts of other questions. It just happens to coincide with the quiet-ish shutdown of three of Amazon’s distribution facilities: in Munster, IN, Red Rock, NV, and Chambersburg, PA.  More than 200 employees will be affected, though at least some will see transfers to neighboring facilities.

In its rosier moods, the book industry likes to say that it favors culture over commerce.  Perhaps that’s true, but claims like this can only be sustained by ignoring what, in The Late Age of Print, I call the book industry’s “back office.”  This consists of places like’s colossal warehouses, which are nothing more and nothing less than labor intensive workplaces.  I detail how so in the book; for more, check out this fascinating article from the Guardian (UK).  Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he Sunday Times reported that staff at the . . . [Amazon warehouse at] Marston Gate near Milton Keynes . . . were required to work seven days a week and “punished” for being ill (where staff with a sick note received a “penalty” point; six points meant dismissal). The quotas for packing – 140 items an hour, which is only slightly below the 5 items per two minutes of 2001. Collecting items for packing can mean walking up to 14 miles during a shift.

Given these working conditions, one can only hope that the ultimate aim of Bezos’ week in the Lexington warehouse isn’t a speed-up of Amazon’s order fulfillment system.  But given the questionable timing, that doesn’t seem implausible, either.

Share Retailer or Platform?

Over on Publishing Frontier, Joseph J. Esposito offers a provocative reflection on the past, present, and future of in a post entitled, “Decline and Fall.”  Despite the profit woes and nagging doubts that beset the online retailer early on, the company appears to be at the top of its game today.  It recently beat Wall St. earnings predictions, for example, at a time when most other retailers are struggling just to make ends meet.

And yet, Esposito argues, Amazon’s days may well be numbered.  “Empires, by definition, begin their decline at their peak.  Today Amazon bestrides the publishing world like Caesar.”  He continues:

Amazon’s decline will come about because it will not be able to monopolize ebook distribution with the Kindle; because new business models (mostly based on subscription sales of aggregated content to consumers, not unlike Safari Books and similar in form to NetFlix) will challenge Amazon’s operating philosophy; because social networks organized around special interests will help to solve the problem of bringing traffic to a new or series of new online stores; because so many of the pieces necessary for an ecommerce site are available at modest cost from multiple vendors; and because many people are motivated to storm the barricades, whether for profit or just for the hell of it.

I agree in large measure with what Esposito says here.  Though Amazon has been remarkably successful as an e-commerce trend-setter, for books and beyond, it now faces serious challenges to both its business and business model.  The company may have been the paragon of the “dot-economy” a decade ago (recall that CEO Jeff Bezos was Time magazine’s millennial person-of-the-year), but alongside upstarts such as Netflix and Facebook, Amazon is beginning to look, well, kind of late-20th century these days.

But here’s where Esposito and I also part company.  Is an online retailer?  Is that in fact the crux of its business model?  I pose these questions knowing full well that the company still sells “stuff,” and lots of it.  Even so, there’s a great deal more to than meets the eye.  I don’t mean the “Amazon Community,” the company’s ham-fisted attempt at social networking, nor do I mean its recent e-reading venture, Kindle.  Anyone who’s visited the Amazon storefront in the last couple of years knows about them.  Less well known, though, are the company’s efforts to transform itself from an online retailer into a web services provider.

Since 2002, has actively — and until the last year or two, quietly — been making itself over into into a “platform” upon which to construct on- and offline businesses.  As Forbes magazine has put it, Amazon’s “behind-the-scenes data center services” are beginning to emerge center stage.  These include Amazon Web Services’ Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, which provides paid-for, on-demand computing capabilities to third-party businesses, and Amazon Simple Storage Service, or S3, in which businesses pay Amazon to store their data on the company’s voluminous servers. The department store Target relies on Amazon Web Services for its e-commerce operations, for instance, as do myriad other companies large and small.  Amazon’s goal with these and other efforts is to monetize any and all of the company’s excess capacity, and to transform idle assets into nonstop, value-producing ones.

So what can this tell us about and its future?  If Amazon is in fact becoming an online platform, then its own e-commerce site is simply the first among many stores to be built using the company’s proprietary digital infrastructure.  Thus the company’s retail operations may be less of an indicator of what the company is than of what it was.  What this also might suggest, then, is that the Amazon “empire” hasn’t yet reached its peak; if anything, it is still actively being built. may seem like a late-20th century relic to some.  Yet, to really understand what the company is — and is becoming — we must look beyond its interface.  And until that happens, competitors and critics will continue to underestimate it.