Standardized testing, regrettable food, urine therapy, and trichotillomania
by Richard P. Phelps
You might not have thought that all of the above were related, but Amazon.com insists they are. Amazon is web master of cross-marketing -- if you like this, then you will probably like that. If you don’t stop them, they will even periodically send you Email messages with a greeting like
“Richard, since you like books about Arabian Tulips (and we know you do, because we sold you a book about Arabian Tulips) you might be interested in a new book about Finnish Orchids by the same author or, perhaps, a digitally re-mastered CD of Mountain’s Flowers of Evil or, perhaps, a new titanium Flower Power roto-tiller, just in time for Spring!”
Two of Amazon’s more prominent cross-marketing ploys are the “Customers who bought this book also bought:” and “Customers who shopped for ... also shopped for:” sections, in which ikons for those other books or products are displayed and linked to their own Amazon web pages. Keep following the links, and you could end up buying pretty much all the books on a particular topic, and closely related topics, and topics somewhat related to those topics, and so on. And, typically, the titles in the “Customers who bought this ...also bought that” section are topically related.
But, alas, not always. I wrote a book myself once (“Only 1 left in stock--order soon! (more on the way)” according to Amazon) entitled, Kill the messenger: The war on standardized testing. It defends the use of standardized testing largely by demonstrating that much of the opposition to testing is based on fallacious argument and fraudulent research. I’ve heard that some people don’t like it.
According to Amazon, however, the book attracted a large and rather interesting clientele from the start. During the few months before Kill the messenger had even been printed, it already boasted a list of several related books in Amazon’s “this ...that” list. This is remarkable, because it usually takes a perceptible generation of some sales before titles show up in the “this ...that” list. Peruse the Amazon book listings and you will notice that very low-volume sellers (which books not yet printed often are) tend to show no titles in the “this ...that” list, whereas high-volume sellers can have as many as twenty.
Kill the messenger was unusual in that, even when ranked well below 1.5 millionth on Amazon’s list of best-sellers it had already attracted five companion titles, and fairly interesting ones to boot. They included A Gallery of Regrettable Food, Golden Fountain: The Complete Guide to Urine Therapy, and The Other “F” Word.
I felt rather proud that a book I had written attracted what seemed to be a diverse book-buying clientele, and before it even existed no less. I felt bewildered, though, because my book seemed to attract no companions among standardized testing books, in particular, nor education books, in general. Curious as to how this feature of Amazon’s web site worked, I wrote Amazon, and received a nice response.
“Thank you for writing.... I would like to assure you that no one is manually manipulating the feature in question. The information is automatically derived based on various factors. The same feature setting and variable are applied to all valid listings in the Amazon.com book catalog. Thank you for your interest in Amazon.com. Best Regards,”
Very soon after my inquiry, however, the links to the bad food, urine, and flatulence books disappeared and were replaced by several books about education. Soon thereafter, however, those books disappeared, ...only to be replaced, for several months, by a single anti-testing book, Peter Sacks' Standardized Minds. This, I did not like.
I wrote Amazon again, asserting that, maybe, just maybe, something really was amiss with the “Customers who bought this ...also bought that” algorithm, at least so far as it affected my particular tome. I quickly received another gracious and reassuring response.
“Thanks for writing to us at Amazon.com! The links that appear under "Customers who shopped for..." are derived from actual browse and purchase pattern information. As such, we are not able to manually add titles to the feature. Items will fluctuate as sales information changes.
It just so happens that I followed the links from the bad food, urine therapy, and flatulence books to their, one might say, natural terminus. Try it yourself and you likely will be as amazed by the volume of titles in these genre. For example, following the links from Barry and Erwin Seltzer’s opus The Other “F” Word takes you, naturally, to Who Cut the Cheese: A Cultural History... [of you know what], by Jim Dawson, which takes you, logically, to Donald Wetzel’s Joel’s Journal and Fact-Filled Fart Book [sorry, I can not explain why one person would be writing another person’s flatulence journal], which leads one, inevitably, to Joe Lindsay’s, Up Shit Creek: A Collection of Horrifyingly True Wilderness Toilet Misadventures, which leaves one, finally, with Buck Peterson’s The Original Road Kill Cookbook.
By the way, Barry Seltzer (of The Other “F”) obtained degrees from three of Canada’s most prestigious universities and practices law in Canadian courts. He was nice enough to include this information in Amazon’s “About the Author” section for his book.
If you’re lucky, you might even get linked into the children’s section of this genre, where you will find: Everyone Poops, by Gomi and Stinchecum, its assonant cousin, Terry Toots!, by Pittau, Gervais, and Pittau, Walter, the Farting Dog, by Kotzwinkle, Murray, and Colman, and All about Scabs and The Holes in Your Nose by Yagyu and Stinchecum.
So, Amazon profiles are “derived from “actual browse patterns” huh? I can’t wait for next Email message from Amazon.
“Greetings, Richard. As one seriously interested in books about regrettable food, no doubt you may wish to purchase Carolyn Wyman’s JELL-O: A Biography, or her, SPAM: The Amazing True Story of America’s ‘Miracle Meat'.” Moreover, since you are also interested in urine therapy, you might also wish to consider Flora Peschek-Bohmer’s Urine Therapy: Nature’s Elixir for Good Health, or John W. Armstrong’s Water of Life.”
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention trichotillomania. Trichotillomania, it turns out, is the scientific term for obsessive-compulsive hair pulling. I might have gone to my grave unaware of this fact had Amazon.com not recently included Fred Penzel’s The Hair-Pulling Problem among the books in its “Customers who shopped for Kill the Messenger also shopped for:” list.
See for yourself. You can follow the links to Cheryn Salazar’s You are Not Alone: Compulsive Hair Pulling, the Enemy Within, James Innes-Smith’s Big Hair, which, wouldn’t ya know it, is sold along with its companion volume, Bad Hair, which, as you might have guessed, is popular with Amazon customers who also purchased A Gallery of Regrettable Food (as well as with those who purchased The Original Road Kill Cookbook).
Most regrettably, but perhaps only in my view, virtually all the aforementioned books sell much better than mine does.
P.S. In early 2005, months before a newer book, Defending Standardized Testing, was printed and released, Amazon.com showed that those who viewed the Defending Standardized Testing Web page also viewed the Web page for another book entitled On Bullshit--surely, only coincidence. Or, continuous coincidences perhaps, as On Bullshit was followed by a book about the Black Death which, in turn, was followed by an encyclopedia of infectious diseases. For a few months, Amazon sold Defending Standardized Testing and the disease encyclopedia as a pair.
N.B. The author apologizes if he has caused any offence among those who genuinely benefit from urine therapy, genuinely suffer from trichotillomania, or happen to like regrettable food. He meant no harm, did not start this in the first place, anyway, and wishes you all the best.