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Hacking Amazon to Save the World

Via Bill McKibben in the NYRB, we learn of a new book from the people at the WorldChanging website, a kind of community blog devoted to solutions for global environmental problems. It appears that these folks have also come up with a plan to send their new book rocketing to number 1 on the rankings.

'Amazon, you see, ranks books based on their sales over the previous 24 hours. This means that it is possible, through coordinated action, to hack the system by getting a large number of people to buy the book at the same time.

'On November first, at eleven minutes after eleven a.m. (Pacific time), please go to Amazon and buy the book...'

This is not really an attempt to hack the system, but rather to "game" it, and I'm guessing that Amazon's computers have ways of sniffing out such a tactic. The bigger question is, is it ethical?

One commenter on the site, a certain Joseph Esposito, didn't think so: "This is a very disappointing piece for two reasons. First, the book industry does not work the way you say it does. Second, and far worse, what you are proposing is unethical. This is supposed to be worldchanging, but it sounds like cynical business as usual to me."

To which a certain Andrew Leinonen responded: 'Why is it unethical, Joseph?...All we're doing is buying a book in a coordinated fashion in order to increase its exposure, which is the ultimate aim of the entire site, anyway. Unless you're talking about the ethics of some sort of "absolute truth" to sales numbers designed to help consumers, which we'd be disrupting. Which I think is hogwash, anyway. No ones needs to know that latest Grisham re-hash wasn't topping the charts for one day. The entire corporate/consumer model needs some serious monkeywrenching, and I'd say this is a pretty whimsical way to make a mark.'

My analysis: It's a little silly, but it does not rise to the level of being unethical. The scheme is publically announced and it's really more of a promotional stunt. Amazon's rankings are not a sacred public utility.

That said, the schemers have committed a more fundamental sin that is all too common among people who write books: the sin of hope.

They're at the delicate moment early in the book's publication history at which everything still seems possible, including white-hot, blistering sales. They are fantasizing about being The Number One New York Times Bestseller. They are envisioning second, third, fourth reprintings, and translation into 175 languages, including one spoken only by a single old man in Wales.

But what would happen if, in fact, they managed to goose the system sufficiently to park their book at number one on Amazon? They would set themselves up for a fall. It is great fun to watch the numbers improve on Amazon, but crushing to see them go the other direction.

The only really reliable measure of a book's success is whether you did your best and can say you are proud of it. If you enjoyed writing it, all the better. You really can't put a number on that. Good books are good books regardless of their official ranking. And though I haven't read it, I am guessing these folks wrote a good book. You can buy it here.

By Joel Achenbach  |  October 31, 2006; 6:28 AM ET
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