Fixing Book Rankings

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Margo
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Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Margo » August 28th, 2012, 9:40 pm

So, how would you guys feel about a major book distributor...one with its own e-reader, let's put it that way...manually changing book rankings to keep them out of the top 100? Is it ethical? If it financially harms an author who had a title in the top 100, do you think the author should have recourse? Is it okay if it's a certain kind of book, like a self-published title or an adult title like 50 Shades of Grey?
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LurkingVirologist
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by LurkingVirologist » August 29th, 2012, 1:38 am

Given that the common understanding of "Top 100" is, in fact, the top 100 best-rated or best-selling books, I'd consider manual manipulation of those lists to be blatantly unethical. As for author recourse, I'm unsure, beyond the usual American tradition of "lawsuit!"

The bookseller is definitely harming the author by moving their work off the top 100 list. The basic purpose of a top 100 (or top 10, or whatever) ranking system is to drive sales by pointing customers at popular products. I'd argue that the ubiquity of ranking systems can be assumed, in this case, to be good evidence that the system does what it is supposed to do for both the distributor and the author. Artificially manipulating those data without informing the customers is not only shady, but harms the interest of a business partner (the author). It also seems like bad business practice, but that's just me.

Off the top of my head, the other argument that comes to mind is one of good faith obligations as far as advertising goes. The presence of a ranking system seems like an obvious point of consideration when deciding whether to go with a particular distributor (especially if any kind of exclusivity is involved), so any rigging of that system (without fair warning to both authors and consumers) seems like a breach of that trust. I don't know if there's an actionable legal principle there, but if not, there should be :( .

OK, that was a little disjointed, but I'm still noodling...
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by MattLarkin » August 29th, 2012, 8:48 am

Margo wrote:So, how would you guys feel about a major book distributor...one with its own e-reader, let's put it that way...manually changing book rankings to keep them out of the top 100? Is it ethical? If it financially harms an author who had a title in the top 100, do you think the author should have recourse? Is it okay if it's a certain kind of book, like a self-published title or an adult title like 50 Shades of Grey?
It's unethical. The genre makes no difference (nor does publisher). If the distributor doesn't want to support a certain kind of book, they shouldn't sell that kind. If they sell it, they need to present it fairly, like anything else.
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Hillsy
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Hillsy » August 29th, 2012, 9:56 am

Initially it seems that any dabbling with the figures completely nullifies the concept of a ranking system anyway, but I can think of a few situations where it would be ethical....

- If it's patching a hole in the ranking system that people have been gaming in order to return it to the spirit of the original list (For example, removing the number 1 seller because 99% of their "sales" have been by 1 account during a free giveaway period)
- If the novel, while not illegal, represents something the store does not want to be associated with (thinking about something like "Save the Pearls" is it?)
- If the top 100 list is not marketted as a top 100 sellers, or rated, but is just advertised as "Grifton Books Top 100!" and they sell of the top slots as marketting space. (This has been the practise for years in shops where they have a "top 5/10")
- If it's a single book I can think of a number of wildly unlikely and perfectly ethical reasons (Say the number 1 novelist that week happens to be the CEOs wife, and they wish to avoid the controversy)
- If they are applying the same rule to all books (e.g not including any free copies "sold"), then it's hard to argue its unethical (assuming you can find their reasoning easily enough)

There is a real fear where people start screaming financial foul that they are taking themselves in isolation because it's their interests damaged. I think most people know that when you're suffering, objectivity don't really mean squat. But I think here I'd need to know the full details before I made a full decision.

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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by trixie » August 29th, 2012, 10:48 am

Ohh... this is interesting.

Okay, my initial knee-jerk reaction is no. It's unethical and unfair to the authors who are not getting their due recognition based on the judgement call of big whigs behind closed doors.

Now then. When WOULD it be okay?

If the company that maintains the rankings acknowledges up front, that their rankings exclude certain types of books, then as a private company, I'd say they have a right to do so. If you take out all the new YA releases, for example, the Top 100 list looks quite different. But as a customer, I would want to know the YA releases are NOT included in the list.

Alas, that's a bit utopian in my thinking and the sad reality is that the lists likely ARE censored and the customers do NOT have a way of knowing.

To answer some of Margo's specific questions, though:
Let's assume this is either the Big A, or B&N. Okay, author Bob is wildly successful in his genre but isn't allowed the opportunity to show on the Top 100 list because The Powers That Be have deemed his book "bad" (which we all realize is gross censorship, right? Right.). So author Bob is angry because this decision impacts his ability to make money. Again, we all understand this, but can you prove it?

Can Bob take Big A or B&N to court for censorship OR impacting his ability to make a living? Again, I think since these are both privately held companies, they have the freedom to make these types of decisions, regardless of how crappy they are.

My hunch is the only way Bob and his other author friends who are equally impacted by this censorship can draw attention to the cause, is to take it to the people. In the past few days, we've seen much talk via social media about authors who've paid for positive reviews and the Big A is right in the middle of the issue. Bob & Co would be smart to see how Big A rides this tide of social media, especially since the company will need to do a bit of damage control to demonstrate transparency behind the computer screens.

Then again, I'm just a crisis communications/public relations gal who LOVES to watch this kind of stuff unfold. It's like Sunday afternoon armchair quarterbacking for me. I sit here and yell at my screen, wondering who's in charge of the shoddy communications. :)

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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Margo » August 29th, 2012, 3:17 pm

Specifics...

There are safeguards to watch for mass buys by one account, so that's mute.

The list I'm talking about is not a marketing list. It is (supposedly) a list of the bestselling books among ALL books offered by a particular distributor. If the distributor doesn't want a book or a kind of book on the list, they need to make that clear in their ToS and refuse to carry such titles, not take the commission on sales under the table and pretend ignorance (or fix rankings) when an embarrassing book (or three) ends up being WILDLY popular with their customer base. In fact, distributors commonly list certain types of titles they will not carry. None of books in question broke the ToS for the distributor.

The rankings do NOT include free downloads. On Amazon, for instance, most genres have TWO lists, one for paid sales and another for those that were offered for free.

So, as to the specific situation, this is apparently NOT the first time the distributor was called on this practice by authors. Last time, they promised authors they wouldn't do it again. This time, at least two different authors with a total of three Top 100 bestsellers had points manually added to their book's ranking specifically to remove them (far) from the Top 100 list. When contacted, the distributor admitted doing it. (I suspect someone will get fired for that--not the manipulation, for admitting it to the author.)

One author mentioned that the sales for her two bestsellers immediately fell 70%. As someone who has has 21 bestsellers, guesstimating from what her rank has been, I'm going to say it is costing her about...$1000/day. In my experience, it is quite reasonable to think a title that has climbed to the rank hers had will "stick" in the list for at least 4-6 weeks, if not more. So, she can pretty well count on having lost $30-45k. Edit: Forgot, that author had TWO books on the list. Make that $60-90k in losses.

And readers are browsing through a list being misrepresented to them.
Last edited by Margo on August 29th, 2012, 3:33 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Margo
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Margo » August 29th, 2012, 3:27 pm

On a side note, I'm always horrified when issues like this come up and other writers (pretty sure nothing they write would ever come under fire) begin to come up with scenarios when it would be okay to censor/ban/bury a book that does NOT violate a law or even the distributor Terms of Service.

Let us not forget that in the last couple of years everything from erotica to "dark" YA has come under fire. When a certain [adjective deleted] prominent thriller author defended the banning of a number of writers from two small distributors under pressure from PayPal...someone pointed out that his thriller novels could also be construed as violating the PayPal terms of service for depicting violence for titillation.

Perhaps we shouldn't all feel so safe.
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by trixie » August 29th, 2012, 3:45 pm

Margo,
I sincerely hope I didn't offend you. I am FIRMLY against censorship. And from what you're saying, not only are authors being censored by omission, they're being censored by a targeted effort.

Times like this, my words fail me. But I hope if you ever needed people to help beat the bushes and get the word out, you would let us know.

Off to find Elixir of Eloquence....

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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Margo » August 29th, 2012, 3:54 pm

trixie wrote:Margo,
I sincerely hope I didn't offend you. I am FIRMLY against censorship. And from what you're saying, not only are authors being censored by omission, they're being censored by a targeted effort.

Times like this, my words fail me. But I hope if you ever needed people to help beat the bushes and get the word out, you would let us know.

Off to find Elixir of Eloquence....
Thanks, T.

No, I'm not really offended so much as disheartened. I saw this with the PayPal issues that came up months ago, with writers tearing each other down because some were being injured and others were seeing that as an opportunity for themselves (to benefit financially as well as to indulge their jealousy over genres that sell better than theirs). I'd love to think that if the word really got out that the distributors were doing this---and maybe even more unscrupulous things---there might be a real reaction from the public pressuring them not to censor or manipulate what the customer sees when they browse (so long as it's legal). But if even other writers approve of this kind of thing for those books (you know, whichever ones they didn't write), then what hope is there?

To paraphrase an old saying in Greek philosophy, the punishment or reward for being the people we are...is being the people we are. Also translated as we shall reap what we sow.
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Margo » August 30th, 2012, 1:35 am

Now that word is starting to get out and at least one of the authors involved has blogged about this happening to her erotic romance, I'll confirm that it's B&N manipulating their bestseller list.
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by MattLarkin » August 30th, 2012, 8:47 am

Margo wrote:Now that word is starting to get out and at least one of the authors involved has blogged about this happening to her erotic romance, I'll confirm that it's B&N manipulating their bestseller list.
That's what I figured.
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Doug Pardee » August 30th, 2012, 9:39 am

Margo wrote:it's B&N manipulating their bestseller list.
I'm a regular participant on the B&N forums, and I can guess that this is due to the regular pressure on those forums for B&N to "stop peddling smut to our kids." Many of the NOOK reader models bring up book suggestions on the home screen, and parents were aghast at some of the book covers and titles that were being suggested to their children.

Unsurprisingly, every time such complaints were raised on the forums, there was vigorous discussion pro and con on the topic, and this isn't the place for that (I don't think). Besides, it never gets anywhere; everyone's mind is pretty firmly made up on the subject one way or another.

The most obvious solution is for B&N to allow accounts to be flagged as being for a minor and restricted by the parent(s). For that matter, most adults would like to exclude various book categories from their suggestions, whether it be romances or horror or whatever*. This, however, appears to be beyond the capabilities of the BN.com technical staff, who seem to be unable to accomplish much of anything useful except redesigning the site every few months in a way that breaks stuff that used to work. Heck, it took them almost a year and a half to get the Advanced Search feature at BN.com able to find e-books even though it was an option that was offered — not that searching for e-books is important or anything.

* Amusing sidelight: a while back, people who'd looked at (or bought) Sh*t My Dad Says found their NOOKs suggesting all manner of e-books with obscenities in the title, and they couldn't find a way to make it stop.

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MattLarkin
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by MattLarkin » August 30th, 2012, 10:33 am

Sheds new light on the subject, Doug. But it's still inexcusable to purposefully harm a writer's career because you programmed your devices poorly.

They need to program the devices to recommend (if they keep that feature at all), books in the genre and age group matching the ones you've bought already. I.e. if everything you ever bought is YA, don't recommend erotica. If everything I ever bought is adult romance, don't show me Dr. Seuss. The fact that something's popular is not enough to justify showing it to everyone that starts the device.

What's not acceptable, is to have them make it look like a book is less popular just because some people wish it wasn't popular. No good ever comes from censorship.
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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Hillsy » August 30th, 2012, 11:21 am

I'm not taking any sides here at all, so from my position on the fence, here's a couple of questions

1) Why in the name of Holy Calico Beans can't B&N, a massive corporation, seperate their recommendation algorithm from their ranking program?

2) More importantly perhaps. Who does B&N serve? The reader, who (in numbers it seems) requests the company operate in a certain way. Or the Writer, who makes money through B&N and without whom B&N has no product.

Taking the facts as reported (B&N knocking some books down the top 100 list so they don't appear on recommndation lists for customers) - I don't think this is censorship. It's poor company managment and chronic failings in investment, but it's not censorship. B&N are still selling the books (I believe), they arn't even stating they are "bad", instead it seems they are doing the internet equivalent of "moving them to the dingy section in the back of the shop". It appears they are responding to customer feedback - The customer is always right, right? - but doing so in the manner of a prize idiot.

HOWEVER, they ought to be, as I type, doing one of two things: Rewriting their ToS OR Rewriting their online program to deal with this issue, as it seems there's a potential legal collision between how they both currently operate.

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Re: Fixing Book Rankings

Post by Margo » August 30th, 2012, 2:44 pm

Doug Pardee wrote:
Margo wrote:it's B&N manipulating their bestseller list.
I'm a regular participant on the B&N forums, and I can guess that this is due to the regular pressure on those forums for B&N to "stop peddling smut to our kids."
So smut includes erotic romance with no naughty words in the title and a cover tamer than most romances? Interesting.
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