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Amazon Blames Rank Gaffe on 'Ham-Fisted' Error

Amazon called its recent sales ranking snafu an "embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error" and said the "its been misreported that the issue was limited to gay-themed titles in its only response so far over the public relations nightmare.

Patty Smith, Amazon's (NASDAQ: AMZN) director of corporate communications, sent the following e-mail to writer and radio show host Edward Champion, who posted it on his site late last night:

"This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection," according to the posted e-mail.

However, Amazon's message indicated that the problem had not been limited to gay- and 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," it said.

In addition to impacting the titles' sales rank -- an important driver subsequent sales -- Amazon also said the problem had removing the books from Amazon's main product search.

"Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future," he note added.

At issue is the removal of sales rankings of gay-themed books, which spurred an Internet-fueled uproar over the weekend. The ranking removals first surfaced after author Mark Probst posted on his blog over the weekend that gay- and lesbian-themed books were being stripped of their sales rankings on Amazon.

The finding -- later confirmed in media reports -- prompted some members of the Twitter community to lash out at Amazon, claiming a homophobic stance on books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) topics.

The outcry stems from Amazon's method of showing how well items are selling in its catalog. The site's sales ranking has become closely watched as an indicator of popular items and a way to further drive sales.

Amazon calculates items' sales and issues its rankings each hour, giving merchants, manufacturers and marketers an idea of how their wares are faring against competitors'. Higher-ranked items are also easier to find on the site -- one reason that it's thought that high sales rank can influence future sales.

While Amazon has claimed the problems stemmed from a cataloging error, an Internet troll claimed responsibility on his Live Journal blog, describing that he hacked Amazon's site by manipulating the e-commerce giant's product-rating tools to flag gay-themed books as "inappropriate," therefore stripping them of their ratings.

However, Champion wrote at his site that Amazon denied this. "When I asked Ms. Smith about whether or not this problem represented a hack, she insisted that this was a 'ham-fisted cataloging error' (as put forth in her e-mail) that had been caused by Amazon," he wrote.

Meanwhile, however, a Chicago Tribune report says the ranking glitch appears to date as least as far back as February, citing an example of a journalism professor discovering that the sales rankings had disappeared for all three versions of his book, All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. It goes on to say that "after some muscle-flexing by his publisher, Simon & Schuster, the rankings were reinstated three weeks later."

By press time, Amazon had not returned requests for comment on where the company stands on fixing the problem.