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Off-putting Amazon marketing?

Posted by Christopher Shea  July 31, 2008 09:13 AM

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As of this morning, no matter what you search for in the books section of Amazon.com -- "Plato," "gardening," "self-help," "ultimate fighting" -- the first item that pops up is J.K. Rowling's "The Tales of Beedle the Bard." It's kind of creepy. At first, you wonder what's going on.

Rights to the bookOne of seven nearly identical copies of the original "Beedle the Bard" books, hand-written by Rowling and intended as gifts for friends and family members, was bought by Amazon last December for a reported $4 million -- with the proceeds going to charity. Mass-produced versions will be available this December -- with special editions available only from Amazon. Currently you can only pre-order them. Clearly the company has an incentive to recoup its investment, but thisThis approach to advertising seems awfully heavy-handed and likely to inspire a backlash -- if not among the Harry Potterites then among enforcers of web etiquette.

The least Amazon could do would be to label the search result as a special advertisement. That's what other search-engine proprietors do in comparable situations.

Looking for a book on Amazon today? You can't avoid this one

UPDATE: A scant two hours after I blew the whistle on this, it's no longer happening. Now that's accountability journalism! (No, I'm sure there was no cause and effect. I'll try to find out what actually happened.)

UPDATE 2, 3:45 p.m.: An Amazon spokeswoman tells me the company would never promote a book in this way. "If you're looking for a Plato book, you should get a Plato book in your search." She was unaware of any search-engine glitch that would produce the result I saw, but I've asked her to investigate further. I wasn't hallucinating!

Meanwhile, she points out errors in my original posting (fixed above): Amazon bought one of Rowling's hand-crafted "Beedle the Bard" books last year at a charity auction. It did not buy the rights to the book. All proceeds from the sale of the mass-produced versions, which will be sold exclusively by Amazon, will also be going to charity.

UPDATE 3, 4:08: The final word from Amazon: "[I]n fact there was a discrepancy on the site this morning that resulted in the experience you had. As soon as this issue was brought to our attention it was immediately address and corrected … Amazon did not maliciously or consciously intend for this issue to happen. Our focus is always on delivering the best experience to our customers and so when they search a book they should always get relevant results."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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