March 30, 2018

Amazon strips erotic novels of their sales rankings (or, C’mon, Bezos, what’d Balzac ever do to you?)


What’s really going on here?

Discerning readers of tasteful smut are slowly raising the alarm: Amazon has, without notice, been reclassifying and un-ranking a variety of erotic writing. Samantha Cole at Motherboard has done some shoe-leather reporting on the issue, speaking with a number of authors who have been affected by the recent changes.

Jenny Trout (a.k.a. Abigail Barnett, author of The Boss and other erotic novels) told Cole that Amazon had reclassified her entire series of novels from “romance” to “erotica,” stripping them of their ranking — which Amazon’s god-king algorithm uses to determine which books to present to readers. Losing this visibility matters a great deal to independently- and self-published authors like Trout, who often make a huge portion of their money on Amazon, and who don’t typically have access to the kinds of advertising and marketing programs more traditional publishers can use to make up for Amazon’s disinterest.

Trout, for example, sold half a million copies of her books through Amazon over three years, and only 35,000 at all other outlets combined. If this development has a significantly adverse effect on her Amazon sales, there aren’t really any other channels for her to go to. She’s not alone.

What was Amazon’s justification? According to an anonymous author who spoke to Cole, Amazon sent this message in response to repeated requests for clarification:

We’ve re-reviewed your book and confirmed that it contains erotic or sexually explicit content. We have found that when books are placed in the correct category it increases visibility to customers who are seeking that content. In addition, we are working on improvements to our store to further improve our search experience for customers. To remove your book from its current categorization you will need to remove the erotic or sexually explicit content and resubmit as a new ASIN.

This, from the same company that introduced technology to their audiobook platform allowing listeners to jump directly to the “juicy bits” of romance novels, does nothing to explain why sales rankings should not be available for erotic or sexually explicit content.

Another question is what Amazon’s internal “re-review” process actually looks like. One obvious guess is that they’re going by BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) codes — the nine-character keys that describe the subject matter of all books. (As for your friends at Melville House, we publish only one book attached to the dread “erotica” code — The Girl with the Golden Eyes by notorious raunch-purveyor Honoré de Balzac. This is to say our concerns remain general, and if Amazon wants to suppress Balzac for being too racy, that’ll suck, but also be very, very funny.)

Nate Hoffelder, writing at the Digital Reader, speculates that the decision may be motivated by an attempt to get ahead of recent legislation passed by the House of Representatives, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). The bill has already resulted in major changes at Microsoft, Craigslist, and Reddit. But it’s not immediately clear how FOSTA, which impacts actors who “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person,” would effect Amazon.

Another author, Anne Mayburn summed up the situation thus:

“We’re business people, we adjust to the market. I’ve been through craziness with Amazon before, it’s almost expected. It’s being ignored, while having major changes made to your livelihood, that is irritating. I mean, Amazon still takes its share of my books, I’m paying them to use them, and they can’t even answer an email? Nope.”

While it’s unclear exactly what Amazon stands to gain by screwing its authors like this, I think it’s safe to assume that they’ve determined that it will afford them some marginal advantage, either by preemptively protecting them from a fringe interpretation of FOSTA or by slightly burnishing the reputation of their romance section. Whether or not it tanks the careers of authors like Mayburn and Trout will be of little concern.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.